Inner-city ministry is long, hard work. Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything else I would want to be doing and there is such joy in uncovering the glory of God in a place where people often say it doesn't exist. The city is full of beauty and joy if you look for it. Yet, I think people see movies like "Freedom Writers" or "Lean on Me" or the like and think that it is the usual reality to work long hours and see an equal or more abundant return for your labor. That is not the nature of inner-city work. You can't do inner-city work if you aren't dedicated and able to see very, very small incremental progress as success.
Andrew and I just found out that a couple who has also been doing inner-city church planting in North St. Louis for ten years is leaving the city. I don't know the couple very well, but we occasionally partner with them and always see each other at local missions fairs. Although they are not with World Impact, it's always been somewhat reassuring to know that they are out there striving for the same goal in the same city. This announcement has come on the heels of a long list of people leaving inner-city St. Louis. The reality is that the average inner-city worker lasts 1.5 years. I don’t know if that speaks to the nature of the work or the ideology and expectations people bring to the work or both, but that’s the reality.
Although I don’t know this particular couple well, their leaving hit me in the gut. Every time someone leaves I question: Does no one have the ability to see it through? Will I be one of these stories one day? How can the harvest be so plentiful and the workers always be leaving?
One of the things that helps me in these times is the community I have with World Impact. I love that within World Impact nationally there are people on staff who have dedicated their lives to the inner-city…20, 30, 40 years of self-sacrificing work. I have so much respect for and am encouraged by these people who have committed themselves through good times and bad, through burnout and joy, through successful church plants and times of no response, and have lived and raised their children in the city. There are faithful workers who can go the distance—albeit only through the continual submission of their lives to the grace and power of God.
This is a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about as of late. Just yesterday I was at a family’s house in the community and they were asking about past staff. The young girl made the comment that “Every body leaves.” I couldn’t necessarily correct her because very soon, Andrew and I will be the only ones left on staff that she has had any connection with. That both breaks my heart and hardens my resolve to commitment.
There is such a harvest here if you have the eyes to see. God is building His kingdom even in the midst of human failures. I’ve heard it said that we live in an upside-down Kingdom…the Gospel flips our earthy views on their heads. There’s no place better to experience this than in the city. We’ve got to check our worldly expectations at the door and respond with faithfulness and dedication and let God reap the Harvest He sees fit. Although I have only been here 4 years, I’ve learned some pretty big lessons:
• If God calls you to the city you have to write down that calling, make it your Ebenezer. You’ve got to know God called you and be able to revisit that calling when times get hard.
• Camaraderie is key. If you aren’t willing to hold onto the people who God has given you as co-laborers and pour into them then you will eventually feel too alone in the battle. It can still get lonely and isolating but it is the knowledge that there are others laboring faithfully for God’s Kingdom that encourages you on.
• We all come in with grandiose ideas about our impact on the city. I have to continually purge those for the reality that all I’m responsible for is to labor faithfully where God calls me to work…the rest is up to Him.
• God is always faithful. It doesn’t always look the way I’d like it to but God’s provision is sovereign and He can and does transform lives in the city!!
• It is through long-term commitment to the city that an impact is made. This is not to say that people cannot serve the city well for a short time or that God does not call people on to other places to work (none of us knows what God has for our futures—He may yet call Andrew and I somewhere else one day) but being able to commit yourself until the day that God calls you on is so important.
• You’re going to get tired; there will be a time (or times) when you feel burnt out and it is here when you most understand and cherish God’s faithfulness and the greater body of Christ. I have come to understand the church on a very basic level…it is our life-line while here on earth. We must cherish the Body of Christ and cultivate it on a daily basis.
Praise God that His work in the city is bigger than us. He can still accomplish His work and bring new people to the city to labor for the harvest. We pray for this. This is our hope on stormy days.