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The Outsiders and Their Role in Urban Mission

The Outsiders in the Urban Community

It is summer in Philadelphia, and like most summers it is hot. The tightly packed row homes trap the heat, magnifying the reflected rays off the black roads and black roofs. There are few trees and little greenery at all, except the weeds, amongst the old and dilapidated communities upon which Philadelphia was built. On days like today, someone on the block will open the fire hydrant to cool everyone off, kiddie pools will appear on the sidewalks. Tempers will rise as the thermometer goes up; violent crime increases as the heat takes its toll. It’s too hot to sleep as few homes have air-conditioning so people stay out late, and you can hear the ice cream truck make its rounds at 1am, 2 am, and 3am; accompanied by the sounds of small children.

These communities are mostly Black and Latino, the poor trapped amongst the urban blight. They are helpless to change thing; too poor to escape. Many are caught in the rampant drug trade as users or dealers, prostitutes or pimps. Most are uneducated, victims of a broken and neglected school system. Few of the children have fathers still around. The streets are dirty. Houses are falling apart. Maybe the people care but don’t know how to bring about change, or maybe they just have given up caring. Welcome to Philadelphia….

The two paragraphs above are typical of what we read in the reports from short-term and long-term outside1 missionaries who have spent time in Philadelphia.2 They paint a bleak picture of the communities that they are serving in or have served in. What comes next may, perhaps, come from the journal of a community resident.3

Summer has arrived in Philadelphia. It’s a time for kids to be free of school and enjoy their friends. The hydrants are open. We string cords across the street to block the traffic, and the smell of pinchos4 cooking on homemade drum barbecues is everywhere. The water ice and ice cream trucks make their rounds and somehow someone always has some extra change to make sure we all get some. Things can get a little crazy out there, so we keep an eye on each other’s kids, and on the strangers walking through. There are pools and parks and summer programs that help keep the kids active. It might not be everyone’s thing, and certainly most of us would enjoy a bigger house, a yard and a cool AC, but this is our reality and we make the most of it.

Then the summer “migration” begins. We first see the shiny vans coming down the street on a late afternoon, one, two, and three. They pull up on the corner and those inside peer out nervously, not quite sure this is what they were expecting. Their leaders hustle them out, keep them in a tight circle while they try and find someone in charge. They begin unloading the vans, suitcases and sleeping bags, then boxes of food and other stuff. They move quickly, as though if they left something or someone behind, then it would disappear.

The next day we see them all out early, all wearing the same bright colored t-shirts, and I wonder for a moment, are they worried about getting lost? They walk our streets; giving out invitations to something they call “VBS,” telling us it is going to be lots and lots of fun. I wonder who they are, who invited them. They seem to arrive every summer, and not just in my community. My friends have seen them on their block too. There must be hundreds of them all over the place.

They clean our street, put on a puppet show, teach us to make crafts, sing some songs and always finish by telling us how Jesus loves us and will never leave us and will always take care of us. When they leave some of them cry, some of us cry. They promise to write, to email, to come back and visit, but I never see them again, at least not the same ones….

Too often the Outsider ends up in a paternalistic relationship with the Local community, creating disharmony and division. This disharmony then leads to an ineffective carrying out of the Mission of God through His local Body.

Despite millions of dollars being spent in our community by outside mission agencies over the decades, our community has not improved; in fact it has declined.5 This phenomenon is not just something confined to urban North Philadelphia, but a story repeated around the United States and around the world. The model that has been so prevalent for the past fifty years does not effectively accomplish what it sets out to do. Outsiders come in to work in communities of the poor, in particular in Philadelphia’s depressed urban communities. Too often the Outsider ends up in a paternalistic relationship with the Local community, creating disharmony and division. This disharmony then leads to an ineffective carrying out of the Mission of God through His local Body. We must seek out a new way for outsiders to engage in missions in poor communities, especially those of urban America.

A Complex and Easily Misunderstood Context

Philadelphia is a complex urban center surrounded by a growing metropolitan region. It has a long and complex history, leading the nation in both positive and negative ways. Philadelphia was designed to be the new Utopia, an open city, by William Penn, its founder. Yet even Penn himself chose not to live in the city proper, instead residing on his country estate.6 Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, with over 400 officially on record, and hundreds more known to the local residents of those neighborhoods. Philadelphia’s population is just over 1.5 million but the metropolitan7 region has almost 6 million residents.8

After huge population declines and stagnation through the 1980s and 1990s, Philadelphia is once more a growing city in a growing State, with much of the growth coming from Latino and Asian immigration.9 There are waves of young people, almost all White moving into the cities’ inner neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties, Fairmount, Brewerytown, Fishtown, and Center City South. There are also older retirees coming back to the city, both White and Black, rebuilding formerly dilapidated communities in South Philadelphia and West Philadelphia.10 Higher education institutions such as University of Pennsylvania and Temple University have created their own communities with their own policing and urban development priorities. Philadelphia’s hospitals and universities are constantly cited amongst the best in the nation, with a reported 1 in 6 doctors in America having completed some of their training in the Philadelphia area.

To many people, especially those who live outside the city limits, Philadelphia provides all they could want in a metropolitan capital—great higher education, dedicated medical professionals, high profile sports teams, modern and historical arts, the biggest urban parkland in America, with all these amenities easily accessed by a road system designed for the suburbanite to take advantage of the best of Philadelphia without ever encountering the issues the city faces.

The issues the city faces are many and incredibly complex. They range from failing public schools, to thousands of children under care of the Department of Human Services (including more than 600 waiting for adoption), due to issues of violence, incarceration, unemployment, and corrupt government officials. Each of the major issues facing the system is complex in and of itself, and together they combine into a seemingly overwhelming mess.

