Urban Church P̶l̶a̶n̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ Plantations

 If you are preparing to do [urban ministry] and you’ve never had a non-white mentor, you are not an [urban minister], you are a colonialist. – adapted from Soong-chan Rah[i]

Last week I had the honor of meeting with a group of urban pastors who’ve devoted their lives to serving Buffalo, NY. While discussing the challenges they encountered while doing urban ministry in a predominantly non-white, socio-economically oppressed[ii] city, the black, Hispanic and Asian pastors with whom I met raised a familiar issue, one that I’ve heard and witnessed all over the country.  Same story, different city.

Buffalo, like many other urban centers, has faced a shrinking population and declining business interest for decades[iii].

urban decay, Buffalo, NY

urban decay, Buffalo, NY

But things rapidly changed in December 2013, when NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Buffalo Billion Investment Development Plan  in which he pledged to invest $1 billion in Buffalo, with the goal of transforming the beleaguered city into a high-tech center. Not surprisingly, suburban folks who’ve long abandoned the city are suddenly eager to return and participate in (cash in on?) the urban renaissance.

This doesn’t surprise me one bit. This is how capitalism works in the U.S. empire.


The urban pastors reported that, in the wake of Governor Cuomo’s announcement, many predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches in the area have expressed renewed interest in Buffalo’s urban center. But rather than connecting with the urban pastors who have been doing ministry among the oppressed in Buffalo for years, and looking for ways to support the indigenous leaders who are already in place, they have simply begun making plans to expand their suburban ministry empires into the urban center. In other words, they’re venturing out into the world of urban church planting.

One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist, and their expertise doesn’t exist. The suburban churches are simply marching in.

This is happening all over the U.S. In Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Boston , Charlotte and many other cities, I’ve seen predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches take an imperialistic glance at the urban center, decide that they are called to “take back the city” and then proceed with all of the honor and finesse of a military invasion.


I recently conversed with an urban Latina pastor about this issue. While talking about the ways in which non-indigenous urban church planting negatively affects a community, she nonconsciously misspoke, referring to “urban church planting” initiatives run by predominantly white suburban churches as “urban church plantations.” She kept right on talking, seemingly unaware of her Freudian slip.

But she’s right. So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations. Like the suburban pastors in Buffalo, many urban church planters charge into cities with blatant disregard for the great ministry work that is already being done by under-resourced pastors and churches, blind to their own privilege and cultural incompetency, and accompanied by the arrogant empire-based idea that more money means more effective ministry.

When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multi-campus church to halt his plan to build an urban campus so that he could reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”


 They come in like Wal-mart – with all their fancy buildings and fancy programs. And one by one, the members of my church come to me and say, ‘We love you, pastor, but they have a great kids program, so we’re going to start attending that church.’ — an African-American urban pastor

But the question is: can a church run by privileged people who have little to no firsthand knowledge of systemic oppression effectively minister to oppressed folks?

Probably not.

A few years ago, a large, multi-campus, predominantly white church on the West Coast decided to expand their ministry into a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood. On the first Sunday of the new urban campus, the white male pastor who had zero urban ministry experience, brashly declared to the mostly black audience, “This ain’t your grandmomma’s church.” Little did he know that grandmomma’s church has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of the community. If it weren’t for grandmomma’s church this community would have completely fallen apart in the face of ongoing racism and societal oppression[iv].

In one moment, he dishonored the image of God in black people. (As James Cone says, “Blackness is the image of God in black people.” If you disrespect grandmomma and her church, you’re disrespecting blackness. Period.)  And in that same moment, he also demonstrated an astounding level of cultural and historical ineptitude. Not surprisingly, when the neighboring black pastors heard what the white pastor said, they were deeply offended.


I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job. Last fall, I attended an urban and multicultural church planting conference that gathered national church planting leaders from over 30 denominations. As I looked out over the room, I couldn’t help but notice that the group was about 95% white (and 99% male!).

When I asked the group how they figured that a group of white men could possibly be equipped to lead urban church planting movements among non-white and other oppressed folks, the room got really quiet. No one had a good answer. Indeed, it seemed as if they had never reflected on this question before.

Privilege says I’m called and equipped to minister to all people (but minorities are only called and equipped to minister to people who are just like them). Privilege says that the largest ministry with the most resources is the most effective ministry.

This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped. For far too long, suburban pastors have ignored the perspectives and gifts of urban pastors.

Many of the urban pastors that I know are experts at ministering to the people in their neighborhoods. But they serve low-income populations and are desperately under-resourced. Just because they don’t have a huge church or haven’t single-handedly transformed a broken neighborhood, doesn’t mean that they’re not effectively ministering within their limited means. If suburban pastors truly understood this truth, they would be running to sit at the feet of these amazing male and female urban ministers.

And they would do everything they could to support the great work of these urban ministers.


If we truly saw ourselves as an interdependent body with a shared Head, resources, blood, and life, then suburban churches that want to love on a city wouldn’t do it by expanding their empires across city lines. They would do it by truly sharing their resources, blood and life in service to the Head.

Why build a new church building in the city when you can build one for an urban church – in desperate need of a new building– that is already there doing great work?

Why hire a new pastor to work at your new urban church plant, when you can give an urban church the resources to make their long-suffering bi-vocational pastor full-time?

Why fund a new urban service project when you can fund the urban service projects that people of color have been running tirelessly and effectively on a shoe-string budget for years?

The empire says that our church needs to be present in every community, our church has the answers, and our church’s resources are our resources alone. If we follow this path, power dynamics remain unchanged and urban church plantations ensue.

The better, more honoring path requires equity – which is costly. Just ask the rich, young ruler. Jesus asked him to reject his empire approach to life, stop being so possessive about his possessions, and join the interdependent family of God.

Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. – Mark 12:21

The rich young ruler wasn’t able to do it. It was too costly, and he was too invested in building his own empire.

Suburban churches, Jesus is talking to you. What are you gonna do?

[i] Soong-Chan Rah Challenges Disciples to Learn from the Changing Face of Christianity

[iv] See, Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree for a clear and succinct discussion on how the black church has protected black people from the oppression of white America.

151 Responses

  1. Dan Jr.
    Dan Jr. March 18, 2014 at 8:09 AM |

    Thanks for this. As white dude this was a hard lesson I learned fresh out of school as I was excited to “save the city” but a Hispanic Pastor took me aside and gave it to me straight.

    Now almost 20 years later as a church planter I’ve had the deep joy of sitting with a cluster of older African American pastors to listen and learn from. They’ve pointed out the same pattern here in Syracuse from wealthy white churches. This has made it difficult for me to want to be associated with these wealthy white church’s because of their colonial tendencies. Most of the churches attempting to plant satellite campuses in our city don’t even have pastors that live in our city.

    One question I have for you. The African American pastors I meet with have all confided in me that they’re are exhausted and they’re own churches are hemorrhaging. I’m not always sure how to respond. But what I’ve observed is that they are flirting with using white attractional strategies to grow their churches since they seem to work for white people. Thoughts?

  2. shewrites4life
    shewrites4life March 18, 2014 at 8:10 AM |

    Excellent and insightful points. The question is, will any of the white leaders take heed and consider alternative approaches?

  3. Don’t Do Urban Ministry | Abnormal Anabaptist

    […] highly urge everyone to read this article if you have any interest in urban ministry.  Especially if you are a well-meaning, white, male, […]

  4. Gracev@socket.net
    Gracev@socket.net March 18, 2014 at 8:40 AM |

    Such an important message. Thanks for writing it. I’ll be posting on my FB page in hopes that some of my white friends in ministry will take heed.

  5. Church Planter
    Church Planter March 18, 2014 at 9:46 AM |

    Good article, but i think there is room for a follow up here. This is more that just an issue for suburban churches. This is the culture of church planting. Urban ministry training programs focus heavily on the need to honor the history and development of urban culture, but Church planting literature only sees that history as data to prep for fundraising and help shape preaching rather than a reality to exist within and see a new congregation woven into.

    I’d love to see a little more about how we might address these issues in large predominately white church planting organizations like Acts 29, North American Mission Board, Plantd, Redeemer City to City, etc.

  6. Chris
    Chris March 18, 2014 at 9:53 AM |

    As a poor, urban white guy who was born and raised and still lives in Philadelphia, I want to ask: is this article more about race or social class? Which is the predominant problem? If the issue is one between suburban privilege vs. urban oppression and poverty, then it is my firm belief that equating white with suburban and people of color with inner-city poor only contributes to the problem and furthers the systemic racism that I constantly feel directed towards me, even though I have far more in common with those who live in the city rather than those who live in the suburbs.

    1. Megan
      Megan March 18, 2014 at 3:29 PM |

      The article is about both race and class.

      Is this happening in poor, White areas? Possibly, but somehow I doubt it (if it is, I doubt it’s near as often). While economics are at play, there is a question of why exactly the churches feel it’s ok to address the areas in the way that they are–without acknowledging existing leaders. That, is very likely particular to race.

      1. Paul
        Paul March 18, 2014 at 10:40 PM |

        I disagree that race causes church planting without acknowledging existing leaders. White people also plant churches in predominantly white neighborhoods without acknowledging any existing leaders, unless they are in the same denomination. I think the problem stems from lack of respect for the beliefs of others, inside and outside the christian church. In fact lack of respect for the beliefs of others is why churches are planted in general (it’s hard to go anywhere without already finding some type of existing faith community).

        1. Bernard Walker
          Bernard Walker March 25, 2014 at 7:33 PM |

          There is something you are not seeing here and that there is a ethnic/culture divide. Whites may not acknowledge existing leaders in white communities too but for different reasons. In black communities there are churches everywhere, not so in white communities. In black communities the assumption is the Gospel is absent. In white communities the assumption is that the Gospel is there but the newcomers are simply reaching the unreachable. So why talk to the leadership since their target audiences are different. In the black communities this distinction is not made; the assumption is that the entire black community needs saved. This is sad since the church planters know that there are churches leaders in the black communities; they (white church planters) just think would do a better job.

    2. Luressa
      Luressa March 18, 2014 at 6:00 PM |

      Chris, that is also my question. The article seems very narrowly focused on poor inner city communities as being entirely black. Socioeconomic status cannot and should not and does not always equate to color. However, this things are commonly lumped together, not just by white communities, but all races. That is a conversation to be had.

      I agree with the point of entering in by trying to help existing infrastructures. This makes perfect sense, but to imply that I have to be a certain color to help address people seems to be making a different point.

      1. vj
        vj March 19, 2014 at 8:00 AM |

        “While economics are at play, there is a question of why exactly the churches feel it’s ok to address the areas in the way that they are–without acknowledging existing leaders. That, is very likely particular to race.”

        I love this article for pointing out a very real problem. But I think it’s a mistake to say it’s particular to race. I think it might be better to say, “I don’t know if it’s particular to race, but racism is definitely a huge factor in this situation that I’m talking about, which is my main thing here.”

