ACU students learn lessons in inner-city Houston
For immediate release
Aug. 3, 2001
By MALISSA ENDSLEY
Study a concept in the morning. Put it into practice in the evening. Such was a typical day for students in Abilene Christian University's Inner-City Missions course taught on site at the Impact Church of Christ in Houston, May 14-25.
"I am so grateful for all that I learned and the people I met during the Inner-City Missions course," said Jemima King, senior Spanish major from Marshall, Minn. "I gained perspective on the inner city and the struggles that are daily there. I was adopted by the people there and so many of my questions were answered by people who have experienced the tragedies of life and more importantly the transforming power of Jesus."
Charlie Middlebrook, a founding minister of Impact and adjunct faculty member at ACU who facilitated the course, not only talked with students about inner-city struggles, such as poverty, broken families, poor schools, racism and unemployment, but he also introduced them to people who face these challenges. Class discussions about the church╝s biblical imperative "to preach good news to the poor" took place in a building where Christians who are trying to live out Isaiah 61 gather.
Most people realize that missionaries who travel overseas must understand their new cultural context in order to minister to people appropriately.
However, the same can be true for Christians reaching out to people in their own city.
Churches of Christ have largely been a rural and suburban movement among middle-class people. In the 1950s, in major cities such as Houston, many vibrant congregations existed within the city center. However, over subsequent decades, as middle-class whites particularly moved to the suburbs, they took most of their churches with them, shrinking the Christian witness to the poor left in the inner city, Middlebrook observed. Now suburban Christians who recognize the need in the inner city must learn how to minister in an urban context.
Like any other cross-cultural missionary, Christians working in the inner city must realize that they are ethnocentric, the students learned. Ethnocentrism is the tendency that all humans have to believe that their own culture or worldview is superior and others is inferior. Ethnocentrism is on the cultural level what egocentrism is on the individual level. Often, it is unintentional and unrecognized, but it is a hindrance to ministry because people can detect when their views are not respected, Middlebrook said.
Overcoming ethnocentrism is not natural, but requires an act of the will through the power of God, he said. The need for such a change of heart is obvious in the multi-cultural, multi-class environment of the inner city because people who are different from each other live so close to each other.
Furthermore, Middlebrook believes that the real Christian unity that Jesus prays for in John 17 is not accomplished simply by people living in proximity. The power of the gospel is preached when diverse people live in authentic Christian community. Jesus prayed in 17:23, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." So, too, Middlebrook prays for unity so that "people will believe the gospel story and they will feel loved," he said.
The struggles of the inner city challenged the students to determine whether their values align with those of the Kingdom of God or of the world. What might be perceived as a threat to one's comfort zone can also be an opportunity for ministry.
"More people cry over jobs going to foreign workers or property values decreasing due to neighborhood change than over the lost souls moving in," said Anthony Wood, director of Memphis Urban Ministry, who taught the course for two days.
Other presenters included Frank Lott of Tulsa Urban Ministry and Steve Austin and Doug Williams of Impact. Through their input, descriptions of other works and visits to other local ministries, the students saw a wide variety of ministry models to address the variety of needs in the inner cities.
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