So Philadelphia is a city in desperate need of reform and assistance. With an estimated 2,500 churches in the city11 Philadelphia also has a rich church history dating back to the founding of the city. According to Ram Cnaan at the University of Pennsylvania these churches annually contribute almost half a million dollars each to the welfare of the community in direct and indirect services.12 Many denominations and para-church mission agencies either began in Philadelphia or had their home in Philadelphia. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first Black American denomination, began in Philadelphia and the city’s churches were pivotal in working towards ending slavery as well as in the civil rights movement. Also, well-known seminaries and Christian colleges find their origins in Philadelphia, or call Philadelphia its home. Philadelphia, an old city with over 1.5 million people, is neither defined by its issues nor by its strengths, but it is a complex conglomeration of all these things.

Similarly, the state of the church in Philadelphia cannot be told in simple terms. The city has lost dozens, if not hundreds, of churches over the past 50 years. Mainline denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Church, have closed many of their buildings.13 Much of this is due to their congregants leaving the communities,14 and the churches not understanding or being unwilling to adapt to the new people arriving in their area. Some congregations relocated to where their parishioners now live, but many more have simply ceased to exist. At the same time, there has been a rise in the number of small churches (often called “storefront”), as well as a growth in the Black Pentecostal Church. Yet overall, the influence of the church on local communities has certainly declined. Experts such as Dr. Bill Krispin, founding President of the Center for Urban Theological Studies, have stated that the church is in decline, with less than ten percent of Philadelphia’s population in church on a given Sunday, and the average life span of a church falling dramatically.15 The trending of the Black population to the suburbs16 has also given rise to a far more suburbanized Black church. There are a growing number of Black churches located in Philadelphia’s suburbs and most of the larger Black churches located in the city have commuting congregations, many of whom now live in the suburbs, especially their leadership.

The Disconnect Between the Local Community and the Outsider

Introduced into all this complexity is the issue of Outsiders working within the poorer sections of the city. As can be seen above, there is no doubt that Philadelphia’s poorest communities have many needs, social and spiritual, but the church is no longer the center-point of the communities that it once was and so there is room for new ministry opportunities. Outsiders bring many seemingly needed gifts. In general, most Outsiders who relocate into poor communities in order to help are well-educated compared to the Local community.17

When people come in, they usually come with a support network behind them. Sometimes, especially in the case of church planters and missionaries, there is a supporting church along with other financial supporters. It may include family and friends from the outside who provide financial and emotional support. Often the Outsider has access to things that a member of the local community may not have, such as a place to get away to (back ‘home’), technical support, and gifts in kind to help meet needs. An Outsider usually also comes with a “mission mentality,” that is, a sense of calling from God to come and do good works, evangelize, serve etc. In this regard, the Outsider may be willing to accept a salary less than what they could otherwise achieve in their field.18 An Outsider may also bring other resources with them, such as access to work teams for service projects, consulting, and volunteer help. All these things would seem to be of exceptional value to the poor communities of Philadelphia as well as similar communities around the world.

What could possibly go wrong when good people sacrifice so much to help others?

What then are the issues that exist when Outsiders come into these communities? What could possibly go wrong when good people sacrifice so much to help others? And why is it an issue, when Outsiders bring much-needed assets?

To begin with, when people come from the outside they generally come because of a need they perceive. Where does this perception of need come from? It comes from the dissemination of reports of the “high need” or “bad news” about places such as Philadelphia. In reviewing dozens of newsletters sent from organizations and individuals who serve within Philadelphia’s poorest communities who are raising support from outside these communities, there is an overwhelming reporting of the problems within the community.

Dr. Brian Howell, a professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College, has written about the growth of short term missions and how both those recruiting for these trips and those going are most often framing their narrative around words like “poverty” and “need.”19 There are usually clearly stated patterns of how to communicate, which include making the needs clear. It is an obvious thing to do, as Howell points out,20 that if you want people to help, you must communicate a need. If there were no need, why would people bother to help, either by coming or by fiscal support? With a seemingly obvious need, a willingness of people to come, and a natural means to invite them in by expressing this need, what then is the issue? The issue is precisely this–the very nature of missions into communities like Philadelphia has become about helping the poor who are “worse off.” Very few people will ever move into disadvantaged communities to follow the American Dream,21 but rather they move in to help those with a need. This, in its very nature, causes an automatic separation and even paternalism. In most cases it is not an intentional separation at first, though some groups do teach people to keep a “healthy distance.”

One of the most striking events I can recall in this regard was walking into a birthday party held on my block. The party was for an Outsider who was working on a team for the year in a predominantly Latino church in a majority Latino community. This person and their teammates lived on the block, and had been involved in ministry work for about three months. As I entered the main room with my friend Juan, what shocked both of us was that the room was filled with young Caucasian and Asian people. We both wondered where they had all come from, as only a few were known to us.

Later that week, I had the opportunity to reflect with that team member and their team about the event. I asked who these people were. “Our friends,” was the response. I then asked where they had met all these people, since they had only been in the city a short time, and spent most of their time in our community. “They are the people we spend time with on our days off. They are on other teams in different parts of the city.” I next inquired about why they would go to other parts of the city on their days off, and spend time with people who had also recently arrived. Some of their answers reflected that they had things in common with those people more than those in our community, but the most striking comment was, “Well, we are not allowed to do ministry on our days off, so we have to go somewhere else to enjoy ourselves.”

One of the major issues that take place when Outsiders come into communities of the poor is that people in the community are viewed as objects of ministry. The Outsiders have come to help people in need, and as such, they have something that the Locals needs. This places them, at least in their own minds, in a position of power, causing a separation, especially in forming peer-level relationships. I have seen this pattern time and again, as those coming in quickly find others who are similar to themselves. I recall another conversation as a young Outsider returned from a dinner with someone she had met who also had relocated from the Midwest. “Finally, I have someone I can relate to, someone I can hang out with.” Both had been in the community for about six months and had not been able to find anyone they could feel open with.

These trends are natural and to be expected. Yet we must be proactive in working against such a natural state. If we allow this natural state to remain unchecked we help foster the paternalism that has been destructive to poor communities here and across the globe.