        Megan and Christena, I’m wondering if either of you have done ministry with white rural poor in the mountain south – what some city folks call hillbilly Appalachia? I don’t think anyone who’s done ministry there would agree that it’s “particular to race.”. The Big Imperialist Savior complex happens lots of places and yes, among groups of the same race. .

        I lived in West Virginia for years and witnessed the same stuff Christena is talking about – especially when a rural town would get a casino or a race track or get state money to become an empowerment zone or rural heritage district (or whatever). And the imperialist culture is a big part of any mining town.

        As a Catholic, I can assure you that divisive denominational politics play a big part of it too (baptists vs. methodists, protestants vs. catholics) . Catholic organizations that had been serving oral-culture mining families in poverty for 100 years have been dismissed with a tsk and a wave by protestant megachurches doing “rural outreach”.

        1. Todd Frenier
          Todd Frenier March 19, 2014 at 9:51 AM |

          Agree with Paul, Luressa, and vj here. I was on staff at an established church once and another church planted within a couple miles of us (in fact we met in schools whose building adjoined for a while), but they never bothered to communicate with us on what God had been doing there prior to their arrival. The crazy thing is, they were from the same denomination. This stuff happens everywhere.

          1. bw
            bw March 19, 2014 at 4:22 PM |

            Not trying to be difficult here, honestly. But here’s my question: are we saying that race is not a factor here (i.e. all races do it to all races) or are we saying that white folk do it to lots of different kinds of people, even other whites?

            1. ThoughtfullyConservative
              ThoughtfullyConservative March 19, 2014 at 10:05 PM |

              I see the honesty of your question, so please see the honesty of mine. Obviously race is a factor because it is always a factor, but I doubt that it’s because “all races to it to all races.” I think the evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, would show that, yes, it’s white folks doing it to lots of different kinds of people, even other whites. But that leads me to my question: Does the fact that the evidence likely shows this reveal that white folks are simply obnoxious (or whatever descriptor you choose) in the assumptions they make about church planting, or does it reveal that whites are the only group that we can point to as doing this because no other race participates in church planting the way whites do?

  7. Karl Vaters
    Karl Vaters March 18, 2014 at 11:09 AM |

    Thanks for the reminder, Cristina. This may be more frequent in urban centers, but the “we can do it better” takeover by larger churches happens to small churches everywhere, no matter the church’s ethnic or cultural mix.

  8. Erik
    Erik March 18, 2014 at 11:15 AM |


  9. BK Woodson
    BK Woodson March 18, 2014 at 11:44 AM |

    White supremacy, white male privilege and the vicarious suffering of Jesus are three unexamined suppositions which make anglo-evangelicalism and Christianity among poor and oppressed people in the U.S. irreconcilable.

    If you have power you don’t ever have to recognize that these three pillars exist. If you are powerless there is little you can do to make anyone other than fellow suffers aware that that they do.

    It is the difference between the crowds at the beginning of John Chapter 6 and the disciples at the end of that same chapter.

    Some lives and people follow Jesus on the way to Calvary. Others following Paul profess their imperial privilege as often as it advantages them.

  10. mike helbert
    mike helbert March 18, 2014 at 11:49 AM |

    Thank you for this! It’s sad that the whole colonial mindset intrudes on, not only urban centers, but in cross-cultural mission projects. The whole manifest destiny still lives on within the world of the privileged. And, that includes me. I pray that we may someday be humble enough to admit that we simply don’t know it all.

    1. ARedesq
      ARedesq March 19, 2014 at 7:50 PM |

      This is exactly what I was thinking as I read this article. I understand that this article was focused on a particularly demographic so I don’t question why it was limited. At the end of the day it is about the bigger issue of the use of Christianity as some kind of inalienable right to come in and take over without regard to those who are already residing there. The article brought back memories of Christopher Columbus and the whole European destruction of the Caribbean and the Americas.

      At the same time the 21st century twist to that old story is (or maybe it isn’t a twist) is the economic reality of it all. Is the church planting being done for saving souls and missionary work or is it about the coffers of the church getting larger?

      Thank you for this article.

  11. Dawn Finch
    Dawn Finch March 18, 2014 at 12:21 PM |

    Excellent article. Humility is the missing component for sure!
    I am a white, middle class woman who has worked in faith based non-profits my entire life. For 30 years I worked with a large organization that did disregard ministries that were already operating in the city. It was as if God had “arrived” when they did.

    Now, with my own non-profit, I have been asked by churches to do outreach with teenagers in their communities. I am careful to share resources with them in a way that doesn’t make them feel embarrassed. I am getting in touch with how hard it is for pastors in south central Los Angeles to have enough to go around. I know how hard they work!!
    My overall goal is to have indigenous leaders take over the ministry, with me acting as advisor. And it is working, slowly but surely! Almost all of my staff and volunteers are people of color that come from the neighborhoods we serve. But it is a tight rope walk to be aware of my own privilege. Again, humility and honoring those who have labored so long with so little resources is key.

  12. Osheta Moore
    Osheta Moore March 18, 2014 at 1:24 PM |

    Christena, I love you. Thank you for this.

  13. damonsgreen
    damonsgreen March 18, 2014 at 1:36 PM |

    Interesting article! The concept of “It takes a village to raise a child” implies that one cannot ignore the villagers, but must come alongside of them to assist, not override. Thanks for sharing; I will pass it along to others.

  14. alyssa bacon-liu (@alyssabaconliu)
    alyssa bacon-liu (@alyssabaconliu) March 18, 2014 at 1:49 PM |

    So on point. Love all of this.

  15. Lennard Small
    Lennard Small March 18, 2014 at 2:11 PM |

    Sorry to butt in, but I’m a future church planter and black (half Korean to be exact). But the issue with the hemorrhaging in the black church isn’t about relevance in the biblical message, but biblical accuracy in its ecclesiology (actions). Church in the black community is focused in on itself that is heavy on the “come and see” entertainment model and little to no existence of the “go and tell” discipleship model.
    “Come and see” embraces great music in worship and great expression in preaching (hooping and hollering). It is a model that depends on butts in seats to put money in buckets. To many of my brothers and sisters who have strayed from “momma-nem” church, the entertainment has lost its value. How can you blame them when they grow up seeing people “having church” and not “being church”?
    “Go and tell” embraces the gospel message to make disciples… which begins in the pulpit. Black pastors are more inclined (much like white) to emulate their more famous counterparts instead of looking at the Author and Finisher of our faith, Jesus as the prototype of how to lead his church.
    You will find the most beautiful churches in the most broken communities because “come and see” means “come and serve”, “come and sow”, and “come and listen”. All of resources of spirit-filled people, spirit-filled effort, and money is syphoned into empty buildings and not broken, lost people. #thatjusthappened
    Anyway, hit me up on Facebook or email me if you want more insight.

    1. Todd Frenier
      Todd Frenier March 18, 2014 at 3:56 PM |

      Lennard Small, you hit the nail on the head. The problem isn’t white colonialism; the problem is consumerism, and it is rampant in churches of all colors and locations, whether it’s a predominately white suburban church building bigger buildings and performing flashier rock concert worship services, or it’s a predominately black urban church “hooping and hollering” (as Lennard put it) to get people in church but never expecting accountability to live out a life of obedience to Jesus.

      It’s time we finally do what MLK Jr. preached so long ago and stop judging people by the color of their skin and look at the content of their character instead. If we would do that, we would stop igniting battles between races and classes and start coming together to solve the character issues we all suffer from, the biggest of which is the consumerism in our churches that is so self-centered and prideful. If you busy yourself with the work of disciple-making, you won’t even have time to dwell on secondary issues like the one this article focuses on. In fact, it will solve secondary issues like this!

      1. Erik
        Erik March 18, 2014 at 4:20 PM |

        Todd, I get what you are trying to point out. The entrepreneurial model of “church” happens everywhere. Building brands, growing franchises, and other business ideas seem to be across whatever setting.

        However, racism and classism simply are not “secondary issues”. Well, maybe they are for many people. But, that might be what Christena is trying to highlight. That is the thing about privilege, it is a blind spot. Even though I have been an educator in “inner city” schools for many years, I willingly chase after perspectives like this article to help expose those hidden faults. (Psalm 19)

        1. Todd Frenier
          Todd Frenier March 18, 2014 at 6:28 PM |

          Racism and classism are secondary issues to making disciples. If you truly focus on becoming a disciple of Jesus yourself and making disciples of others, these others issues will be solved because the more you become like Jesus, the less you will give into racism and classism (and other sins). And the more you focus on helping others to be more like Jesus, the less self-absorbed you will be because you will want to give and sacrifice for others rather than demand what’s rightfully yours. (And by “you” I mean everyone not you in particular)

          It’s all about taking up your cross each day and dying for others regardless of their race or class because in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, black or white, rich or poor (Gal. 3:28). That’s exactly what MLK Jr. was getting at in his quote that I referenced earlier. So many in the contemporary civil rights movement make a living (or a name) out of inflaming racial tensions rather than striving for a more color blind unity.

          Call me privileged, call me blind, call me white (or whatever color you think I am), call me rich (if you can guess that over a computer), call me whatever labels you wish. I choose not to separate, and divide, and stereotype, and fight. I choose to follow the example of Jesus and treat everyone with the same love, dignity, and generosity that I wish to be treated regardless of color, location, or status in the world’s eyes. If everyone did this, would we have a problem?

          1. Larry Kamphausen (@priestlygoth)
            Larry Kamphausen (@priestlygoth) March 18, 2014 at 8:16 PM |

            Todd I assume then that you would agree with Christena that a suburban congregation going into an urban ministry context should then in seeking to make disciples join with and not ignore already existing congregations and ministries that pre-exist their foray into urban ministry. If that is the case then why do you take offense when Christena points out that a failure to work with those already at work making disciples in urban context is a failure born out of an unexamined racism and privilege?
            If one has coworkers in Christ already about the ministry of making disciples it seems to me if the Gospel and being the body of Christ are foremost in your mind then one isn’t going to ignore members of the body of Christ already about the ministry of the Gospel in a given context. Rather one would seek to in the very least cooperate with what is already happening. If one isn’t doing this then some form of sin has gotten in the way of one discerning the body of Christ and the work of the Gospel already in place. Christena is in my view simply naming the sin that is allowing these ministries to act as if Gospel ministry by poor minority congregations and pastors hasn’t been happening.

            1. Todd Frenier
              Todd Frenier March 18, 2014 at 9:50 PM |

              Oh yes, I absolutely agree that a suburban congregation going into an urban context should partner with, and not ignore the work of God already going on in that context.

              What I don’t agree with is automatically saying racism is the motive behind a failure to do so. I can think of a lot of bad reasons a church might do this – ignorance, arrogance, poor planning, inexperience. I can even think of a few good (or at least naive) motives for doing so – a denomination that prevents its pastors from working with other denominations or maybe it’s just an honest desire to spread the Gospel as far and wide as they can even if they don’t know the best way to do so.

