It was a hot and muggy day in Manila. A monsoon was about to brush the island Philippine nation. I was walking in the heart of the city alone - probably not the safest idea for a white guy obviously out of place. I wanted to feel the city. I wanted to smell it. I wanted to touch it.
I was about two blocks from the bustling fish market area, as I continued my quest to touch the city. And then it happened. It touched me. Suddenly, I felt something on the back of my leg - somewhere around the back of my left knee. I was startled and turned around. There was a little Filipino girl, looking up at me with beautiful brown eyes... penetrating eyes. Her fine and shiny black hair moved gently in the breeze - the first breath of the coming monsoon. Her clothes were dirty. She had no shoes. Clearly, she was one of the street kids - thousands of those abandoned children who fight for survival in a world without food, parents, shelter... without hope.
As I looked down at this little beautiful creature of God, I couldn't speak. She didn't speak. We didn't know one another's languages. It didn't matter. Her eyes communicated volumes. Her obvious needs spoke louder than the sounds of the city all around me. I felt helpless, and I was stunned by the pain. I knew the seriousness of her life choices. She would likely die of starvation by the age of 13. If she lived beyond that, it would most likely be a life of prostitution. By age 30, she would surely be dead.
I was in Manila as a U.S. Delegate to the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. Walking the streets of Manila, I wanted to touch the city. Instead, the city touched me. God touched me. What went through my mind that day is a tragic reality: if it would have been legal... if it would have been possible... I would have brought that little girl home and surprised my wife with our first child. Of course, it didn't happen. It couldn't. But that little girl, looking up at me, with those beautiful piercing brown eyes, is with me still today. She touched me.
Ministry in Detroit
My trip to Manila for the World Congress was a break from my work as a pastor on Detroit's near east side. I was assigned to that church right after graduate school. It was immediately a wake-up call and a major dose of humility.
It is unusual for a young pastor to be assigned as senior leader of a church with 1,200 in attendance. At first I thought it was my advanced degree that led the denomination to put me there. I'd spent about 12 years on the educational track in both the U.S. and Australia: four years of college, four years of seminary, and four years in a Ph.D. program. With a doctorate in theology, I actually thought I knew something about ministry.
My first assignment as an ordained minister was to sign the transfer papers of just over 100 families who had left the church during the vacancy before my arrival. For a guy fired up about the growth of God's Kingdom, that was a depressing start! I would never meet these families, but I quickly learned they had transferred to churches closer to their homes in the suburbs - a symbol of white flight from our congregations' almost all black neighborhood.
The members of my church were all white and mostly older. They were nice, loving Christians, filled with joy and hope at the arrival of an energetic new pastor. While our new neighbors were all around, the church had never had an African American visitor. Never.
I soon realized that our members included (1) those who were fearful of those different people in the neighborhood; (2) a few who wanted to reach our neighbors; and, (3) some who were dead-set against reaching "those people."
I began working with those who had a heart for outreach. We tried many ways to reach out - and miserably failed, every time. After a while I became discouraged. It was a desert time in my life. I asked for help - guidance from my denomination. "Tell me about a church that has been successful in this situation, and I will go learn from them," I shared. The reply? "We don't have any." "Then tell me about a church of any denomination or group that has had impact in a cross-cultural situation like this," I pleaded. "We don't know of any." Then came the most devastating news of all: "We end up closing many churches like yours," they replied. "We've closed 24 churches in changing neighborhoods in Detroit already."
It was at this time that my desert season hit its lowest point. I conducted some research. The church I had inherited had declined 67% in the previous 10 years before I became their pastor. Ten years - that's when the neighborhood began changing ... and white flight began - from the area, from the church. When I reached the bottom of the pit of my despair, I experienced the height of my humility. I was educated in theology and ignorant in mission. I was passionate to reach our people in our community, but impotent in following a strategy. I had no clue ... and I knew it.
The breakthrough came with a brochure from Fuller seminary in Pasadena, California. I had never heard of it. The brochure boasted of the largest school for missions in the world. They offered a Doctorate of Ministry degree program for pastors, two weeks at a time, for three years. "A mission school," I thought. "That sounds like what I need." The church board allowed me to take off three, two-week slots a year, if I paid for all the expenses, including travel. I told my wife I might go back to school. She replied, "Really?"
At Fuller I learned about mission tactics for my own country, my church, my situation. It was a major breakthrough. Our church reached out. It stopped declining, in spite of the average 50 funerals a year, every year. Then it started growing, cross-culturally. It was a personal breakthrough for many of the older long-time members of the church. Many of them said, "This is the most exciting spiritual experience of my entire life." It was for me too. What happened? And what does that have to do with bankrupt Detroit?
The news had been a long-time coming - years. It finally happened. Detroit became the largest municipality in the United States to file bankruptcy. This was an historic moment in the history of the United States - and a wake-up call for cities around the world. What happened to Detroit?
The fall of Detroit is not to be oversimplified as simply a result of the Great Recession, though the recession, of course, brought the inevitable sooner. For years - decades - Detroit has had a legacy of internal corruption, poor leadership, misguided politics, white flight, African American flight. It became just too awful to live there.
Anyone - anyone, of any ethnicity who could afford it, left - except for the few who thought they could make it work.
The challenges of Detroit are more than money and politics. They include drugs, gangs, lack of services, dismal schools, and inability to adjust to a world rapidly changing in areas of manufacturing, technology, globalization, and education.