Furthermore, in parts of Philadelphia this trend can be seen to have racial tendencies, taking on aspects of colonialism and imperialism. The majority of Outsiders coming into or being sent into communities are Caucasian. It does not matter whether the community they are going to is Latino, Asian, African, African-American or White; those coming in from the outside are by a vast majority Caucasian. The organizations that bring in Outsiders are mostly run by Caucasians.22 Organizations may have an “urban” department or a “local branch” that is run by a local or someone indigenous to that culture; however, the overall leadership is almost always Caucasian. When they arrive in these communities they generally take on leadership roles.23

Sometimes, the Outsiders see themselves as the only hope for the community, and for the community to be healthy it must take on the culture of the Outsider.

Sometimes, the Outsiders see themselves as the only hope for the community, and for the community to be healthy it must take on the culture of the Outsider. In a recent talk to a short-term mission team I expressed the need for this team to see the community in a light of “positive appreciation.”24 One team member quickly stopped me and asked me to better define the term. “I would like you to look for the positive things in this community, look for the good things happening through the people, look for their strengths and gifts.” His look, and the look of many others in the group, was of puzzlement. It was a very difficult task, they seemed to feel, to look for good things in what was so obviously a “bad” community.

Struggles like this can then lead to Outsiders diminishing the gifts of the local residents. They often see the local residents as mostly helpless people who need the Outsider, whether for spiritual or physical needs. The gifts the Outsider brings, such as institutional education, formal leadership training, finances and other resources, are seen to be superior to the gifts that the local residents bring. This diminishing of the Local gifts in favor of the Outside gifts can then lead to entire ministries being structured as deficit-based.

Case in point: one Outsider who was church planting in a poorer community was explaining to me all the different people that he had brought in to help the community. They had brought in people to run the programs for children, to do evangelism, to run education programs. He spoke of the excitement Outsiders had, to come in and help, and how many more wanted to come. I asked how the local congregation was dealing with this. He responded that they just didn’t seem to want to do anything, meaning that more Outsiders needed to come in to do the work as the ministry grew. “Perhaps,” I offered, “the local residents have been taught, by bringing all the Outsiders in, that they had no part in this work.” As one young Local resident put it whilst reflecting on the impact Outsiders had on their mostly poor community, “They did for us what we should have done for ourselves.”25

Such a separation can lead to another significant concern facing communities when Outsiders come in: the disproportionate allocation of assets. Outsiders are in general paid far more than Local residents in communities of the poor.26 Funds and resources being sent in from the outside are most likely to end up first in the hands of Outsiders, who determine where the funds will be allocated. Once again, this is a natural thing. If the community is viewed as being needy, full of broken people, then it could be seen as poor stewardship to entrust these people with outside resources when they have clearly not been able to manage their own local resources. If the Outsider has a higher level of formal education, more experience managing larger finances and natural relationships with those sending the resources, it would make perfect sense for the Outsider to be the one in control. Unless, that is, we look deeper into the long-term effects this allocation of power and resources has had on the community.

This lopsided allocation of resources coming in can entrench the separation and create further division. There is also a much deeper issue related to this allocation, a looping issue of cause and effect. Those coming from the Outside tend to raise money based upon the “needs” of the community they are going to. For instance, looking at recent church planting proposals for Philadelphia that have high levels of outside funding, you will read about the high murder rate in Philadelphia, the poor school system, the poverty,27 and usually the lack of churches working in Philadelphia.28 The proposals rarely ever highlight the strengths of a local community. They do not speak about the great things that others are doing in this community. In fact, I would argue that the worse a community is portrayed, the more money the Outsider will be able to raise. This then conveys a message to the Outsider’s supporters, that the disadvantaged community is a bad place, unlike where the Outsider came from, and the hope for this “bad place” lies in the work of the Outsider, supported by other Outsiders. Once again the gifts of the Local community are diminished, the gifts of the Outsiders are elevated, and now we have the Body of Christ divided.

A Proposal: Living Systems Ministry

To understand why, after so many Outsiders coming into Philadelphia’s poorest communities (and communities like it around the world29) and the sending in of so many millions of dollars to Philadelphia’s most “needy” neighborhoods, these communities have not “improved” (and in fact in many cases have declined30), we need to see that God’s primary vessel for working in these communities, His Body, can only be effective when it is working in harmony–one Body, made up of many parts, with these parts seeing each other as integral to each other. Jay Forrester, often considered the founder of modern systems thinking, says that “Probably no active, externally imposed program is superior to a system modification that changes internal incentives and leaves the burden of system improvement to internal processes.”31 In other words, trying to impose change from the outside will never be as effective as change coming from the inside. There are amazing examples around the world of community transformation led by Local groups, working in conjunction with Outsiders.

Given the lack of effectiveness of Outside mission groups in the urban setting, it is of utmost importance to educate, train, and deploy Outsiders in an effective manner. By taking a Living Systems Ministry approach we can increase effectiveness and limit unintended negative consequences of our actions. Living Systems Ministry is a way of seeing ministry through the idea that we live and function in complex systems, and in order to be effective we must look for organic solutions rather than mechanical solutions. It may be too much to hope that all Outsiders will submit to such a perspective and training before entering poor communities; however, if we can find the key places within the complex systems involved, we can work towards changing these systems, in essence, finding the tipping points.32

Living Systems Ministry, in its very nature, cautions us not to look for programmatic solutions to complex issues. Instead it seeks to work within God’s living systems. Throughout Scripture we can identify this approach to ministry, the fundamental principles of which can be summed up as follows:

1. God displays his power and glory through the diverse parts of his Body as the many parts work together in sync with Christ as the head.
2. God, through the Holy Spirit, has already been at work, is at work now, and will continue to be at work in our communities.
3. God has committed himself to the poor and oppressed.