              To label it all racism is wrong. If there is actual racism going on, yes call it out and deal with it, but don’t label all potential motives as racism because the person on the other end is an easy target (i.e., white and from the suburbs).

              1. Aran
                Aran March 24, 2014 at 8:16 AM |

                Ah, (as per replies on other parts of this thread) I see what you mean about labeling. Calling something racist can be a little sweeping in some discussions. Racism is a real problem but seeing it everywhere (in italics) creeps in, like Feminism; it can get way far from the tree. I think this discussion is drawing a fine line, but racism is part of the brew. Perceptions are hard to handle because they exist quite solidly yet aren’t the whole picture.

          2. crystalcdrane
            crystalcdrane March 18, 2014 at 9:04 PM |

            Yes, we strive to follow Jesus and thus be less self-centered, but Jesus was about way more than just personal righteousness (like being less self-absorbed). He stood up and spoke out against the very oppressive systems that our sinful natures have created. Racism is one of the main causes of these oppressive systems, and it is rampant in our society today. I’m not trying to inflame racial tensions–I’m trying to bring light to darkness. To not be content with just pointing fingers, but to invite acknowledgement, confession, and action in bringing healing and restoration to what’s been damaged.

            As Jesus said, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” This prayer implies that the kingdom has not yet come. What are qualities of this kingdom? Revelations reads that every nation, tribe, and tongue would be praising God. In these three descriptions, God affirms ethnicity, difference, and color– we don’t serve a color-blind God. But I’m afraid that there are currently some “tribes” in the US who are keeping other “tribes” from experiencing this full and restored Kingdom here on Earth. And Racism is one of the causes.

            So, what? Well, Jesus didn’t just see oppression happening, pass the lepers, Samaritan women, and tax-collectors, and pat himself on the back for not contributing to their abuse… Because that’s incomplete good news–that’s not the holistic Gospel. Jesus didn’t just abstain from oppression, he made fighting it his priority.

            And so, our ideals of “Focusing on Jesus” should involve following Jesus into confronting the very systems that the Kingdom of God would have no tolerance for. The issues of racism are not secondary in God’s kingdom. When we follow Jesus, we follow him into engaging complex, uncomfortable, and disturbing issues like these.

            1. Todd Frenier
              Todd Frenier March 18, 2014 at 10:15 PM |

              My comments above apply here also.

          3. ARedesq
            ARedesq March 19, 2014 at 8:01 PM |

            Racism and Classism are the 800 pound gorillas that sits in Christianity. I can’t speak to any other religion because I am a Christian. It is an injustice that needs to be spoken against through the use of the gospel.

            The good news is that through Christ there is no division.

            While I agree with you Todd about the entertainment factor and the lack of sound teaching…that is going on throughout…not just in the Black church. While that causes some to leave the church…I think more leave because it appears as if the church buries its head in the sand when it comes to these 800 pound gorillas.

            The history of the Black church includes a rich history of facing these issues. But that wasn’t the point of this article, the point of the article is how the suburban church cannot come in as the great white savior and ignore those who they proclaim to save.

  16. Pastor Jim
    Pastor Jim March 18, 2014 at 2:11 PM |

    A well thought out and worded piece. I am a mid-40’s white, male, middle-class pastor in a large small town in north central Iowa. In my life, the places in which I lived has ranged the spectrum, all the way from a rural area in NW Pennsylvania to the inner city concrete jungle of Michigan’s second largest metropolitan area.

    Through 20+ years of ministry I have learned that too often something is missing in different churches and also pastors and leaders of churches: true servanthood. True servanthood says it’s not about me and my sense of success; it’s about me being in the background and serving others. It’s not about me looking good; it’s about God looking good. It’s about me coming to those who are working on the frontlines in these areas and humbling asking them how I, their servant, can serve them, supporting and nurturing them as they minister to their specific community context. That means I cannot and must not have the attitude that I have something to teach them about effectively ministering in that context. When I come into their community/area, it is me who needs to learn from them, not the other way around.

    In my view, the opposite of true servanthood is imperialism. And when the attitude and perspective is imperialistic, the resulting effect is that the church, in the eyes of many in the world, is transformed into nothing truly different than what is often seen in the world at large. And that is truly sad.

  17. cctheis
    cctheis March 18, 2014 at 2:38 PM |

    Lots of “reconciliation” in this piece. Imperialist, capitalist white man, stay out of our city even if you have good intentions, you are racists by your very nature you filthy white man!

    1. Logan
      Logan March 18, 2014 at 5:36 PM |

      Umm what about being Christlike?? I think you need to take this statement out.

    2. Darcy Knight
      Darcy Knight March 19, 2014 at 11:12 AM |

      Okay, take a deep breath here. I read the same article as you did (or did you really read it?) and did not see the hate you seem to see. It’s not all about you. It’s about the members of the body of Christ working TOGETHER, and not assuming that whatever you bring to the table is automatically better because you have money and you’re coming from a big suburban church.
      Try again.

  18. Kenneth Ferguson
    Kenneth Ferguson March 18, 2014 at 3:38 PM |

    Thanks for sharing!

  19. Windy_London
    Windy_London March 18, 2014 at 4:08 PM |

    Thanks Christina, I’ve seen cross cultural church planting work, but it had been done by servant hearted people with a heart to hand over the ministry to indigenous leadership.

  20. between worlds
    between worlds March 18, 2014 at 6:37 PM |

    Wow. This is just so great. Thanks.

  21. Victor Gimenez
    Victor Gimenez March 18, 2014 at 6:37 PM |

    I am a Black & Hispanic (Haitian and Uruguayan). I really enjoyed reading a very insightful article. Racism is like cancer it can grow and spread around the body, making treatment more difficult. I think reading this was hopefully a good diagnosis on what some of the issues are. There is much healing that needs to take place. We must be able as you to “reject his empire approach to life, stop being so possessive about his possessions, and join the interdependent family of God”. I pray for Gods grace and I pray that we confront racism like this article is trying to get us to do. Blessings Christena

  22. Bryan
    Bryan March 18, 2014 at 7:18 PM |

    Interesting how Cleveland uses/wishes to use the same techniques that are criticized when used by dominant class. They become heroic when, according to Cleveland, when used by the underclass. Successful outcomes are sought after by both classes.

    1. Aran
      Aran March 24, 2014 at 8:24 AM |

      ? Pardon? I have no idea what that means. I read the words but not how they relate to the discussion so far. Sorry.

  23. Larry Kamphausen (@priestlygoth)
    Larry Kamphausen (@priestlygoth) March 18, 2014 at 8:04 PM |

    Christina, this is sobering. And something as someone who ministers in the city of Chicago that I seek to keep before me: the role of my privileged status as a white male in my ministry. The intentional community and worshiping community i lead are in the process of finding a new location within chicago, this is a good reminder to as we move to learn what is already going on among the congregations and ministries in what ever neighborhood we end up as we move in and establish our ministry. Thanks for that reminder.

    While I agree race and class privilege are at work in what you are describing, I wonder if there is also theological and denominational difference at work that helps blind the suburban and white male church planters from how they are working from privilege and perpetuating patterns of empire and racism? My guess is that these church planters coming in from outside probably don’t share the same denominational affiliation of any or most of the long established urban congregations and pastors they are ignoring as they enter into these contexts to do urban ministry.

    While it is less common I’ve seen some groups ignore and refuse to work with long established congregations or ministries in the urban context who were also predominantly white due to a perceived lack in commitment to “Biblical authority”. . What I m saying is that a certain theological stance may help reinforce a blindness to privilege and mimicking of empire building when one doesn’t perceive established ministries and congregations as having the correct theology or sufficient commitment to the “Gospel.” Not knowing what sort of theological commitments of these white suburban congregations and church planters it is hard to evaluate to what degree this is in the mix. But my guess is that a predominant number of these white congregations that are doing what you describe would also have a narrow enough understanding of the christian faith for this to be part of the mix.

    1. ki
      ki March 19, 2014 at 9:20 PM |

      I think these are great points. I am Afr. American with Baptist and Roman Catholic background. I do multicultural ministry and agree most of the white ministry leaders and ministry leaders of color from the burbs or rural America don’t have the same theological stance or cultural worldview. Most Afr. Americans in my youth on up were socially and Biblically conservative. There are hierarchies of respect based on age, family, etc. There is a thought you must join the community, earn trust. For my other friends of color they are similar as well. The suburban leadership I have worked with have at times a more liberal world view with assumptions about communities of color. They target the kids and young adults but not the community elders which are often middle age to older women. They have very few people of color with inner city background on their teams and come across as knowing more than the residents of color. Dominionist theology is one of these schools of thought and it absolutely does not agree most with communities of color. Great points!

      Love this article Christina. :-)

  24. Eddy Hall
    Eddy Hall March 18, 2014 at 9:01 PM |

    Well said and right on target. I am on staff at a small multi-ethnic (black/Hispanic/white) church serving a low-income neighborhood. For the first 20 years of our life as a church, our programs were led by white, educated, middle-class people from suburban partner churches. Over the past 5 years we have made the transition to indigenous leadership. About 80% of our leaders are now from the culture of poverty.

    This does not at all mean that white middle-class people who are called to urban ministry are unwelcome. In fact, we are praying for God to send us more. It does mean that we are clear that to reach our neighborhood, we must be an “oral culture” church, a church that reflects the values of our neighborhood. The wall we had run into before is that our “print culture” leaders (the white, middle-class, educated leaders) were bringing suburban ways of doing church into the hood, and so long as that was how we did ministry, it would be a rare thing for indigenous people to become leaders. The change that unleashed our “culture of poverty” leaders was changing the way we did ministry from “print culture” to “oral culture.”

    When a print culture person or family visits our church a few times and is exploring settling in, we talk with them about the print culture/oral culture dynamic. We talk about the powerful role that print culture people can have and are specific about what the roles are open to print culture people that are consistent with our remaining an “oral culture” church. There are four kinds of ministry opportunities for print culture people:

    1. They can join a ministry team and serve under an oral culture team leader.
    2. They may serve alongside an oral culture leader as co-leader of a house church or ministry team.
    3. They may provide coaching for oral culture leaders.
    4. Occasionally, a print culture person may jump start a new ministry (such as a house church) with the understanding that with a few months it will be handed over to emerging oral culture leaders.

    This is cross-cultural ministry, and the principles are identical to those used by the best missionaries planting ministries in other cultures. The goal, from the beginning, is to raise up indigenous leaders (in other countries, we call these “nationals”) and for the missionaries to as quickly as possible step back into support roles, equipping and empowering the indigenous leaders to assume more and more of the leadership.

    The reason for this isn’t at all “political correctness”; it is that indigenous leaders understand the culture and connect with the culture in ways that outsiders never will, because it is their culture. When it comes to asking, “What is the most culturally appropriate way to do this ministry?” I always trust the instincts of my oral culture leaders above my own. (I am bi-cultural, having grown up with one foot in the culture of poverty and the other in middle-class culture.)

