Xenos Urban Ministry: The Why, What, and How

This spring staff members from Xenos' urban ministries held a class to give people an understanding of the work being done in local low-income neighborhoods. Urban Concern and Harambee Christian School Operations Director Michael Larson gives us an overview of the ministries, and the mindset that its participants have found to be most effective and relevant:  

Old school Xenos members who haven’t attended a recent youth meeting may not realize how much different the church looks today than it did in the early days when Dennis and Gary were sporting bell bottoms and rocking out to Freebird. Today, Student Ministries is home to a diverse group of young people from a variety of cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

But “Urban Ministry” can be an ambiguous term that means different things to different people and churches. Tim Keller’s book Center Church notes, “Cities increasingly influence our global culture and affect the way we do ministry. With a positive approach toward our culture, we learn to affirm that cities are wonderful, strategic, and underserved places for gospel ministry.” However, it’s no doubt that inner city Columbus neighborhoods bear little resemblance to the Manhattanite context from which Keller writes.

When we talk about urban ministry in Xenos, we are talking primarily about ministry to students and families who are low-income and under-resourced. As indicated by our own census and the extensive opportunity mapping done by OSU’s Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity, urban neighborhoods like South Linden, Weinland Park, and Franklinton, among others, rank lowest in the city for various opportunity indicators including Housing & Neighborhood, Transportation & Employment, Health & Safety, and Education.

Yet, hundreds of students from these neighborhoods attend Xenos affiliated Bible studies each week!

The “Why” of Urban Ministry

Why is it important for the church to take urban ministry seriously? Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God leaves no gray area in expressing his special concern for the poor. Not only is serving the poor commanded (Deuteronomy 15:10), Christians are to advocate and seek justice regarding the very systems of oppression that contributes to their poverty - both economic & spiritual.  The result of such effort? Blessing for those we work with and blessing for the church at large (Isaiah 58:6-11).

Likewise, the Lord Jesus, himself, went to great lengths to self-identify with the poor and chose the oppressed as specific recipients of his favor and blessing through the Gospel (Luke 4:16-19).

Why do urban ministry? As the church, we affirm that what’s important to God is important to us.  And secondly, we are merely trying to keep up with the direction God himself seems to be leading at Xenos!

The “What” of Urban Ministry

Xenos initiated an organized effort in Columbus’ inner city by forming the nonprofit community development organization, Urban Concern, in the early 90s. During this time, dozens of church members uprooted their families and moved into homes on 13th Avenue and throughout South Linden.

The church has spent, and continues to spend, millions of dollars to operate Urban Concern and Harambee Christian School, a high performing private school located in South Linden. Opening in 1998 out of a refurbished laundromat with a single class of fourteen Kindergartners, Harambee has since grown to serve 145 students in grades K-8. Students from Harambee regularly outperform their peers from even wealthier suburban districts, including Westerville, Hilliard, and Reynoldsburg. This is especially remarkable because 85% of students come from low income homes.

In 2008, on the other side of route 71, members of Xenos began a small Bible study out of Indianola Middle School, which was located adjacent to the church’s 4th Street Pavillion. This single meeting would grow into Renegade, a ministry serving hundreds of students in grades K-12 from low income neighborhoods throughout Columbus. Today, in addition to weekly Bible studies, Renegade runs two summer camps each year. As of Summer 2018, over one hundred students were regularly attending Bible studies related to Renegade. In addition, scores of students from urban backgrounds are involved in traditional junior high or high school groups in our fellowship.

In 2016, Renegade & Harambee joined forces to better coordinate the church’s efforts to serve low income youth. Today, leaders across these ministries are united in creating a pipeline of opportunity for urban students at every age. The goal? To meet students wherever they are and provide opportunities for them to thrive at every age in the context of Christian community and as lifelong disciples of Christ.

The “How” of Urban Ministry

As you might expect, the challenges of urban ministry are serious and varied. The physical needs of students can be great, and trust can prove a significant barrier between volunteers, students, and their families. 

As with most challenging ministries, volunteers regularly wrestle with feelings of inadequacy. It’s important for workers to take a posture of humility and learning in order to gain an understanding of those we seek to serve.  The best thing to do? Don’t rely on assumptions or stereotypes, but instead ask questions. In Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, John C. Maxwell shares, “You don’t really understand people until you hear their life story. If you know their stories, you grasp their history, their hurts, their hopes, and aspirations.  You put yourself in their shoes. And just by virtue of listening and remembering what’s important to them, you communicate that you care.” When we show our care through asking questions, people typically become more receptive to the message we preach.

Due to the transiency of inner city neighborhoods, it’s also not uncommon for students who have received years of love and investment to be uprooted and moved to another city or state with little notice.

As with any demographic, students wrestle with periods of a lack of interest. The culture of drugs, sex, and violence is an incredible pull and temptation for students, who are often exposed to each at relatively young age. Volunteers can often find themselves in the middle of conflict and fighting, while navigating situations of hurt, abuse, and neglect.

Certain things flat-out haven’t worked for those serving in urban ministries: Large meetings with lots of students, having low standards for morality, and a low bar for respect have all derailed individual meetings and even entire groups.

Yet with trial and error comes valuable experience. There are things volunteers can do to increase their chances of having a meaningful impact. Simple things like providing meals can meet physical needs that then open the door for spiritual needs to be met. Working hard to establish rapport and regular contact with not just the students but their families can go a long way in breaking through trust barriers. Spending time one-on-one or in small groups with older students may provide an opportunity for them to open up in ways that they’d be reluctant to do in larger groups. Putting serious effort into learning how to teach students, with teachings that use lots of illustrations, examples, and media throughout can help engage students.

In addition to these practical steps, there are valuable heart attitudes volunteers can prayerfully develop to grow in their effectiveness in urban ministry. 

First and foremost, it is valuable to understand serving in urban ministries specifically as an act of worship before God. It can be discouraging to compare the results you are seeing with the results of people serving in other ministries. But going back to scriptural foundations of God’s heart for the poor and understanding them in relation to your own personal obedience to God can provide powerful motivation and supernatural energy to serve when it’s hard. If God has called you into this work, keep your eyes fixed on Christ rather than comparing your ministry to others’.

Secondly, viewing urban ministry with the long term vision it requires can provide powerful perspective to the success, or lack thereof, you might encounter as a volunteer. Regardless of how long you serve in the ministry, the value of understanding your service as one piece in the overall story of what God is doing in a student’s life can provide assurance that your service is not in vain but instead pleases the very heart of God.

Creating a Multitude From Every Neighborhood

Now more than ever, Xenos is in a position to help inner city youth of all ages overcome challenges and thrive in the body of Christ. Historically, retention of students has been difficult, especially during the high school years. In addition to mentors and Bible study leaders willing to go the long haul with students, a unified church committed to praying on their behalf will be instrumental in seeing them become lifelong followers of Jesus. There is an exciting role each of us can play in helping the church look like Columbus’ very own version of Revelations 7, where we worship God with a multitude from every neighborhood.

If you would like to learn more about how you can get involved in what God is doing in Columbus’ inner city, contact Michael at larsonm@urbanconcern.org or by calling 614.291.0885 ex. 4140.