Our diversity should not be a weakness that divides us, but a strength that empowers us, when we are joined through the Holy Spirit. We can never achieve God’s purposes for our lives unless we are working together, as one Body, and we are never to forget the other members of the Body, especially the weak and broken. By adopting the above principles, Outsiders can enter communities of the poor in Philadelphia and other cities in such a way as to be part of God’s fruitful plan for that community, respecting what God has been doing through his people and His systems within that community. There are many examples of both Locals and Outsiders exemplifying the Living Systems Ministry approach in the kingdom work of God.

God displays his power and glory through the diverse parts of his Body as the many parts work together in sync with Christ as the head.

Story 1: It was a typical summer day in August 2012 in Hunting Park. The park had long been neglected by the city, becoming a haven for drug use and prostitution. The fields had fallen into disrepair over the years, the sidewalks were cracked and broken and there was broken glass strewn throughout the picnic areas. But things were changing. This was a day of celebration. The new baseball field was open. The tennis courts had been resurfaced. The pool was clean. The starter yelled “GO!!” and the bike race began, twenty or so young people speeding around the park’s roads, closed for the race. Kids lined up at the jumping castle, adults at the farmer’s market. The basketball tournament was underway. There were about 100 volunteers from a church in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs who had arrived with a dental bus, food and tables. This was a different event for them though. They had been used to bringing their own program and doing what they felt the community needed, but this time, they had been invited to work alongside the other numerous local churches, faith based non-profits and community residents who had organized a day of celebration in their park. The churches truly represented the diversity of the Body, racially, ethnically and economically. There was the African American pastor making announcements over the loudspeaker. The Korean pastor arrived with his mix of congregants and mingled into the crowd. The mostly Latino community health center was offering free screenings whilst the White bike mechanic did safety checks for the kids and adults riding. The Amish farmers manned the vegetable stands whilst classic R&B blared over the sound system. This is the Kingdom.

We often think of diversity as being a good thing as we all bring different gifts, and so together those gifts can work in harmony. This is true, but more powerful than that is the breaking down of the wall of hostility that exists between the diverse parts, showing the true power of God as Reconciler. In the inner city of Philadelphia our division is not between Jew and Gentile but between black and white and brown. It is between recent ethnic immigrants and long-standing community residents. The divisions lie between the rich and the poor, the educated and uneducated. The divisions lie also between parent and child, first-generation and second-generation, English speakers and non-English speakers. Sadly the divisions are also drawn on theological differences, whether to baptize as an infant or as an adult, whether to have Elders or Deacons, whether to sing hymns or more contemporary songs of praise.

The failure to come together under Christ leads to the impotence of the local church. Communities themselves, divided by race and ethnicity, see the church not as a unified Body but rather reflecting the world’s divisions. The power of God as Reconciler is not seen nor demonstrated, and people are left wondering if the church is any different than the rest of society. This failure to come together also leads to churches believing that God has gifted them alone to do His work in a local community. This is not only an impossible task, but is also in complete contradiction to God’s commandment to work together, as one Body. No individual church, no matter how large, has the capacity to reach even a single community, and when they set about to do so alone, they are deceiving themselves and also those to whom they present this message.

One group within a church, or one church within a community, has been given power and resources, not to hoard for itself, but to share with others as they would have need. It is the role of the powerful to advocate for the powerless, the rich to provide for the poor, and the strong to uphold the weak. Justice is only done in unity.

The breakdown in the transfer of power and resources from church to church and generation to generation is another result of failed unity. One group within a church, or one church within a community, has been given power and resources, not to hoard for itself, but to share with others as they would have need. It is the role of the powerful to advocate for the powerless, the rich to provide for the poor, and the strong to uphold the weak. Justice is only done in unity.

Story 2: In the Carroll Park section of West Philadelphia, a small church known as Sweet Union Baptist Church is demonstrating this principle of unity in diversity. What was a traditional Black Baptist Church has partnered with other local congregations, across racial, ethnic and theological boundaries to better love the people of their community. Sweet Union has become a servant to smaller, less resourced congregations in order to empower them, and has in turn seen the larger congregation of City Line Church, a mostly Asian congregation, become a servant to Sweet Union. This unity in diversity has penetrated the very core of Sweet Union where the Senior Pastor Zack Ritvalsky encourages the young members of the church to have upfront leaderships roles, handing off power to a generation that Zack knows will eventually be more influential in the community than the older generation.

God has chosen unlikely vessels through whom to work out his plan (Exodus 4, 1 Samuel 16, Acts 9, 1 Corinthians 1). It is important for us to understand that God has been at work before the foundation of time and that His work is continuing to this day, and will continue until the end of time. Without this understanding we will blindly stumble forward, often alone, or we will act in arrogance as though God has chosen only to work through me, or those few around me.

Story 3: Outside of the urban context, not a lot of people have heard of CUTS. The Center for Urban Theological Studies holds its classes inside a church building on the site of the old Connie Mack baseball stadium. It has no full time faculty, no big library or cafeteria. Yet it has been the central point for the academic development of pastors in Philadelphia for more than 30 years. CUTS was born out of small group of local pastors who came to realize that, particularly within the Black church, there was a major lack of theological education. With most of the major theological institutions moving out of the City, or already being outside the City, there was little opportunity for local, bi-vocational pastors to take classes. The average age of a CUTS undergraduate student is 45, most have completed little or no college before enrolling and some have no high school diploma. Some of the older students (and by old I mean those in their seventies and eighties!) still use mechanical typewriters whilst others walk in with their iPads. CUTS won’t deny any student access to education based on the student’s financial position, finding creative ways to cover costs. When you begin looking at effective, locally led ministries across the City of Philadelphia, no matter the size of the ministry, you will most often find threads back to CUTS. Whether as a first year student or as a starting professor, CUTS has empowered local leaders through affirming their gifting, developing their skills, and offering them opportunities so often denied to those located in poor urban communities.