    For us, this is an issue of class/culture more than one of race. In terms of how this affects the way we grow leaders, I haven’t seen a significant difference among our low-income white, black, and Hispanic leaders. There are some cultural nuances, but our basic approach seems to work well with all three ethnic groups.

    We are in the process of redefining how we relate to suburban partner churches–away from paternalism to a partnership of equals. Volunteers from suburban churches will no longer come and do ministry for us, but rather will come and serve under indigenous leaders. We will design these volunteer experiences to be experiences of spiritual formation for the volunteers. While some former partners may lose interest in partnering with us, we are trusting God that others will be drawn to this healthier approach to partnership.

    Our people are stoked! I hear more stories of life change in a month in our little church than I would hear in five years in the middle class churches I attended most of my life. And I have never enjoyed a more intimate sense of family in my church than I enjoy now. I can’t imagine a more exciting place to be doing church.

  25. SG
    SG March 18, 2014 at 9:03 PM |

    This is connected to the previous

  26. SG
    SG March 18, 2014 at 9:13 PM |

    This is connected to the previous work of these pastors…moving in like Walmart, attracting the young families from neighborhood churches in suburban places, making it plain that older people weren’t welcome, rendering those small churches even weaker while they mocked them for not knowing how to succeed (even while they were being bankrolled from out of town). There is something wrong with the whole model.

  27. Steven Schenk
    Steven Schenk March 18, 2014 at 9:23 PM |

    As a pastor in urban Buffalo, I would like to point out that there are actually white suburban, rich, christians, who have bent over backwards to come alongside and resource the poor urban churches. They have been very intentional NOT to start their own ministries, or to tie strings to the support that they give, but simply to bless what God is doing already in the City, and to learn from what He is doing here.


    …there are people of privilege who are aware of their privilege, are attempting to give it away, and use it to do good, without engaging in ‘ministry colonialism.’

    In fact, its one of the (many, many) great things about what God is doing here!

    1. Steven Schenk
      Steven Schenk March 18, 2014 at 9:24 PM |

      This is not to deny what Christena wrote (what she said is sadly, true…) but to provide some larger context.

  28. cterkuile
    cterkuile March 18, 2014 at 10:13 PM |

    Thanks Christena, this is on point.

  29. Joshua Prince
    Joshua Prince March 19, 2014 at 12:47 AM |

    This is a very interesting article, and I believe in many was quite accurate. It is what we have been doing in missions work for centuries. We do in with egocentrism, OUR own plan for what THEY need, and we forget that these people have been living and doing ministry in this area for decades and even centuries. Is there a lack of material resources and funding… sure there definitely can be. However, the good news Christ has flourished in impoverished areas for thousands of years. That is why there are so many Scriptures that speak to the true wealth that the poor hold. These congregations in these urban cities, they have one another, and they likely understand what true community is, far and beyond churches in comfortable and rich areas. Unfortunately, bells and whistles can be very attractive, and even good things like a children’s program offered at this new church can cause such huge barriers.
    Colonialism and today neocolonialism is alive and well, it is just disguised much better than the Spaniards tactics. Racism is alive today, it is just disguised much better today than in the 1700’s. This is not to say that there has been no progress, because there certainly has been. However, privileged white males still hold the majority of power in the world, in America, and in our cities. Everyone else sees it but them usually… because they have not been forced to see, they have never has to put someone else’s lenses on to survive as people of other races and ethnicities have had to. That it is why it is so very crucial that we make unity in the Body of Christ a priority. Revelation 7:9-10 says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” This my friends are what we should be working towards today, on earth as it is in heaven. The “indigenous” people of any area is the EXPERT of their community. They are built into the community, those connection have been created organically. How dare we say our way is better, how dare we look down upon them and their ministry efforts…. Instead we are to LEARN from one another. They DO have things to learn from these “outsiders.” Just as these urban church planters have SO much to learn from the people. One of a number of books I could suggest to you is Minister Cross-Culturally, written by an anthropologist named Sherman Lingenfelter. The Forgotten Middle by Paul Hiebert is also excellent. They begin to look at what cross-cultural ministry looks like. How do we become incarnational ministers as Christ was. If he is truly calling some of these groups to these areas GREAT! But it is all about the way they go about their work. It is all about what lenses they have one when they enter these contexts. Money and programs have NEVER been the root answer to cultivating lovers of Christ. It is sincerity to the Gospel, to the incarnational ministry of Christ found in Isaiah 61, and to the seeking after of unity in the body of Christ. The fields are RIPE for the harvest! WE DO NOT need to be “fighting over souls” and expanding our territory. We must participate in God’s mission with humility and obedience, trusting that he will direct us to what he calls us to be doing…. Nothing more…. Nothing less. Sorry for the rant but I am passionate about this stuff! If you want me to suggest some good reading to you on this topic please let me know! Shalom brothers and sisters.

  30. Butch Gamarra
    Butch Gamarra March 19, 2014 at 3:40 AM |

    Eloquently stated!

  31. Jane
    Jane March 19, 2014 at 4:56 AM |

    Thank you !

  32. Bear
    Bear March 19, 2014 at 7:24 AM |

    This is a very interesting article, I am a Pastor of an urban Church that’s doing what I belive is Christ centered ministry in the inner city of Richmond,Va, We are in need of a roof on our Church Building, so if a suburban Church want to plant they can plant a roof.

  33. Book Review: Disunity in Christ | The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist

    […] Cleveland goes on to note that there is much more risk involved for historically oppressed groups engaging in this kind of work. For those of us, like myself, who wield a lot of privilege, we need to figure out how to unpack that before we take off on any cross-cultural venture, no matter how well-intentioned (another good example here is Cleveland’s recent blog post regarding urban ministry). […]

  34. Santosh
    Santosh March 19, 2014 at 8:17 AM |

    Glad this is making the rounds – here’s my response:http://dreamsunlocked.blogspot.com/2014/03/empire-and-ministry-analysis-of.html

    1. crystalcdrane
      crystalcdrane March 19, 2014 at 3:34 PM |


  35. Jen
    Jen March 19, 2014 at 8:58 AM |

    I agree with the premise of this article re urban church plants, but there’s a dangerous undertone. Many urban churches, just like nearly all suburban churches, are filled with dysfunction. Many are not effectively transforming lives (just like nearly all suburban churches) because of existing power hierarchies and struggles to protect traditions and the status quo. Just like all churches they are struggling with how to continue to honor a beautiful, important past which we could not have survived without, while at the same time continuing to be relevant and reach people in the realities in which they live today. I agree that we need to empower and raise up leaders from the people who are or will be the church, but I disagree that that means only supporting what existing churches are doing.

    1. ThoughtfullyConservative
      ThoughtfullyConservative March 19, 2014 at 10:18 PM |

      I agree.

      1. jen
        jen March 19, 2014 at 10:56 PM |

        I am a lifelong member of a primarily (but not exclusively) white church in a lower middle class mid-city neighborhood. I’ve heard white people in my church fearful about nearby white church plants. As our church has evolved I’ve seen grandmothers and grandfathers clutch tightly to their traditions. Since we are white-ish we are immune from the burden of calling our traditions “culture.” I’m not being sarcastic when I say this is just one more way white privilege works out for us. We can honor and respect tradition. We can create a space for it, but we have more freedom to define our own identity in Christ. I think I read a different context into this article and while I didn’t disagree with the premise about needing to be called as a part of the urban community not it’s savior and needing to respond to actual, rather than imagined, needs, I see an undercurrent of the same language of fear and resistance to change that is killing a lot of white churches. How can we continue to respect, honor, celebrate, embrace, and make space for our past, but at the same time accept the realities of our present and create a ministry that will continue to mean something after “Grandmomma’s” gone? For the older generations, there’s an underlying natural fear and sadness when things change. That doesn’t just happen when the “new” things come from a different race or ethnicity. This stuff is hard.

        1. Aran
          Aran March 24, 2014 at 8:37 AM |

          I hear this from my experience with my lifelong (with long spell away) church and the changes it has been tackling over its 200 or so year old life in the centre of our city, Edinburgh (yes the Scottish one). How do we keep true to our mission without ditching it all behind in our wake? How do we keep the baby but not the bathwater.
          Long term vs Short term strengths and weaknesses. Very hard indeed.

  36. Urban Church P̶l̶a̶n̶t&#822...
    Urban Church P̶l̶a̶n̶t&#822... March 19, 2014 at 9:37 AM |

    […] If you are preparing to do [urban ministry] and you’ve never had a non-white mentor, you are not an [urban minister], you are a colonialist. – adapted from Soong-chan Rah[i] Last week I had the ho…  […]

  37. Kitt mallin
    Kitt mallin March 19, 2014 at 9:39 AM |

    When a supposed sister in Christ, says brothers in Christ ” proceed with all the humor and finesse of a military invasion,” describes them as “incompetent,””arrogant,” says they are “expand their empire across city lines.”……when she questions their call of Christ in talking about ” rights” to do ministry and then infers that white people think that minorities are only called and equipped to minister to people who are like them.”……when a sister in Christ is saying these things and not taking it to these things these brothers directly, she is gossip, and I WILL say something! And I am proceeding to add this comment to her page as well. She seems border-line racist to me.

  38. Larry T. Crudup
    Larry T. Crudup March 19, 2014 at 9:40 AM |

    This was a great read and I wholeheartedly agree. A point of interest for me is Black suburban churches who also want to “take back the city.” I believe they also need to connect with Urban pastors to learn the struggles of Urban areas. Any suggestions or material on this particular issue?

  39. Mzee Dave Jenkins
    Mzee Dave Jenkins March 19, 2014 at 10:02 AM |

    I’m a relative newbie to urban church planting in North America. However, I could translate much the reasoning in your article to short-term missions and mega-church arrogance overseas. I think you are on to something. Yet, I think an area to greater explore is the effects of immigration on NA church planting, and the need for new church planting models to reach under reached groups. I think the best new models will look like quite old ones with good translation

  40. Christine - The Cost of Following
    Christine - The Cost of Following March 19, 2014 at 11:33 AM |

    I wonder if perhaps our sin is not our privilege or our race but actually our pride and fear that keeps us from working together? The pride that says money = effective ministry, is the same pride that says cultural competence = effective ministry. Where is our faith in the God who breathes life into dust? Who raises the dead, and whose life we partake in? Within the church we are neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female… what enables us to do ministry is not our own strengths and wisdom and experience (although they’re gifts, of course, that God uses – but we count them all as loss, like Paul), but Christ himself. His resurrected, ascended, sitting-beside-the-Father, power is what the church has. The Holy Spirit, the Word of God – these are things we can boast about. We aren’t doing this church thing in any “effective” means by our own qualifications, we aren’t doing church based on our strengths, we are doing church because we are sinners, forgiven, and now can go and make disciples in Christ – only in, by and for Christ.

