I was speaking to a pastor from Chicago who lamented the appearance of street preachers who claimed the corner outside his church to read scripture aloud, preach, and pray with passersby. I asked if the men (they were all male) were disruptive or aggressive? No. I asked if they accosted members of the church? No. I asked if they were ministering to anyone that the church was trying to serve? No. What, then, I asked, is the problem? “Well, they’re not official. They don’t belong to any church. They could be saying anything out there!” My next question: have you tried talking to these people? No.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and make the profound statement that cities in general, and urban ministries in particular, are extremely unique. I’m not talking about stable and staid city centers and urban monolithic churches. I’m talking about the alleys and the side streets, the tenements and the overgrown lots, the avant garde and the bizarre sections of every major city. Churches that cannot tolerate a certain level of odd, extreme, and eccentric behavior will not be happy. In every major city I visit, I find fringe Christian groups that fit no mold and align with no established denomination. This is not to say that there are not some incredibly effective and innovative urban ministries in The United Methodist Church. There are amazing inner city churches in our denomination, serving in powerful and transformative ways.
But there are still many emerging Christian options that scare the daylights out of the mainline. In my limited experience I have worshipped in a Bronx laundry room where the scriptures were read by a Meth addict (amphetimene, not Methodist); have been prayed for by a Harley biker who used the word m*****f***** in his prayer, have met a hooker who teaches street kids Bible stories, and have handed out condoms and clean needles to street people living on the edge. One of the best sermons I heard on mercy was delivered in a park by a man dying of AIDS, and one of the sweetest ministries to the poor was an older woman who handed out candies and offered blessings who church people labeled “crazy.” There are so many people in our cities who fall through the cracks, and the church simply isn’t there for many of them. But by the grace of the Holy Spirit, many of these people find a way to fill in the gap. They find others like themselves and form Christian community. Not traditional Christian community, by any means, but raw, real, life-saving community nonetheless.
What makes me sad is the response of many mainliners. In too many cases, good church folk don’t celebrate that these people are finding God’s grace, but they view them as a problem or a threat. I hear stories from people who tell of pastors who call the police to chase them away. There is sometimes a disconnect between what we profess and what we practice. In New York a few years ago, I consulted with a church in a changing neighborhood seeking to improve their outreach. On Sunday morning, the pastor preached an impassioned message of inclusivity and tolerance, challenged her congregation to welcome the stranger, and reminded them that compassion differentiated the sheep from the goats. As we were leaving the church for lunch, a young Latino woman struggled with her baby-carriage, blocking the sidewalk, and bumped into us. In exasperation, the pastor I was with snarled at the woman, “Hey, in THIS country, we stay to the right.” No one in the church could understand why they weren’t making greater inroads with the Hispanic/Latino community. In the same neighborhood, a thriving storefront church was launched — all lay people, no pastor. The little church was forced to close when the ecumenical council in the area labeled it a “cult,” and warned people of the danger it posed.
Okay, that’s an extreme story. It is the exception, not the rule. At least, in the aggressive way the organized churches took after it. What is fast becoming the rule is the rise of unaffiliated, independent groups of people with no desire to become a “church,” but only seek Christian community and spiritual fellowship. These types sound ideal for a denomination that professes a desire to grow, serve, love, and make disciples. Yet, in many cases we don’t include these people in our vision. And this isn’t a criticism of The United Methodist Church alone. No one seems to have room for these folks, which is why they are making space for themselves.
I stopped this evening to talk to a group of young men and women sitting on the steps of a church in Evanston, Illinois. Some of them carried Bibles, and they quite obviously were praying when I first walked up. They asked me if I were a Christian, and when I told them I was a pastor, they warmly welcomed me. I asked them if they attended the church whose steps they occupied, and they told me they did not. They said they moved from church to church to have their Bible study, but they didn’t “belong” to any church. Ham, a large, smiling, boisterous bear of a man said, “Nobody wants us. We drink, smoke, cuss, and laugh out loud. We’re not what you’d call “church folk.” I chatted with them for awhile, they asked me a question about the “sign of Jonah,” and I left them — wondering what most of the congregations I know would make of them.
Anytime people take responsibility for their own spirituality and break away from the mainstream, someone raises the alarm about sects, cults, or heresy. Sometimes it is well founded, but often it is an attempt to absolve “the church” of its own failings to make space for those who are different. It is helpful to remember that we Christians are all children of a sect. Our roots sink deep into the rich soil of the outsider, the fringe, the minority, and the persecuted. Charges of cult, sect, heresy, and apostasy are part of our DNA. It shouldn’t surprise us that it is still part of our story today. Were we truly honest in our reading of the gospels, we would realize that part of the appeal of Jesus’ ministry was its openness to the dirty, smelly, ignorant, mentally and physically challenged. Christianity was not primarily for the well-to-do, comfortable, safe, and secure.
Our modern urban settings provide us with a modern microcosm of the first century world in which Jesus came to serve and save. Those who are finding faith on the street corners and tenement steps are the same people who Jesus found on the dirt roads and lake sides. He told us we would always have the poor, and that includes the dirty, the uneducated, the deranged, and the diseased — as well as those who “drink, smoke, cuss and laugh out loud” — the very people he came to save.