God has a plan. That plan has been in existence since before the beginning of time (Ephesians 1:4). This plan has been revealed most fully through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:3-14). His plan is intentional in working salvation in people. We have a role in looking for the work of God, the evidence of His touch, and to give praise and thanks when we find it (Ephesians 1:15-16). This plan is to bring all things in heaven and earth together, under Christ (Ephesians 1:10). The goal is cosmic reconciliation under Christ. The very nature of what He does is to bring together, and in bringing together, to work together. When things don’t come together all things are tainted. When Christ comes again, all things will finally be reconciled, but we are to work towards it in the meantime. By working together for Him, we display His glory in a broken world (Ephesians 1:15-16).

There is one Body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is over all and through all (Ephesians 4:4). Christ has invited us into this unity (John 14:18), one that exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We have been commanded to make every effort to maintain this unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3), knowing that the Spirit itself is unified (John 17:20-21). We do not ourselves create the unity of the Spirit, rather our objective is to participate in this unity, having fellowship with Christ, even as he has fellowship with the Father, who is in fellowship with the Holy Spirit (1John 1:1-3). We do not invite God into our fellowship; he invites us into his.

When Paul wrote his first letter to the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians) it was not to a single church, but rather to a group of small churches throughout the city.33 When Paul spoke to them about unity and Body; he was not saying that any one gathering must function as a complete Body, but rather that all believers and all gatherings must function together, without prejudice. Gentiles that were previously considered “untouchables” were coming into the faith and Paul extols the church to not only accept them, but to honor them as they are being honored by God.

Story 4: There is a group of pastors in Philadelphia known as “Partners in Harvest.” In a recent discussion the question was raised, “What could you do together that you cannot do alone?”34 These churches, twenty or so, range in size from a handful of members to more than 3,000 gathering on a Sunday, with budgets from less than $100,000 to multi-millions. During the next meeting, the pastor of the largest church spoke about how alone we were not accomplishing all that we could, that we needed to begin working together, and that together we would do great things. He spoke about how many of the churches had “nickel-and-dime” day cares, but that together they could open a Christian school of real size and influence. He spoke about how many of the churches had struggling Bible training programs, but that together they could have a real Bible institute, perhaps a ministry training center. The president of an urban college/seminary added that perhaps those attending could gain college credit through his college. Someone else then spoke about a home for the elderly, something no one church could accomplish alone. This conversation didn’t come about by the simple question posed to them, but rather came out of years of relationship and building of trust. It didn’t come from some magnificent plan laid on the table, a cool PowerPoint presentation, or crafty speech. It flowed from an understanding of God’s call to work together, his command to be unified. It is being enacted through the humility of pastors who now see the impact the Body can have on a city, rather than what their lone tribe can do in a neighborhood.

There are no simple formulas to address the issue of disunity and impotence in the Body. It is through relationships, earning the right to speak into the lives of local pastors and their congregants, that fruit is produced. We need to be committed to going into the communities where people live, work and serve, listening to what God is doing in and through and around them, then encouraging them with stories of others committed to the same things, in-dwelt with the same Spirit, part of the same Body.

Story 5: “Find out what everyone else is doing before you decide what to do,” said Gene Wright, the Director of Young Life in Philadelphia, back in 1992. “Visit every church and every ministry in the community, ask them about what they think is needed, don’t tell them what you think they need.” The community looked like no one cared much about anything at all; the teenagers seemed a lot more interested in fighting than schooling. It didn’t seem as though the churches really cared that much either. None of them had more than a few dozen folks and they seemed completely out of touch. Following Gene’s instructions, I began meeting with every person that would make the time, and I was blown away. The community wasn’t the spiritual wasteland that I had first thought. It was economically poor, at times very violent, but within the community existed a network of servants who realized that the tasks before them were so much greater than any one of them could accomplish alone, and who welcomed partnership in the Kingdom work.

There was Duke Dixon at the Presbyterian Church who had a passion for young people and had been longing for partners in the Kingdom. Pete and Sue Carter, two true heroes who moved into the community whilst still commuting back out to their suburban jobs. Pete and Sue had taken in many boys and young men, providing stability amongst the chaos. There was Joel Van Dyke who had come for a summer and stayed, discipling youth to reach their families, some of whom pastor their own congregations now. When I first met Joel he was helping a young girl from the community to raise money for a trip to Romania. He had also organized the youth to help build their own youth center. There was Hector Vasquez who had organized a street hockey league, and Rod Poore who was a part of running a youth basketball league. Joel, Hector and Rod would take their youth on combined camps each year, work on school events and share resources. There were Miss Darlene and Miss Ruth, two Mennonite ladies who seemed to know every kid by name in their neighborhood, and who no one ever “messed” with.

When Christ came in the flesh he did not walk alone nor work alone but rather gathered a group together, the disciples. Though Christ did not need these men, he empowered them, sent them out, comforted them and taught them to live in community. He made it clear that they were to think more highly of others than of themselves (John 13). Christ exemplified the idea that the Body of believers is one, and must work together as one.

In Philadelphia we see many examples of a divided Body. There are many churches acting as though they are the lone instrument of God in their communities. This leads to confusion in the community as people wonder why, if there were one God, one faith, the churches do not mirror this. Most churches seem to act as though God has given them a mission apart from the others in their community, and many times we read a church’s mission statement as “we seek to reach the people in our community” with no mention of their interaction with others who gather together with the same “mission.”

Story 6: In the Hunting Park section of Philadelphia exists a partnership between churches that embodies this principle of partnership in kingdom work. Pastor Matt Lin of One Hope Church realized that there were far more youths in the community than he could ever expect to reach from just his church, and that other pastors were also beginning to think this way. He invited the other local churches to meet together and discuss things they could be doing together. There were some longstanding relationships, but new relationships were also formed, and pastors welcomed new churches into the community. Together these churches began to host a soccer camp, partnering with another group that specialized in sports ministry. They also encouraged their youths to attend events at the other churches and coordinate block parties together. What a statement to the community when you arrive at a large community event in the park and see 5 or 6 different churches represented, all working together to love their community. Only together can we complete the work that Christ has laid out before us, loving each other above ourselves, in communion, one Body, one Faith, one God.