    1. Todd Frenier
      Todd Frenier March 19, 2014 at 1:21 PM |

      That’s what I’m talking about ^

    2. ki
      ki March 19, 2014 at 9:26 PM |

      Agreed. Pride and fear are definite factors as well.

  41. Erin Bartels
    Erin Bartels March 19, 2014 at 12:19 PM |

    A needed perspective powerfully stated. Thank you for this.

  42. Michael E. Corrigan
    Michael E. Corrigan March 19, 2014 at 1:48 PM |

    I think you accurately describe what often happens when well-meaning folks who think they know best jump into alien communities in the way you described. While I generally agree with the principle that a church in any community should be built on the foundation of indigenous culture, i think the extreme examples you cite (the dismissal of grandmothers for example) will take care of themselves.

    As one who is nearing Holy Orders with many years of life experience as a business man with multiple degrees in economics, I am generally willing to let the integrity of markets sort things out. For this reason, I found the quite you used early in your article about the “kids program” to be interesting. It implied that people were leaving their old church for the new one because of better programs. What does this tell you? My reading of this is that people are making the call that a good kids program is more important to them than other things the old church was doing. If true, this should serve as a bright light that something should change. For those who miss the boat like the people who insulted grandmothers, this will solve itself because such groups are not likely to last long if they remain so insensitive to the market.

    The other thing I noticed is that most of the emphasis seemed to be on calling out the suburban churches for jumping into worlds they don’t understand. I was waiting for a message that never came which would be directed to the leaders IN THE CITY.

    The entrepreneur in me was screaming out as I read this that the inner city folks should use the impetus created by Governor Cuomo’s initiative to organize thoughtful joint venture proposals directed toward those churches in the suburbs who might be considering a new strategy. This approach would be based on the assumption that like many before them, these well-intentioned folks will be much more effective if they work with those who know the market.

    For me, the economics of markets offers wisdom for those on all sides of this issue for any who choose to pay attention.

    1. ThoughtfullyConservative
      ThoughtfullyConservative March 19, 2014 at 10:21 PM |

      Well said.

  43. The Stay-At-Home Pastor
    The Stay-At-Home Pastor March 19, 2014 at 2:09 PM |


    Please remember that when you write such powerful things as though they are the whole story, you leave your brother and sister church planters out in the cold as though they were all like this. Thankfully, that’s not the case – I know several church planters in Chicago who are native to the city, and intensely conscious of the heritage into which they are planting. The only guy among them who is white is planting in a neighborhood where there are no evangelical churches at all. None of them is sent by a suburban church. Those that have already planted (some are still in pre-plant stage) have grown primarily by conversion through evangelistic and missional living, not through glitzy programs (which they don’t have and can’t afford).

    Many of them are bi-vocational.

    None of them fit this pattern you have seen.

    So while I appreciate and laud you pointing out this horrible, colonialistic practice, I implore you to remember to include counter examples. I guarantee you have readers who will read your words and come away with the impression that church planting is bad and church planters are evil, full stop.

    1. chaplaineliza
      chaplaineliza March 19, 2014 at 10:48 PM |

      I appreciate Stay-at-Home-Pastor’s insightful comment! Yes–I know there must be a number of counter examples out there. They need to be counted and lifted up as fine examples of culturally-appropriate ministry.

      However, I can’t help but applaud Christena for this post. I consider this widespread divide-and-conquer technique to be the height of hubris and overweening paternalism. I would not like these suburban churches and their colonialist attitude, either!

      I can’t help but mention that I am also a born-and-bred Chicagoan, now living in a very modest condo in Evanston. I can remember working for five years as a volunteer youth pastor at an integrated church in the Austin area in the 80’s. Sure, my husband and I lived only twelve blocks away, but it was on the other side of the tracks that naturally divided the racial areas at the time. (Now, it’s very different, racially!) Yeah, I’m white. Grew up in a working-class area, even though my parents did attend college.

      Never quite one thing or another. Maybe that’s why I sort-of, kind-of fit in with other misfits. I not only have an MDiv, but also a certificate in Alcohol and Drug Counseling. I’ve been seeking a place to minister–and may have it now. I pray so.

      Christena, what about addiction and recovery? Many of these inner city ministries that do recovery ministry are really on a shoestring, as you say! I guess addiction and recovery is a bit too scary for some of these suburban churches. I dunno . . .

  44. Paula M. Jackson+
    Paula M. Jackson+ March 19, 2014 at 3:28 PM |

    Thank you for this analysis of the church´s version of gentrification. I have been privileged beyond words to serve in a multicultural urban parish for well over 20 years now. If it weren´t for the mentoring of serious elders in Christ who were generous enough to share their wisdom (and sometimes correction) with me, I would have floundered right away. There was a strong push from some white members of this parish, when I first came, to make it more like a white liberal religious club. But at every turn, God sent lay leaders –and sometimes ecumenical partners who also served in nearby urban congregations– people of color who have experienced and can tell me the truth about the power dynamics in social relationships. I have learned about my White privilege that it is very often extremely important to shut up and sit down and LISTEN. It has been hard work. Pero vale la pena. It´s worth it.

  45. Richard
    Richard March 19, 2014 at 3:48 PM |

    I think we are quite likely talking about a cultural difference that is oral vs print, as much as any racism. Eddy is really on to something here!

  46. Dennis
    Dennis March 19, 2014 at 4:30 PM |

    Thanks for your writing. I’ve planted 2 churches (Brooklyn and Washington, DC) before moving to a young but established church. You said what I have felt and observed. I am African American and can relate to much of what you wrote.

  47. Elder Eric Price of Toledo, Ohio
    Elder Eric Price of Toledo, Ohio March 19, 2014 at 4:46 PM |

    This is an amazing article. The conversation that it has evoked, on the surface, seems contrary… but is amazingly in harmony. If ALL of you (with a few exceptions) were at the “Planning Table” at the point of the decision to transform the inner cities of this country… the inner cities of this country could literally be transformed in the matter of only a few years.

    As both a Elder and a businessman… I have learned that few things in life are only THIS or only THAT. Life is too complex and the confines of stating your argument in a few lines requires generalizations that become sticking points to true progress.

    However, I am encouraged by this dialogue because, whether you actually do anything or not, you have begun to ponder the problem in a new and different way and for THAT, I thank Christina. For all of you who stopped in your day long enough to offer your thoughts, your insights and your opinions, I challenge you to go beyond your talk… and DO something.

    This probelm is greater than race, greater than class, greater than city. greater than suburban, great than white, greater than black, greater than poor, greater than wealthy, greater than ego, greater than traditions, greater than historical activities, greater than stereotypes and greater than our narrow perceptions…

    In fact this problem is greater than everything except God and His Hands in the Earth… You my Brother and Sister… you are the Hands of God in the Earth.

    And YOU… you have the capacity to go beyond all the things that divide us and become the personal solution that unites us… and ultimately conforms us in the image of God and changes the World.

    God bless you all.

  48. Pastor Jeff Carter
    Pastor Jeff Carter March 19, 2014 at 4:57 PM |

    Dr. Cleveland, THANK YOU. First for hearing. Next for using your ministry of writing so that the Holy Spirit has a vessel of moving into the issue. I was one of these Pastors that you are speaking of (probably the older one). As we were talking, I prayed for you. You are indeed a Prophetess and I pray that God will bless and protece you. I pray that we meet again.

  49. Aran
    Aran March 19, 2014 at 6:30 PM |

    One teeny point tangential to the subject (which made sense to me, a white woman who goes to a city centre church that has been there for nearly 200 years) Re: Mark 10:21 (not Mark 12:21!) It does not say the rich man didn’t do this. He left disheartened and sorrowful but it doesn’t mean he didn’t get over it!!!! Jesus wasn’t saying it was easy & the man was facing what we all feel about letting go, giving up things we hold dear, it is tough. But it may just get better!

  50. calebsnyder7
    calebsnyder7 March 19, 2014 at 8:55 PM |

    I appreciate your words here very much. This was a very enlightening article because if it is happening in Buffalo, I believe it’s not too far off to say that it is happening other places too. I have been involved in Urban Ministry since I was born. I am now an 18 year old college student at Moody Bible Institute studying to go into ministry of some sort, with a strong calling to do ministry in an urban environment. That being said, I feel as though there are points where there was a reversal of the said race-line tendencies that you talked about. I can certainly understand and get on board with your rail against suburban churches trying to come in and take over the city by themselves. This is indeed a dangerous phenomenon. Firmly established urban ministries and churches are a vital resource to God moving in the urban environment, and those relationships that are already built are the best and sometimes only way to impact these places. But there was an underlying tone I kind of felt as I read towards the end and that was this: yes, I am white. Yes, I have grown up in the suburbs. Yes, I have attended suburban churches. Does that disqualify me from doing ministry in the urban environment? I think this is an unfair and even dangerous line of thought. My race and color should not prohibit the call of God on my life, and it certainly should not be discriminated against. Did not Paul, a Jew from birth, become the light to the Gentiles? I understand that this was pointed towards extreme suburbanites attempting to “culturalize” the hood. But please do not lump us all into the same bunch. There are not just “well-meaning” white people, there are white people whom God has called to preach the Good News and minister to urban environments just as much as there are people of color. I do believe that it should be a partnership that operates with already existing ministries running point if there are any, but it should by no means prohibit suburban churches from doing ministry with a pure heart in those areas. Thanks again for posting this, and for getting me thinking, it’s a very informative and well written post!

    1. ki
      ki March 19, 2014 at 9:38 PM |

      Be encouraged to pursue inner city missions as God directs you. I grew up, work, and do ministry in the inner city and am a person of color. My predominantly black school growing up was led by white women of the Roman Catholic faith. They got it and understand the community. The key is to get to know the people, become a part of the family including joining an inner city Church. You will find you are welcome. Communities of color can be insular and take time to get to know. Some of the urban missions program led by suburban leadership don’t do any of these things. They jump in and neglect those around them who are also working for the kingdom. I have experienced this. It is unfortunate. Be encouraged to pursue inner city missions as God directs.

  51. ThoughtfullyConservative
    ThoughtfullyConservative March 19, 2014 at 10:44 PM |

    I get the point Cleveland makes. Trust me, I get it. Her article is impassioned, concise, and contains outside evidence that backs her position. All marks of good writing. But I am left to wonder this: How will these incendiary words be used against all Christians? Was it really necessary to use words like imperialistic, colonialist, empire, etc.? How many times does one need to reference the race of the church planter? Does this article actually do anything to accomplish a reduction in racial tensions, or does it merely inflame them? I understand why she had to use the word plantation due the misstatement by the Latina pastor, but is the situation of the inner city church truly well served by demonizing church planters and suburban church expanders as merely plantation owners and overseers seeking to recreate a white master/black slave relationship for the 21st century? It seems to me that this type of article, while making several valid points that need to be made, really does more harm than good. Its sensationalism and snarky tone make it a cool and convenient bandwagon for those who need a bandwagon upon which to jump.

