When people hear that I pastor in Baltimore, the response I receive is typically: a) excitement or b) sympathy. The latter usually comes from those who view cities like Baltimore in less than positive terms and imagine that doing ministry in such a context is akin to Jonah begrudgingly obeying God to go to Nineveh. And I want to make clear that pastoring in a city like Baltimore does entail certain unique challenges. I often joke, “I must have missed the class on this in seminary.”
So, while it’s definitely never easy, here are five reasons I love pastoring in a city like Baltimore:
Before planting The Village, I genuinely had compassion for those in poverty but did not have too many close relationships with the poor. Poverty was more a set of statistics to rattle off, but Baltimore has led me to see poverty beyond income levels and as the stories of real people. Neighbors. Friends. Parishioners.
I’ve come to recognize that the reasons for urban poverty are not simplistic and involve systemic issues often having a trickle-down effect to keep the poor in poverty. You gain a whole new perspective on these matters when your conversations involve how a dad will feed his family when the local factory has closed down, taking away the only job opportunity he’s really been trained for.
Pastoring in Baltimore has helped me to not romanticize the urban poor but to have my mind sharpened and heart softened as I seek a biblical perspective on mercy. The Parable of the Good Samaritan goes to a whole new level when the walk from your house to the church feels like the road to Jericho.
There are more articles out there than I care to read on how millennials are all leaving the church. I don’t have the answers to all that but one thing I can say about a city like Baltimore is that it draws younger generations, whether for academic, professional, cultural, or social reasons.
Churches in Baltimore like The Village have experienced the blessing of large numbers of younger people making up their congregations. Many of our younger generations live in the city because they want to be a part of God’s renewal in Baltimore. As a church, it provides us with a whole resource of people with creative and physical energy to be released on mission. We view this as a tremendous opportunity to equip and mobilize young people in a formative stage of life as they ask, “What might it look like to be freed from the American Dream of self and instead seek the glory of God through the welfare of the city?”
Urban centers tend to draw people from many diverse ethnic backgrounds and the result is it’s much more realistic to grow as a multiethnic church because of the city we live in. We have experienced that there are some who initially connect with The Village precisely because of our growing multiethnic community and our desire to speak into issues of reconciliation. As Baltimore has experienced much fracturing along lines related to race, we believe that diversity in a church is not just a politically correct statement but the very expression of the power of God to unite those who may have no other realistic reason to be walking together. Cities like Baltimore are a wonderful place to do ministry among such a wide mosaic of people and cultures as we display our unity in diversity.
Pastoring in Baltimore frees me from the challenge of trying to grow a church by catering to a consumeristic culture. Your ministry philosophy can’t help but be affected when you weep over the latest article describing the soaring murder rate in the city. Church is forced to be more than a social club for the upwardly mobile when you step outside your doors and see the horrific effects of a growing substance abuse problem. As a pastor in our city, I don’t have the option to resort to moralistic therapeutic deism in explaining God. Our issues are much deeper than merely helping people to live better lives. Baltimore compels me to keep the main thing in mind knowing that a church who doesn’t keep it real will experience very little authentic connection with a community in the pit of despair crying out for truth and depth.
The more experienced I become in ministry, the less help I feel I need. Paradoxically, sometimes the reason I don’t pray as much as I used to is that I’m getting better at what I do.
What I love about pastoring in Baltimore is that it continually puts me in situations where I feel absolutely helpless and clueless. Yet rather than despair, it leads me to my knees crying out for the One who is not rattled by the things that shake me; who is not overwhelmed by the events that make me throw my hands up in frustration.
I pray more because I’m faced with people and circumstances that won’t be transformed just because I went to the latest hip conference and incorporate the latest innovative leadership techniques. It will require the power of God to do something that I cannot do. And it’s good for my soul because it helps me remember that’s how I should approach all of ministry.
I Need Baltimore
I probably had a savior mentality at the beginning of our ministry as I shared my grandiose visions of how we would bring transformation to our broken city. And hopefully we’ve been able to be a part of God’s good work in Baltimore.
But as I reflect—as much as we’ve done for our city—my city has given much to me. Baltimore has been an instrumental part of my growth as a person, Christian, and pastor. I am thankful for Baltimore because I needed Baltimore.
Where do you pastor? Do you love it there? Why or why not?
Image credit, edited for size.