Where was the church? Not just those few that reached out and did a great job - but those who failed, and those that closed, and those that moved out, chasing the crowds. Where is the Christian movement - that divine, powerful movement that redeems not only people but communities, not only communities but culture, not only culture but society, and not only society but nations? To get a part of the answer, we visit the city of Manchester, England.
Eden in the Urban Desert
Manchester, England, is the birthplace of The Industrial Revolution. It is an old urban center - the British version of Detroit, a forerunner for spiritual outreach and a classroom for learning what can happen in places like Detroit - with transferable mission principles for wherever you live and worship. These are universal principles for you and your church - anywhere. It is the reason churches across America should collectively send 1,000 young adult missionaries, trained in a 10-month boot camp, to the bankrupt Motor City.
Andy Hawthorne, and the ministry he formed, called The Message Trust, has a long history of bringing the power of Jesus Christ to young adults from the streets of Manchester, England, and other cities across the U.K. Each year, Church Doctor Ministries leads a group of North American pastors and church leaders to experience, first hand, the revival that is taking place in many forms throughout England. The Message Trust is one of the several stops transforming the thinking of those who make the annual trip each June. While it is impossible to match the experience of being there, what follows are the core tactics of outreach that are producing phenomenal results. They are what God is blessing. They can be applied anywhere.
The Message Trust has many projects, and they are all fascinating. The Eden Network is one of them. It is a mission that targets the extreme areas of poverty in the most depressed areas of Manchester. (Tactic #1: Look for the extreme needs and you'll find receptive people). In The Eden Network, a project team is formed. It consists of 14-30 people who are trained in a boot-camp type discipleship and missional training experience. (Tactic #2: Outreach in a group of like-minded, enthusiastic missionaries, provides greater impact and critical mass to encourage one another.) (Tactic #3: Train missionaries very well - not in academics alone, but with hands-on experience, not in a several year classroom leading to a degree, but focusing on a specific result, just as a military boot camp prepares soldiers for a specific mission.) The Eden Network project team moves into an area to stay for several years. (Tactic #4: Missionaries don't commute. They live with the people they are trying to reach.) (Tactic #5: The approach isn't a quick fix. They commit to work at it for years.) The Eden Network uses younger people to reach younger people - that is their target. (Tactic #6: Focus on discipling young adults. This is who God is using in movements today. These young adults must be (1) faithful, (2) available, and (3) teachable. Most people in their 30s or older are married, have a mortgage, and have children. Their lives are too complicated to do this. This is why armies train young adults as foot soldiers.) The young adults are trained in discipleship, spiritual formation, and outreach mission. They are also trained to raise their own support. (Tactic #7: Cutting-edge missionary work is best accomplished by missionaries who have a relationship with their support partners. The support partners are blessed to receive reports and support their missionaries with prayer as well as finances.)
The young adults in The Eden Network project team live in the community and their first order of business is to learn all they can about those they are trying to each. They frequently find part-time employment or create employment opportunities so they will have an environment to interact with those from the community. (Tactic #8: They engage the people they are trying to reach. They look for needs in the community they can meet, like providing a social service, a medical or dental clinic, remedial reading for children, etc.) (Tactic #9: They find a need they are able to meet, and provide for that need. It becomes the platform for developing relationships, and through those relationships, they share their stories of faith: what God is doing in their lives.)
These are basic mission tactics. They work in every village, town, suburb, city, or metropolitan area. Every area has its unique needs. How do you discover them? Read the newspaper, check the local online chatter, and listen to people. Ask them what would help them.
During my experience in Detroit, that is where we started − listening. Prior to my mission training, we simply went door to door, knocking on doors. When people would let us in, we would present an outline of the Gospel, complete with Bible verses. But now, we began to listen.
"What would help you?" we asked. For us, the answer was so easy to identify: almost every African American family told us they wanted a better education for their kids. Then we visited the local public grade school, and we listened to the principal. He said that Detroit public schools were practically broke and were very overcrowded. He said, "With 40-45 kids per classroom, our teachers can do little more than babysit."
We looked at our underutilized building, the shadow of a church in the 1950s that had one of the largest Sunday schools in the denomination. We had unused classrooms everywhere. We prayed and conducted some research. After raising some money and renovating the building to bring it up to code for a school, we opened a Christian grade school. On a single warm early September day, we opened a school that the day before had a population of zero. Opening day filled the hallways with 250 children, in classes from kindergarten to 8th grade. We went from zero to 250 in one day with nine teachers and a principal. Every student was African American in a school sponsored by a church that was entirely white and filled almost totally with people too old to even have grandchildren in grade school.
Through the school, we developed relationships with African American kids, their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles. We shared the Gospel, and our church grew. Before long we had dozens of baptisms, new members - all African American. We didn't need nametags for visitors; they were all black, visible in our previously all-white congregation. It wasn't long after that we celebrated our first African American Sunday school teachers, and then elders and then board members and leaders.
These mission tactics work. They are what God will use to redeem millions of people in your town, village, or city. They are what God will use to redeem Detroit in the U.S., Manchester, in the U.K., and, yes, Manila in the Philippines. This is the power of the Gospel at work. Pray for God to raise up 1,000 missionaries for Detroit. After all, Detroit is bankrupt - and ready!
So is your town, city, or village.