    1. Todd Frenier
      Todd Frenier March 19, 2014 at 11:30 PM |

      Totally agree.

    2. Dennis Hesselbarth
      Dennis Hesselbarth March 21, 2014 at 10:28 AM |

      Imperialistic and colonialist are incendiary words only if they are not true. But Cleveland uses the words correctly as she describes a suburban church that lands in the ‘hood and plants “their kind” of ministry. They are colonizing – inserting a colony of their tribe, not joining into the life of the community that already exists. And if their attitude is that they know better, imperialistic is accurate. It’s an “unequal human and territorial relationship.”

      1. ThoughtfullyConservative
        ThoughtfullyConservative March 21, 2014 at 11:02 AM |

        No, incendiary words are incendiary regardless of their accuracy. I’m sure there are cases that are just as she describes. Disputing her is not my intent.

        My intent is to ask that if a believer has a problem with another believer, could the former approach the latter in love and humility?

        Ephesians 4 discusses how to achieve unity in the body. Look closely at verse 15.

        I understand that she has a legitimate problem with what she sees as a prideful invasion of minority home turf by privileged outsiders. She makes that perfectly clear.

        My problem is that she is giving ammunition to nonbelievers for their arguments against evangelism and ministry by Christians. Just read through the comments to see proof of that.

        Another blogger at The Accidental Missionary recently did the same thing with his blog that shamed believers for using the word blessed to answer the question, “How are you?”

        Though I got his point that the word can be used as a way to humblebrag, nonbelievers have used his post as evidence that all believers are hypocrites, prideful, trite, insincere, boastful, elitist, etc.

        I don’t think that he intended for folks to come away with those impressions, but I’m not so sure about Cleveland. Due to the antagonistic, arrogant tone, I am left to wonder if she does not intend for the rest of the world to judge these church planters as harshly as she does.

        It is this that I have a problem with.

  52. kaybrux@gmail.com
    kaybrux@gmail.com March 19, 2014 at 10:49 PM |

    You articulated your position very well. I enjoy how you fearlessly pinpoint the tough issue intersecting race, faith, and the church “franchising” models. You have caused me to take an introspective into my own ministry endeavors.Thanks you for your stand! (I’m an African American minister in an urban city).

  53. Urban Church ‘Planting’ Plantation

    […] If you are preparing to do [urban ministry] and you’ve never had a non-white mentor, you are not an [urban minister], you are a colonialist. – adapted from Soong-chan Rah[i] […]

  54. Gene
    Gene March 19, 2014 at 11:15 PM |

    Cultural sensitivity. Humility. Need for co-operation. Resource optimization. Etc. Fine subjects. I agree in broad strokes with some sentiments expressed in the article, but the pontifications of this article are insufferable. For example, consider this racist (assuming white is a color too) comment, “If you are preparing to do urban ministry and you’ve never had a non-white mentor, you are not an urban minister, you are a colonialist.” The first missionaries to Korea were all white with all white mentors, and many did some serious loving despite unreciprocated love. Christianity Today had an article recently about the wide range of cultural sensitivities displayed by the missionaries that went out to the world as Europe colonized the world. The article talks about how the bag of missionaries was a mixed bunch, some just as inconsiderate as the colonialists and some defenders of the native people. What is not complicated, however, is the fact that these missionaries were all Europeans, and many worked with under-resourced and often exploited non-Europeans.

    It’s always been a pet peeve of mine: strong assertions supported by little evidence. Where is the proof that these indigenous urban churches are, by and large, already doing great work?

    I recently spoke to people who have been doing urban ministry for decades in the South (in healthcare, not in church planting per se). They are healthcare professionals, live in impoverished neighborhoods to build relationships with the poor, and are mostly white. For incarnational ministry to work, you’ve got to have people with skills to contribute to the community. Is it a surprise, then, that people educated and motivated enough to do urban ministry would largely be white? In fact, a black pastor from the neighborhood, hired for the task of cultural bridging for this health system, accused the local black churches of being, by and large, incompetent and fractionated. The local blacks sighed about the corruption and greed in the local churches and told me about their disillusionment with it all. Surely, this can’t be all of indigenous urban churches, and this article touches on important topics—the self-centeredness of some of these suburban churches are undoubtedly a vice to be repented of—but the good of the article is muddied by its indiscriminate anger and praise.

  55. Urban Church Plantations (Christena Cleveland)

    […] post by Christena Cleveland, author of the wonderful book Disunity in Christ, stunningly takes us to the mirror to look at […]

  56. Darryl
    Darryl March 20, 2014 at 7:33 AM |


  57. davidblake56
    davidblake56 March 20, 2014 at 7:45 AM |

    Christena – thank you for what you have offered us in your post. You have made an important contribution to overcoming the invisibility of Black and other racial/ethnic minority congregations. Some of the resistance to what you have proposed here, I sense, is because of what I (we) as a white male(s) (later pastor and now seminary prof) was trained not to see.

    Some of the not seeing was denominational partisanship (if our denomination is not there, the church isn’t there), but the more glaring is the general overlooking of minority led community institutions. Mindy Fullilove, M.D. has researched and documented the effects of such overlooking in failed urban renewal projects/policies that have destabilized the communities they were designed to help. (Her 2011 presentation at the SCUPE Congress on Urban Ministry is found here – http://www.rootshock.org/reading-about-displacement/funnythinghappened.pdf?attredirects=0&d=1).

    There is much that can be gained in partnerships and the kind of collaboration that you propose. There must be a shift that is relational, sociological and theological/biblical. Theological/biblical good intention (in Christ there is neither… Gal 3:28) is important, but is not enough – or we would never have ended up with concepts such as the homogenous principle of church planting. We have had the NT text for 2 millennia and still haven’t gotten it!

    Thank you for your words – and for bringing James Cone’s Cross and the Lynching Tree into the conversation. It is an excellent contribution toward making the invisible visible.

    Peace to you!

  58. Steven Schenk
    Steven Schenk March 20, 2014 at 8:11 AM |

    Thanks for your time with us in Buffalo, and for your provocative blog.

    There are definitely some deeper questions that should be addressed on this topic, but I don’t know that its all that possible to do in this kind of forum. We certainly have engaged in conversation around this topic here in our neighborhood. Your post has already made the rounds to many of the ministry leaders I know here in Buffalo.

    If you are up for a follow up post, here are my questions:

    Is it helpful to distinguish between different kinds of privilege? and is power and privilege the underlying issue here? or is it something else?

    Is it ever appropriate for people of privilege to try to help underprivileged folks? Under what conditions, and by what methods?

    Who are the privileged people you know who are doing ministry with the underprivileged in ways that you would endorse? Perhaps you could even share you own journey as a privileged person attempting to minister in an underprivileged neighborhood? (And I’d love to connect you with privileged people in Buffalo who are, IMO doing a good job at this.)

    Should privileged people feel guilty about their privilege or not?

    Do the underprivileged have any responsibility to work towards reconciliation, or should the burden fall completely on the privileged?

    What should be done when existing underprivileged leaders are simply unhealthy and incompetent? is it ever appropriate to discuss this? If so, how? By whom? What should be done about it?

    What is a helpful strategy for communicating to the privileged church? One that doesn’t alienate them (assuming we want them to come and help us!), but doesn’t shy away from speaking truth?

    1. Eddy Hall
      Eddy Hall March 20, 2014 at 10:14 AM |

      Great questions! Christena, I too would love to see you do a follow-up blog tacking these questions.

      Clearly some privileged people are called to serve populations with fewer privileges. It is easy to find examples of this being done poorly. It is also easy for those of us who are privileged to defend how we do ministry because of our “good intentions” while we remain oblivious to our blind spots.

      The force of this blog post you have written is that it spotlights some common blind spots. A follow up post giving examples of healthy approaches to cross-cultural ministry in the kind of situation you described could prove quite valuable.


  59. Dan Baker
    Dan Baker March 20, 2014 at 8:14 AM |

    Thanks for this post Christena. A lot to think about for me personally, and seems to have started a great discussion across the Body. Thank God the work of the Spirit can overcome the culture of colonization, privilege & empire if we are willing to be changed.

  60. drewds
    drewds March 20, 2014 at 1:59 PM |

    Thanks Christina, great word. I definitely hadn’t thought of how much “spiritual mapping” can have so much akin to the map drawing of colonial powers. Thank you for the caution and the instruction.

    May the most unteachable church planters fail the fastest and do as little harm as possible! And may the humble among them walk gently, fail, listen, learn, and grow.

    Reminds me of a verse that I have a hard time with: “The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, . . . But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

    1. B-Alan
      B-Alan March 20, 2014 at 4:50 PM |

      I appreciate the use of anecdotes of “less sensitive”, more empire minded suburban pastors as a warning to anyone doing plants anywhere (including short term “mission” trips). There’s a lot to be said about building trust and having a relational minded ministry that builds bridges with people already working in communities. However, the article also throws the baby out with the bath water. Many impressive urban works were based on work and organization of “outsiders”. I use the term outsider because that is the vibe given off in the article. The article makes it seem like all attempts from suburban churches to plant in the urban field have been and will be fruitless. Hardly evidence based. Again, while the rebuke of the “white-savior oblivious to great things already going on” is a legit warning, the article goes so far to cut “urban centers” out of the great commission for suburban Christians unless they only plan on giving money to existing works (which the article broad brushes as all perfectly effective, just lacking cash). The gospel is first and foremost what we are priviledged to have. That is why Christians were given the great commission. A argument provided in this article against all suburban to urban plants could have been used to dissuade believers from ever venturing out anywhere in the first place. I’m actually shocked at the willingness of some to limit the saturation of the gospel and compassion ministries in underserved areas. Let the insensitive planter fail, but for Christ’s sake, don’t presume that white people or suburbanites are precluded from a call to serve the undeserved with a full range of service (administration, leadership, financial gifts, encouragement, compassion etc.). Still, great warnings about cultural insensitivity and priviledged Christian-as-colonizer complex.

  61. Lana
    Lana March 20, 2014 at 5:46 PM |

    A couple of things. First, I think the church planters in the article are trying to lay a foundation for a place for the impending influx of gentrifiers to go, not take over territories of the historical, small population. They’re anticipating growth. And church growth is a good thing.

    While I’m not denying their probable lack of outreach, I also think it’s likely due to denominational differences and the reality that incoming populations are going to look for places that are familiar to them. And then maybe joint partnerships could open up at that point. Maybe not ideal, but God doesn’t have a formula.

    I’m not going to reiterate a lot of points that have been well made here, but I will say this: your article doesn’t have a lot of journalistic integrity in the sense that you are not striving to be objective and are infusing your own feelings and interpretations. When you say “chilling reports,” did the pastor say chilling, or is that your feeling on the matter? When you write about how you asked the group of men your question, what was your tone like: skeptical, respectful, non-biased, condemning? From my POV, asking “how…a group of white men could possibly be equipped to lead urban church planting movements” reveals your own assumptions and comes across as divisive or arrogant. You don’t know their individual stories. I think it’s equally valid and less loaded to ask, “how do you think you are equipped to lead an urban church?” But I’m glad you asked them; that was bold. And it shows that beginning conversations about race, class, and the gospel is hard and full of missteps, whether you’re critiquing or being critiqued.