God, through the Holy Spirit, has already been at work, is at work now, and will continue to be at work in our communities.

In his book, Orthodox Alaska, Michael Oleksa writes about the Orthodox missionary’s goal as finding God’s existing work within a culture, and then pointing that work out to the people.35 This is in contrast to many Western missionaries, who act as though they are bringing the Holy Spirit with them, and that the first encounter the people have with God is through the missionary. To understand that God has been at work in a culture already is to be free of the burden of “saving” others that we so often put on our own shoulders. It does not depend upon me as to whether or not someone will know God, for God has already set the work in motion since before time. Understanding that the Holy Spirit is already at work (John 3:8) also should force us to recognize that God is not restricted by man, that the Holy Spirit will go where He chooses to go, regardless of what we desire.

If we can see that God is already at work, then next we can see that he is at work in and through vessels that are, in our times, often unlikely and certainly unworthy. The choice of Saul as an Apostle certainly would have shocked the early church, and in fact it took a special saint, Barnabas, to recognize the work of the Spirit in Paul’s life, and to advocate that work to other believers. Saul had been hunting down Christians, seeking to destroy the early church (Acts 8), and most likely had already presided over the killing of believers. He was a Pharisee, the group that Christ spoke most strongly against in the Gospels. For God to give Saul special revelation, to call him as an Apostle, and to send him to the Gentiles was astounding. Yet Saul fulfilled the requirements that God had used in calling people throughout history, to call the unlikely, the broken, the weak, the shameful. We see this in the choice of the other Apostles (fishermen, tax collectors, doubtful and angry men). We see it in the time Jesus spent with prostitutes like Mary Magdalene. We see it in men like Moses and David, in Gideon and Jonah.

When we fail to acknowledge that God has been at work already, through unlikely vessels in unlikely places, we cause many problems. One of these is the church’s neglect in training the urban youth for leadership. Instead it opts to bring in from the outside those “more qualified and trained” to run and lead the church. Is it any wonder that the church has limited influence on the street, in the schools, and in the broken homes of our communities when those most capable of changing culture are restricted in their access to resources and support? If the youth are not empowered, then the message of hope that our communities need is stifled within the older generation, and we will continue to see churches close down, having failed to reach their communities and to responsibly hand off power to the next generation.

Story 7: Rev. Lou Centeno is one of those local leaders who receives little outside recognition, yet is invaluable in his work in the community. While many people came from the outside and worked with him and under him, he grew up in the local community. He was a former gang member ready to end his life right before he met the Lord. Many of the Outsiders came to do “their tour of duty” in the inner city for a year or two, and left. Others stayed, usually gaining heroic status from those who sent them in, amazed that anyone could live in such a “dangerous” place. Lou never questioned where he should be or why he should be there. These were his people, the ones he was commissioned to reach, no matter the cost. Lou has been a stalwart of the community, a first responder to crises, empowering others around him, never seeking fame or credit. He exists on a meager salary, “too busy,” as he puts it, to raise support. Lou is essential to the health of a community like North Philadelphia and, with more resources, would be able to do more work. Stories like his must be told.

Indeed, God has already been at work and is at work now, often in unlikely places, often through unlikely people, and we are empowered to go forth and look for that work. Upon finding that work of God, we are to first of all give thanks to God. Then we are to share those good works with others in the Body that they too may give thanks and be encouraged. Then we are to encourage the work going on, resource it as we can, and connect it to other parts of the Body so that it may be lasting. We must fight any oppression that exists towards the “weaker” parts of the Body, giving them special honor.

God has committed himself to the poor and oppressed.

Story 8: I asked Bishop Eric Lambert what will be different about the suburbanization of the Black church as opposed to the suburbanization of the White church. The Black population has grown by 30% in Philadelphia’s suburbs over the last ten years36 and the same growth has been reflected in the church. Like the mainline White church before it, the Black church has been moving up and out. In moving out, the White church, in general, left behind the City. Will the Black church do the same? “No,” says Bishop Lambert, “because we won’t let our people forget where we came from.” Bishop Lambert grew up in the heart of North Philadelphia, and despite moving out of that community, still goes back there regularly to spend time on the street. Instead of spending money on a new “mega-building,” Bishop Lambert preaches in an old converted appliance store, people packing out multiple services each day. He has helped plant churches across the City, sending out his best members with confidence that God will continue to fill the pews with new people. The money saved by not building a new church can be seen as it is used in developing work in his old neighborhood, and others like it. Teams from the church forgo their own Sunday morning worship to hit the streets to minister to those most in need. Bishop Lambert sees the needs for houses of “prayer and peace,” a place open twenty-four hours a day where people can come and be loved, served and ministered to. Sending people back into the communities they came from ensures they never forget where they come from, and they never forget those who still live there.

Christ, in his life on Earth, dedicated himself to the poor and the oppressed. There should have been no beggar in Israel, for the law was established to bring about a just society, yet the streets were lined with the hungry. Christ walked amongst these people, forgiving their sins, healing their illnesses and empowering them to go forward (Luke 4). The Scribes and Pharisees, the self-proclaimed religious leaders of the day, had failed to do justly, to speak against oppression, to right the wrongs of their fathers. It was to this group of Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus leveled his strongest criticisms, his condemnation for their failure to honor God in caring for the poor. James in his letter also reserves his harshest criticism for the rich (James 5:1-6) for their oppression of the poor and failure to seek justice. It is into this same climate that we step today.

In entering into our chaos Jesus chose to associate with the most destitute and broken people, the same call that He then put on us. It is from within the complex and chaotic systems of the city that the most Kingdom work can be done, not from outside the systems.

Within all of this lies the embodiment of the Incarnation, that Jesus Christ came and dwelt amongst us, in all the mess and chaos we have made, and that God still dwells amongst us through the Holy Spirit. In entering into our chaos Jesus chose to associate with the most destitute and broken people, the same call that He then put on us. It is from within the complex and chaotic systems of the city that the most Kingdom work can be done, not from outside the systems.

