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Engaging Our Urban Areas

8 years ago written by

We live in an increasingly urbanized world. Whether or not your home or workplace is in a city, your life is shaped by the city because that’s where media, marketing, fashion and innovation flow from. More than half of the planet’s people are urban dwellers, and cities are internationally interconnected more than ever. U.S. cities are growing and changing as old neighborhoods and city centers are resurging, and suburbs face a rise of poverty and ethnic diversity.

“City” can be defined geographically as an area of population density, or demographically by socioeconomic and ethnic indicators. “Urban” can also be defined by mindset or lifestyle — postmodern, innovative, globally connected. Because any metropolitan area is an ecosystem of different but interrelated parts, we need many different kinds of churches and ministries to reach the city.

Four key groups are found in cities more than anywhere else:

  • youth and young adults
  • immigrant groups, including unreached peoples
  • movers and shakers and culture shapers, and
  • people in poverty.

Each of these groups must be a priority for contextualized communication of the gospel and planting communities of new believers.

Cities are so significant — and destined to grow in importance — that if we do not reach the cities, we will not reach America or the world. The church is alive and well in most cities, and our Wesleyan perspective leads us to believe God’s grace is at work everywhere. Yet cities are generally under-reached by the gospel, with fewer churches relative to the population. Because of this, the goal of the Engage Urban initiative is to engage, equip and empower the church to win the heart of the world by growing and multiplying sustainable churches and ministries in urban communities.

How are we doing? About 270 U.S. Free Methodist churches either self-identify as urban or were identified as urban by their superintendents — roughly one-quarter of Free Methodist congregations in the U.S. This is using a broad definition of urban, but little is to be gained by splitting hairs over “inner city” versus “metropolitan.” A high percentage of urban pastors participated in a research survey. The results are being analyzed and will be communicated in a variety of ways.

The bishops assigned a team of four to develop strategies and resources to help individuals, congregations, conferences and the denomination be more effective in reaching cities for Christ. I am the facilitator, and the team also includes:

  • Mark Adams, superintendent of the North Central Conference. Before being elected, Adams pastored an urban, multiethnic church in greater Chicago.
  • Michael Traylor, a pastor at New Hope Church in Rochester, New York. Traylor is a pediatrician in private practice and also adjunct faculty member at Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary.
  • Matt Grohocki, pastor of Revelation Church in Bozrah, Connecticut. Matt planted this fast-growing church three years ago in the Eastern Urban Corridor, midway between New York and Boston.

We are working to engage the curious and unconvinced with information and motivation; equip the called with tools and resources; and empower the church with strategies, structures and sustainable systems. But it is not enough just to see current urban ministries strong and healthy. We must also significantly multiply new disciples, groups, leaders and churches in the city. We want to expand exponentially through contextualized models of church planting.

We want to encourage those who are ministering in the city. Many urban pastors and church planters feel isolated, misunderstood, under-resourced and undervalued. We want to infuse courage, express appreciation, and give value and honor to those serving Christ in cross-cultural urban settings.

Effective urban ministry will include diversity — touching individuals and groups that are socially and ethnically different — because diversity is a key urban characteristic. Effective urban ministry will require partnership because no local church or denomination can address all the needs and opportunities in any neighborhood or city. An effective urban strategy must include church planting to reach beyond the status quo. These areas are the focus of other initiatives —
Embrace All, Multiply Ministries and Partner Strong.

Engage Urban will add the essential distinctive of community transformation and a holistic approach to ministry. Anchored in Wesleyan theology, our discipleship goes beyond teaching correct doctrine to the level of behavior and relationships, changing people’s actions and attitudes. Our goal is not only spiritually transformed individuals but also neighborhoods and networks made whole by the power of the gospel.

We look forward to engaging with you at General Conference 2015 and in other ways and places. We are eager to help you and your church engage with the city.


PAUL OLVER is the pastoral formation coordinator for Latin America. He previously pastored urban multiethnic churches in New York City and Seattle and resourced the northeast conferences in church planting and urban/multiethnic ministries.

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