    I realize this is your personal blog, and not the NYTimes, but something to consider.

  62. Justus Guys
    Justus Guys March 20, 2014 at 7:40 PM |

    Somehow this article doesn’t sound like an answer to Jesus’ prayer in John17…

    1. Eddy Hall
      Eddy Hall March 21, 2014 at 9:24 AM |

      Could it be that this article points the way to part of the answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17? Surely, for there to be unity in diversity within the body of Christ a starting point must be humility in cross-cultural relationships.

      In 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, Paul explains with great clarity the foundational principle for cross-cultural ministry: It is the responsibility of the missionary (the one who is called to do cross-cultural ministry), not the target group, to adapt to the other culture. To the Jews he became as a Jew, to the Gentiles as a Gentile. Had he tried to evangelize in Jewish culture while behaving as a Gentile, or in Gentile culture while operating out of Jewish cultural customs, he would have sabotaged his efforts.

      I sometimes find that people resist this critical biblical principle because they feel that somehow they shouldn’t have to give up their preferred ways of doing church. If God has called me to cross-cultural ministry, it is not just possible, but absolutely certain, that I will have to leave behind many of the customs and practices that I find comfortable and comforting and embrace the customs and practices of my target culture in those areas where they do not violate “the law of Christ” (to use Paul’s term).

      If I am more interested in holding onto “my” ways of doing church than I am with becoming a student and a servant to those of the culture I am called to reach, I will not accomplish Paul’s goal of “by all means saving some.” There are, of course, many examples of missionary efforts that did more to export Western culture than they did to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some good came out of such efforts, but also tremendous harm.

      Being wise and strategic about cross-cultural mission dynamics is, as Paul knew, not antithetical to Jesus’ prayer for unity, but absolutely essential if we are to have unity across cultural lines.

  63. Eddy Hall
    Eddy Hall March 20, 2014 at 8:23 PM |

    I suppose I shouldn’t be, but I’m a bit surprised by the defensiveness expressed in several of these posts. The article doesn’t open by saying white people shouldn’t do urban ministry; it says: “If you are preparing to do [urban ministry] and you’ve never had a non-white mentor, you are not an [urban minister], you are a colonialist.”

    The point, as I see it, is that those of us who are not from the target culture, if we wish to be effective at reaching those of another culture, we need to have mentors from the culture we are trying to reach. Without such mentors, how can we possibly hope to understand the culture to which we are called?

    That statement assumes, of course, that the target culture is non-white. Many of the people in the neighborhood our church serves are white (and many are not), but they are all “culture of poverty.” There is as great a difference between the culture of the whites in our neighborhood and suburban whites as there is between suburban whites and the non-whites in our target neighborhood. The principle is the same: we need mentors from the target culture, whatever that culture is.

    My first urban ministry mentor was John Perkins, the black civil rights leader from Mississippi and the founder of Voice of Calvary Ministries and author of several books including WITH JUSTICE FOR ALL. In the 80’s when three young white families moved into an inner city neighborhood to do urban ministry, John was our mentor. One key piece of advice he gave: “Your first year in the neighborhood, don’t start any ministries. Instead, spend a year getting to know your neighbors. Learn from them. Realize that they are the experts on their culture; you are the novices, the students. If you start designing solutions before you spend a year listening to their questions, you’ll be imposing on them your ideas of what they need, and you’ll get it wrong. Let your neighbors define their needs. Then support them in coming up with solutions.”

    Those of us who have more education and resources do have much to bring to the table. But if we come in with cultural blindness (assuming our culture’s perspective is the “right” one), if we come in thinking that we are better able to lead urban ministry than indigenous leaders, we will likely do more harm than good. The two key character qualities needed for those called to cross-cultural ministry–humility (the locals are the experts on their culture, I am not; I need to sit at their feet and learn) and a servant spirit (I am called to empower indigenous leaders, not to lord it over them).

    This blog article is not at all arguing against cross-cultural ministry. It is saying something both simple and essential: those of us who are called to cross-cultural urban ministry must come with a spirit of humility and servanthood–cultural humility, and a passion to serve indigenous leaders. It seems to me that anyone who comes to urban ministry with that spirit will consider mentors from the target culture to be absolutely essential.

    I will also add that I feel it took me about five years of living in the hood before I understood the culture well enough to generally think like the locals. Those first five years were not nearly so much about my helping the city as they were about the city transforming me. It was one of the most powerful educations I ever received.

  64. Yolanda Richards-Albert
    Yolanda Richards-Albert March 20, 2014 at 9:27 PM |

    Wow Christena. WOW. I just gained another level of respect for you posting this! As someone with a background in urban planning and is part of a church focused on neighborhood development (shout out to River City in Chicago….you spoke there!) , this is a topic we seriously need to pray on, reflect, and engage in serious conversation. We must honor and acknowledge the indigenous churches who work effortlessly and speak on behalf of the community. I agree with Eddy Hall that there should be a focus on churches doing this work in a healthy and honorable way…yes they do exist. But from my experience and conversation with other church planters, sadly I am aware of very few. I have a few questions, but I’m still recovering from your blog. Wow.

  65. ThoughtfullyConservative
    ThoughtfullyConservative March 21, 2014 at 11:13 AM |

    If all believers subscribed to this notion that a missionary must have an indigenous mentor before doing ministry in an area that is not one’s home, then no one would ever follow Jesus’ command in the Great Commission.

    While I understand the point of this post, I cannot help but disagree.

    There are plenty of examples of missionaries who do not share the same race, background, nationality, etc. as those to whom they minister but have done marvelous, God-ordained work. Mother Teresa is the most obvious example.

    Rather than spend so much time and energy focused on the differences in race, socioeconomic status, background, etc., why not simply ask those whom God is calling to do urban church planting, church expansion and ministry to do so in sincere humility?

    One can gently and lovingly make the point about respecting the work of those gone before without insulting the newcomers by calling them ugly, inflammatory names.

    But I guess you don’t get too many shares or reblogs or attention without the sensationalism of colonialism, imperialism, etc.

    1. Eddy Hall
      Eddy Hall March 21, 2014 at 12:11 PM |

      I am puzzled by the claim that if we take it as a given that cross-cultural ministry leaders need to have mentors from the target culture that somehow that inhibits ministry. Really? How can we possible hope to be anything but culturally insensitive if we do not have mentors from the culture we seek to serve?

      My primary mentors in my ministry are the indigenous leaders I serve with everyday. While I am the “head of staff” at my church, I remind my indigenous leader partners regularly that when it comes to how to do culturally appropriate ministry in our neighborhood, they are the experts, not me. I am good at asking questions, helping them think through options (I am a church consultant, so strategic process is part of my DNA). I can offer suggestions, and many times my suggestions are good. But as much as possible I avoid being in charge of ministry programs at our church. Rather, I coach those who lead the ministry programs because I am deeply convinced that they are better at doing that than I am. There are things I am better at, and I know what those are. But when it comes to understanding and relating to the culture of our neighborhood, while I am decent at it, I will never be as good at is as the people who grew up here.

      Rather than saying that if a person must have an indigenous mentor it hinders ministry, why not say that when a person is called to cross-cultural ministry, one of the first things they need to do is to pray for God to provide mentors from the target culture? As I shared earlier, when in the 80’s I first dipped my toe in urban ministry, our group’s mentor told us to not start any ministries for the first year after we moved into the neighborhood, but to spend the first year getting to know our neighbors and learn from them, recognizing they were the experts and we the novices. Basically, what he was teaching us was, “Let your neighbors be your mentors.” Whether our mission field is an inner city in the U.S. or a village in Asia or Africa, wouldn’t that be the humble, wise, and effective path to take?

      I frankly am a bit puzzled by the perception that indigenous mentors are an optional luxury. If a dominant-culture person came to me saying God had called him or her to work in our ministry, but that person resisted when I said that we would love to have him or her come work with us, and that the first step would be for him or her to begin working with a mentor from the local culture, I would consider that person dangerous. In fact, part of my role in my church is to protect our indigenous leaders from such people. We work very hard at nurturing and safeguarding the DNA of our church that we have worked so hard to create, DNA that empowers indigenous leaders. Those who would destroy that DNA, intentionally or unintentionally, put at risk the wonderful things God is doing in the lives of our people.

      1. ThoughtfullyConservative
        ThoughtfullyConservative March 21, 2014 at 1:27 PM |

        I didn’t say that cross-cultural mentors were an optional luxury. I said that if everyone subscribed to this ridiculous notion that without one you’re a colonialist that no one would ever answer the call of the Great Commission. The statement Cleveland commandeered to kick off her post is an inaccurate characterization of missionaries, many of whom answer the call when there are no mentors to be had.

        Once again, I don’t have a problem with the premise that one needs to be shepherded by an indigenous mentor to do better work with a different people. I also think that answering God’s call without one shouldn’t result in a missionary being called a colonialist.

        Her language is intentionally inflammatory and divisive, as well as completely unnecessary. It gives ammunition to nonbelievers and does not encourage civil, loving dialogue among believers. It is the angry language of the victimhood mentality.

        She obviously has no problem taking the money of those whom she would insult., regardless of the sincerity of their intentions. She seems to have little room for grace in her proscription to stay out of their cities. Her perspective could well be labeled FUBU Ministries. Why not just hang up a sign that says, “Whitey’s not welcome here.”?

        1. Todd Frenier
          Todd Frenier March 21, 2014 at 2:42 PM |

          ThoughtfullyConservative, I’ve tried to suggest a more Christ-like approach to this subject in my comments, but from the response, I don’t think the author or other like-minded commentors are interested. It’s obvious to me now that the author’s intent is to inflame racial tensions, not to bring the love, grace, and unity that rises above racism of the past. As I said in a previous comment, some people make a name for themselves by perpetuating racism especially against socially acceptable targets like “white suburbanites”.

          1. ThoughtfullyConservative
            ThoughtfullyConservative March 21, 2014 at 3:31 PM |

            I appreciate your discussion in this thread. I don’t know that I would go so far as to say that no one who agrees with her is interested in a more Christ-like approach. There are several thoughtful, humble comments in this thread from people who seem to agree with Cleveland.

            I don’t know that it is her intention to inflame racial tensions, but then I am left to wonder, if that is not her intention, whether she even realizes how hurtful and obnoxious such writing is.

            One thing is true: she is under the impression that any white non-urbanite who seeks to do ministry in urban areas is a person of privilege. I wonder how she defines privilege. Is this simply a euphemism for people who have more money that she does or the people to whom they would minister have? Or is the fact that they are white that makes them privileged?