In calling the church to do justice, Dr. Eldin Villafañe says that “Rulers, and by extension nations, will be judged by how they treat their weakest members,”37 and in reflecting on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, “There is a great mystery here, for as we give and serve with justice the poor and needy in our midst, we are in a deep yet spiritually profound sense doing it to the Lord–we are ascribing worth to our Lord, we are worshipping him.”38

The essence of injustice is the sinful lordship of one over another. For instance, racism is the sinful lordship of one group over another based upon the color of their skin. We misuse the resources we have been entrusted with, hoarding them amongst a few whilst others go without. In doing this, the rich continue to get richer whilst the poor fall deeper into poverty. What an indictment on our society that the Earth we have been given to steward produces enough food for every person on the planet, yet so many die each year of hunger. We see this reflected in a local level in Philadelphia, where the rich travel the highways set above the heads of the poor. Our city has a broken school system where education is not ensured for the poor. The policing of the streets in communities of the wealthy far exceeds that of the poorer communities. City services are disproportionately allocated to benefit those with resources and the poor continue to be kept in poverty.

Sadly, tragically, the church once again is found reflecting society more than it does the message of the gospel. Church pastors at wealthier churches may command salaries in excess of $100,000 whilst other pastors exist on one tenth of that. One church buys a sound-system that costs more than many other churches’ entire budgets. Wealthy churches give 10% or maybe even 25% of their budgets to missions, thinking they have done a great deed, when they should consider giving 75%, giving beyond their own wealth. A seminary education at many traditional seminaries in the area may cost $30,000 or more, preventing people from attending or requiring them to take out large debts (even as they may have already spent tens of thousands on an undergraduate degree). The wealthy rarely empower the poor. Rich churches are seemingly considered “better” churches because they command power of persuasion through their resources, and they are not usually listening to the weak and the broken for guidance.

Story 9: There are those that stand against this injustice on a daily basis, though at times they seem like people trying to stop the tide coming in relentlessly. People such as Dr. Manny Ortiz and Pastor Andrés Fajardo at Spirit and Truth Fellowship in Hunting Park are those who refuse to accept the status quo. They have established a local community center that helps educate and empower people from the community. By helping those with greater means relocate into the community they have begun some redistribution of resources and a coming together of different classes as well as ethnicities. They balance their work so that they are a church of the poor and the not-so-poor, holding up indigenous leaders whilst recognizing the gifting that Outsiders also bring.

This work has led to a coalition of Christian ministries locating within a block of the church. Esperanza Health Center, a multi-site, multi-service clinic that has over 50,000 patient visits a year, located their new building opposite the church. Biblical Seminary holds their urban Masters of Divinity classes on the same block. Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia have their main clinic there. Simple Cycle bike shop, which not only sells affordable bikes to the community but also teaches people how to repair and restore bikes and creates jobs, placed its retail space on that same street. A local Christian businessman not only runs his cleaning service from a building he bought from the church, but he has created an affordable space for other groups to locate in this area. Around the corner lies the Orange Korner Arts, an arts-based development center that offers youth and adults education and training in many different forms of art, from music to photography, sewing to dance. All these groups function with a sense of harmony, sharing needs and even resources. They also allow opportunities for positive interactions as Local residents and Outsiders mix regularly through employment, service and worship.


These stories must be told, especially to Outsiders as they come in, encouraging the work of the Lord that comes from places most think unlikely; bringing groups together; seeking to help them better connect to those who share the same hope in Christ, who stand firm against injustice, and who show grace. There should be a desire to encourage them in their work so that they know they are not a lone tribe in a sea of enemies but rather a part of a Kingdom. So often you will find the workers of the Lord feeling like Elijah in the cave (1Kings 19), alone and confused about what God is doing, maybe even scared that their best will not be enough to make a difference. People need to be reminded of the faithfulness of God, the comfort of God, the power of God, and that they are not alone.

In the end, the hope is to simply invite people to come along and meet some of the other members of the “family” so that together we will do greater things than we can ever do apart. It is about entering into the complex and chaotic systems of the community, becoming Incarnate, loving and living and learning from those that have already been led into the chaos by our Lord Jesus Christ.


1 “Outsiders” is defined as those relocating into Philadelphia from a culture that is significantly different than that which they are coming into. In general this is used to describe someone who is White from a suburban or rural background relocating into a Black or Latino inner city community.
2 Although this is not an actual quote, it is representative of what myself and others have read in reviewing dozens of formal and informal newsletters, emails, blogs and Facebook postings over the past 20 years.
3 This is not an actual quote but a compilation of comments put into a narrative from community residents.
4 Pinchos are skewers of meat–usually chicken or pork–marinated then cooked over open flames then doused in sauce.
5 This is an example of what Jay Forrester refers to as “parameter change,” Urban Dynamics (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1969), 110.
6 Steven Conn, Metropolitan Philadelphia: Living with the Presence of the Past (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 32.
7 The Metropolitan region can be defined as Philadelphia County and the 8 counties that border Philadelphia, being Bucks County (PA), Montgomery County (PA), Chester County (PA), Delaware County (PA), New Castle County (DE), Gloucester County (NJ), Camden County (NJ) and Burlington County (NJ).
8 ESRI Business Analyst Online, (accessed Dec 2012). The ESRI data is complied from the United States Census and is used by businesses throughout the United States for strategic planning and marketing. The site has user-defined parameters. The data includes full census reports from 1990, 2000, 2010 as well as data complied through purchasing and sales numbers and other techniques for gathering demographic information.
9 ESRI Business Analyst Online, (accessed Dec 2012).
10 These trends are taken from research projects undertaken by Common Grace Inc., using a combination of Applied Research and Demographic Data compiled by ESRI over the course of 2005-2012.
11 Despite numerous attempts by various groups, no comprehensive count of Philadelphia city churches has been done. This estimate comes from estimations, databases and observations. Ram Cnaan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has completed the most extensive study and found 2120 religious congregations. See The Other Philadelphia Story (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
12 David O’Reilly, “What’s a Church’s Economic Worth,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1st 2011.
13 In my community in Philadelphia the PCUSA has closed 6 of its 7 churches, the Methodists almost as many, and the Catholic Church has just announced another series of closures and mergers.
14 Often termed “White Flight,” the movement of White Christians out of Philadelphia parallels the movement in general of White families out of the city. White Flight has since been followed by Black Flight and Latino Flight, following similar patterns and trends.
15 Dr. Krispin has made these remarks publicly at various gathering of clergy in Philadelphia, including CityNet in 2006 and Partners in Harvest 2012.
16 According to the 2010 U.S. Census the Black population in the Philadelphia suburbs rose by 30%. ESRI Business Analyst Online, (accessed Dec 2012).
17 In the 2010 Census the Fairhill section of Philadelphia had 3% of their population stating they had completed 4 years of college. This is in contrast to almost all mission agencies requiring a college degree or equivalent for service and most church planting organizations also requiring a college or seminary degree. It is also given that teachers, medical professionals and social workers will have a college degree, these being the most common professions amongst Outsiders relocating into poor communities.
18 One example of this is at Esperanza Health Center where the doctors, almost everyone of whom has relocated, accept a salary approximately 50% below their peers. See
19 Brian Howell, Short Term Missions: Ethnography of a Christian Travel Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012).
20 Ibid.
21 The term “American Dream” may not be fair, as it is a complex and often user-definable term. However it is most commonly used to describe the movement upwards on the socio-economic scale of secular societ–having your own home, a good job, and a good education for your children.
22 In a review of the major groups sending or facilitating church planters, missionaries and short-term teams into the city of Philadelphia, their President or CEO is Caucasian. To cite, the following at time of writing all had Caucasian heads: Acts29, Converge World Wide, Sovereign Grace, InFaith (formerly AMF), Adventures in Missions, Young Life, InterVarsity and Campus Crusade. Others like the Presbyterian Church of America are strongly Caucasian in their leadership, though they do not have a CEO or President. From reviews of and encounters with over 100 short-term teams in Philadelphia I would estimate at least 90% of those teams are comprised of Caucasians.
23 In studies that I conducted in Philadelphia (2006, 2010, 2012), Guatemala (2007) and Australia (2010, 2011, 2012), Caucasians who have relocated into poor communities or who are serving within poor communities, hold a disproportionate number of senior leadership positions in relation to the ethnicity of those they are serving through their organizations. This is especially true of organizations that raise funds through outside supporters, both individuals and churches.
24 The term “positive appreciation” will be explained in more detail in later sections. The term in this context is taken from Living Systems Ministry, originating from the Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston, MA,
25 This quote, and others used, has come from interviews conducted in both formal and informal ways with those who have interacted with Outsiders relocating into their communities, both long-term and short-term.
26 Although missionary salaries can vary greatly from one agency to the next, most agencies pay their workers at a level higher than the local average income in poor communities. This comes after review of major missions organizations’ average missionary salaries as stated by the agency Catalyst, who support mostly North American missions agencies, and direct review of salaries from organizations such as Converge World Wide, World Harvest, Young Life, Crossworld and others. Those who come into poor communities to work such as teachers and medical professionals are also receiving salaries higher than Local residents. In Philadelphia’s poorer communities the average household income is generally under $20,000, according to the 2010 Census, whilst the beginning teachers salary is $41,000 according to the School District of Philadelphia.
27 This comes from review of church planting proposals sent out from major church planting organizations over the past 5 years.
28 Often cited in church planting proposals is the lack of churches or the lack of a certain type of church within the area. There is a definite need for churches to be planted; however, these proposals most often exclude in their narrative the existing work, or at the least minimize that work, in some cases to the point of being outright false in their claims.
29 Dr. Brian Howell, in Short Term Missions, estimates around 2 million American’s go on short term missions projects each year, these being predominately to poor communities around the world, the most being to Latin America.
30 Common Grace Inc., on review of 2010 US Census information in comparison with 2000 Census data especially in the areas of household incomes, employment rates and education attainment.
31 Jay Forrester, Urban Dynamics (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1969), 110.
32 In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books, 2002), he writes about how small changes can lead to major transformations when the right people are involved. He sees the three key personality types needed as a Connector, a Mavin, and a Salesperson. In making system changes to the way Outsiders have been coming into communities of the poor, if the right people are involved in these changes, it could be the tipping point in a city like Philadelphia, leading to far more extensive transformation.
33 There are numerous sources that cite this, including “Corinthian House Church Communities” (x). See Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2nd edition, 2003), 41 and 57.
34 During a meeting at Bethel Deliverance Church, Montgomery County, PA, 2011.
35 Michael Oleksa, Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992).
36 ESRI Business Analyst Online, (accessed Dec 2012).
37 Eldin Villafañe, Beyond Cheap Grace: a Call to Radical Discipleship, Incarnation and Justice (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 73.
38 Ibid., 79.

2 thoughts on “The Outsiders and Their Role in Urban Mission”

  1. King David Owalla

    I like the site and what you are doing to the kids around the world and i hope you are going to keep doing the good work i will always be there may God cover you all

  2. Dear Mr. Crosscombe,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and hearing about what God is doing in Philadelphia. I am currently a teacher at a bilingual Christian school in Honduras and have been amazed and humbled and the incredible gifts of this community and the potential impact these students can have on their country. One section in your article (actually throughout most of it) focused on the importance of unity within the body of Christ, the church and various ministries. This has been a heart desire for me and one of my roommates as we have recognized the impact of the Holy Spirit since before time was set and how joining ministries together and hearing the stories of others is an incredible way to build the body of Christ. Justly recently we launched a website as a place for that unity and encouragement to take place and be found. A friend recommended your article and after reading it I was greatly encouraged. Would it be ok if we mentioned something about this article either in Facebook or the website? Thank you so much again for sharing. May The Lord continue to bless you, your family, and your ministry!

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