            1. Aran
              Aran March 24, 2014 at 9:58 AM |

              “Obnoxious” is also incendiary.
              Are we to live with no fire at all to prevent people from being burnt? No, use fire and incendiary devices with care and we can live well.
              I would say that just because one is sincerely called does not make all actions thereafter unreproachable.

              1. ThoughtfullyConservative
                ThoughtfullyConservative March 24, 2014 at 3:59 PM |

                Obnoxious, while a negative characterization, is not incendiary. What makes the terms colonialist, empire and imperialism incendiary is the racial implication of this piece: these words turn missionaries called by God to do His work into invaders and conquerors, not for His kingdom, but for their own personal gain. Her implication is incendiary because she all but calls them racist.

  66. Sarah Quezada (@SarahQuezada)
    Sarah Quezada (@SarahQuezada) March 21, 2014 at 12:20 PM |

    These are some really great perspectives, Christena. I’m glad to see this article circulating in my Facebook feed! I hope your core message will inspire some Kingdom-glorifying partnerships that will have great mutual impact on communities.

  67. Kyle
    Kyle March 21, 2014 at 1:53 PM |

    Christena, thanks for this important, powerful, and prophetic piece. As a white, male pastor of both mission and planting of a suburban church your post is very important to me. I agree with all your points. I have a few questions; (1) can you comment on whether or not you believe there is a need for urban church planting in general if done in a contextually appropriate way – or would you advocate for church revitalization, partnership etc.? and (2) as a white, male, pastor of privilege who is interested and passionate about urban ministry and justice, how might I most faithfully be involved in this work? Is the call to “incarnate” in urban communities (do you think it’s possible for persons of privilege to faithfully incarnate in the urban context) or is it best to simply remain in more suburban contexts and “come beside” and support urban community leaders through partnership? Thanks for your thinking and writing.

  68. mrmichaelflowers
    mrmichaelflowers March 21, 2014 at 5:35 PM |

    I’m an urban church planter in the urban core of Kansas City, MO. I would take a different slant from God’s Kingdom perspective. We’re not fighting flesh and blood and any and all reinforcements coming to plant churches is a win-win for the Kingdom. And, if any of them are insufficiently called to the task, I would go with the wisdom of Gamaliel … if it’s God, who can stop it and if it’s not, don’t bother.

    One thing I would stress for the “indigenous” pastors (language of foreign missions … we’re in America) is to call up the new works and invite them out for coffee or to say, welcome to Buffalo!

    1. ThoughtfullyConservative
      ThoughtfullyConservative March 22, 2014 at 11:56 AM |

      Well said.

  69. This Week’s Good Reads – Pastor Dave Online

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  71. Why Jesus Cares about “I, too, am Harvard” and you should, too | He is Making Everything New

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  74. chosenrebel
    chosenrebel March 22, 2014 at 3:22 PM |


    I hardly no where to begin. There is so much right and wrong with this post. It is breathtaking in its chronicle of bad attitude, bad theology, and bad missiology on the part of some or at least the report of some. It is also filled with second hand stories and assumptions as to motives of all (or most) who feel called to move back into the city.

    The inner city is neither a white nor a black “plantation”. It is neither a poor or rich plantation. It is a place where people in need of Christ need to hear the gospel afresh. It is a place where black and white and brown and … need to learn together to serve the God who creates diversity, loves diversity and unifies diversity for his own glory.

    I do love your concluding comment:

    “Through 20+ years of ministry I have learned that too often something is missing in different churches and also pastors and leaders of churches: true servanthood. True servanthood says it’s not about me and my sense of success; it’s about me being in the background and serving others. It’s not about me looking good; it’s about God looking good.”

  75. Missio Alliance | Sunday Morning Post, 3.23.14

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  76. CaroleTurner
    CaroleTurner March 23, 2014 at 4:20 PM |

    was a part of an inner city campus of a mega church from 2007 until last year. I agree with your assessment of this situation but in our case the main campus was given an old building in the zip code with the highest crime rate in our area, they hired a pastor for the campus and that was it. We still do not have sufficient Air and heat, no other staff, etc. What I see is a token campus in the hood that the main church uses to raise money but we never saw the money. State and Federal grants paid for the programs ran out of the facility and have been effective. I found it to be a way to segregate more effectively. You could have your rich white people at one campus and your black folk at the run down inner city campus. When I would say something about these issues it did not go well, that’s why I am no longer serving there.

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  78. Anand
    Anand March 23, 2014 at 9:29 PM |


    Much of what you have to say here is right on target. But I’d note that there’s a problem that is common to both white and non-white churches (my own experience is in the Indian Christian community). The problem is that people see churches as “theirs” rather than God’s. This attitude is pretty clear in the stories you tell- but it is important to note that one sees it in ethnic churches as well. In the Indian community here in the states you often see churches coalescing around a pastor whose primary giftedness is speaking a particular language. The result can be subcritical congregations where the members propped up the pastor, but aren’t able to minister beyond the church. You also see congregations continually losing folks to Anglo churches once their kids get to the age where they need training and discipleship- and the ability to navigate Anglo culture. But many ethnic pastors were so sure of their ability to minister to *their* culture that the fact that they were often losing the next generation and might have something to learn from successful Anglo churches was lost on them.

    But I do agree that there needs to be a discussion both ways. When I was training to lead a Bible study in a youth detention center, the minister leading the program reminded us trainees that the culture of the inner city had some important things to teach us about how to live life. He was right. My wife and I learned a huge amount from being in an ethnic church for 13 years.


  79. Mnyama
    Mnyama March 25, 2014 at 10:29 AM |

    Sounds likw jealousy. If the Black churches were actually doing something, the communities wiuld would be further along. White churches put their money wherr there mouths are. Folks grt tired of hearing about “the sweet bye and bye” and singing “We shall overcome” and paying into a building fund for some dilapidated building that never gets paid off yet Bishop wears a new 18 button suit to church every Sunday. They want nicw programs NOW for themselves and their children… If yall could have done it, it would be done by now. The cities are thr new missions for white churches along with thw nice publicity that comes with it too grow their membership and coffers…

  80. Huw Powell-davies
    Huw Powell-davies March 25, 2014 at 12:09 PM |

    Wow! What an eye opener. Glad to retweat. I had long had my reservations about mega churches in cities who are video linked to each other- are there no other indigenous pastors? This article is relevant wherever you have the situation where a church comes into a culture from outside that culture. Even though they might do things better than the indigenous church there will always be bad feeling unless there is respect for those already working smongst their own people.

  81. brendachungo
    brendachungo March 25, 2014 at 4:06 PM |

    Thank you for saying this. Keep speaking up for those of us who don’t have this amazing platform to do so. Currently part of a multi-ethnic urban ministry in Portland in which all the staff, including myself, are bi-vocational or rely on a combination of personal fundraising and denominational support for our salaries. It is easy to get disheartened and feel that you are not as valuable as a suburban pastor who has a “salary”. Thank you for saying this.

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  83. Colonizing Cities for White American Jesus « The Upside Down World

    […] quotes come from a really excellent article by Christina Cleveland called “Urban Church Planting Plantations&#822…which ought to be required reading for every suburban pastor. And for you too. It’s super […]

  84. Paul J. Decker
    Paul J. Decker March 26, 2014 at 7:29 PM |

    I am adding my two-cents to the conversation being a former pastor in the Buffalo area and now a Campus Minister at the University at Buffalo…

    A couple points worth noting…

    1. Our church enjoyed a partnership with an inner city church for many years that was culturally, racially, and theologically different than ours. I think it is fair to say that both churches had a lot to learn from each other and that we had much to offer each other.

    2. Racism goes both ways. The first time I spoke at the inner city church, I received many a glare and sneer. We moved passed it, thankfully, mostly because the pastor of the church was so ashamed of his own people’s behavior.

    3. The churches in the inner-city of Buffalo notoriously don’t get along and do not appreciate each other. They are highly competitive with each other and talk each other down. I heard this come out of their own mouths several times.

    4. I am a bit amazed that the rumor of white churches dividing up inner city Buffalo is still milling around. I heard that 15 years ago, and I have yet to see any evidence of it, nor have I come across anyone that has admitted to it. Unless, someone knows something specific that I do not (I am hardly all-knowing), I think that thought should be let go. It seems to be used as a tool to suspect those who have genuine concern for the whole Buffalo area.

    5. The Buffalo area CHURCH pulled off an amazing Good Friday Service last year that embraced the urban, suburban and rural churches of western New York that filled the arena downtown. It was phenomenal. God is on the move here, there is no mistaking it.

  85. Karen
    Karen March 27, 2014 at 5:18 AM |

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!!!

  86. Five for Friday: Urban Plantations, Evangelism, and Do Jerks Threaten the Gospel

    […] Urban Church Plantations […]

  87. 5 for Leadership (3/29/14) | Gary Runn5 for Leadership (3/29/14) - Gary Runn

    […] Urban Church Plantations  A colleague passed this article on to me as we were discussing issues of diversity. I think this is one that every spiritual leader should read. Christena Cleveland gently, but clearly challenges the suburban church in how it views urban ministry. “The empire says that our church needs to be present in every community, our church has the answers, and our church’s resources are our resources alone. If we follow this path, power dynamics remain unchanged and urban church plantations ensue.” […]

  88. Carl Palmer
    Carl Palmer March 30, 2014 at 3:08 AM |

    Whilst I appreciate the point that when we go into an area to carry out Jesus’ mission, we need to recognise the work that is already going on in area, I do feel that the tone of the article was slightly patronising and motivated by”white guilt”.
    Partnership is what is needed. I would like to see more discussion on the model of Church planting that is needed in Urban areas.
    Jesus call us to Go and Make disciples. Let’s go and do that, and partner with those who are already doing that.

  89. Examining the Religious, Economic, Architectural, and Cultural Facets of Gentrification: A Reading List | Longreads

    […] “Urban Church Planting Plantations.” (Christena Cleveland, March […]

  90. Jesus Is Not Our Zoloft: Reflections on Mental Health and the Church | R.L. Stollar

    […] to ignore their experiences, overlooking minority leaders in Christian churches and institutions, viewing church planting in colonialist and imperialist terms, to racist stereotypes expressed at a conference hosted by Rick Warren’s very own Saddleback […]

  91. Dr James Sutton
    Dr James Sutton March 31, 2014 at 9:07 PM |

    there are many factors effecting the black church. Economic empowerment is the desire of most small churches in a community that is under distress.just as liquor stores used to dominate the landscape in urban America, now we have a concentration of churches on every corner. Each churchis competing forthe same member with limited income.between be infightingof the pastors for territory, sets up the opportunity for capitalismto take over.the suburban churches are attractive our musicians and worship leaders. Our pastorshave created large sums of debt, trying to keep up with theirsuburban counterpart.they began to cry for help and here it comes. The bills are due and there’s not enough people and resources to pay them. There is help coming, but at what cost.

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