The topic of discipleship in an urban context is diverse and vast. This brief piece will not be exhaustive. However, I hope to provide a few tools that will help you on the joyful, challenging journey of ministry in an urban setting. When discipling in the African-American context it seems prudent to ponder five things: 1) Know the Difference between Urban and Inner City 2) Clarify the Goal of Discipleship 3) Disciple with Courage 4) Evaluate Your Culture 5) Give Yourself Away.
1. Know the Difference Between Urban and Inner City
Considering the diversity in cities, it seems naïve to assume that inner city and urban are synonymous terms. Actually, these two contexts are drastically different. They are as different as the people that come from the two environments. Although urban is sometimes used more generically to include the inner city, it typically refers that part of the city that acts as a hotbed of cultural formation. This is where ideas are formed, things are invented, entertainment is produced, and people are educated. In Urban areas the pedigree of the people is upwardly mobile—they are educating others in some fashion or in the process of being educated. These people are, in some way, developing the culture or being trained to do so on some scale. These urban dwellers are not necessarily financially well off. What makes them upwardly mobile is that they have options. The city center is rich in resources and options to move upward socially, economically, and vocationally. If the city center is in formation, it will receive a great amount of resources toward the hopeful end of becoming an urban center.
What, then, is the distinguishing mark between city center and inner city? The issue of opportunity is what separates urban from inner city. In the inner city, resources are taken out and it remains under resourced. Generally speaking, there is no agenda for resources investment in the inner city. It is a byproduct of city center growth. This is often how an impoverished area is formed (taking resources out of an already unresourced area).
Considering this reality, the narrative of the African-American coming from an urban context is going to be very different than those coming from the inner city. For example, the key residual effect from the inner city is that the people will often struggle with a sense of dignity. They find it hard to not consider themselves second tier because of the hardship they have experienced as an inner city native. On the other hand, the urban African-American will often struggle with their identity. As a result, they often wave the African-American flag more than the individual from the inner city, partially because he has always felt like (although wrongly) he has missed a part of his culture not growing up with the same hardships. In turn, he experiences guilt concluding that he is not truly black because of his lack of experience in the school of hard knocks. Both the issue of genuine hardship and the issue guilt over lack of hardship need redemption. But getting grace into these issues can’t begin until we see the drastic different between the two contexts. Although they are close in proximity they are worlds apart in worldview.
2. Make the Discipleship Goal Clear
In order to make disciples among African-Americans (or any ethnic group), it is critical that we have a clear understanding of discipleship. “Discipleship” is an overused term, and yet, meanings range depending on who is using it. Sadly, we have defined discipleship by not having any definition. We succumb to the thinking that anything we do that influences one for Jesus is discipleship. While this is true in a general sense, it fails to provide a clear metric for Christ-honoring mission and accountability in the covenant community.
When we actually define discipleship in Biblical terms (Matt 28), we can no longer compartmentalize it based on our desires or strengths. To make disciples, biblically, is to holistically influence someone to grow in God’s Word, grow in ministry (Evangelism and Service) and grow as a multiplier. A multiplier is a disciple who multiplies their life and faith in their own community. To effectively disciple someone in Christ, the disciple needs to build a shared conviction about what Christ has commanded and join you knowing where you are taking them.
3. Disciple Cross-Culturally with Courage
Discipling someone from a different culture, one has to fight the lie that because you can’t identify with the person’s life you cannot testify to God’s truth in their challenges. We wrongly believe that our experience with the person we are discipling has to be a one-to-one ratio. Sadly, this lie censors our prophetic voice and hinders a truly redemptive relationship. We need to have courage in discipling across cultural and life experience differences.
This courage is not something you muster up. This kind of courage solely comes from Jesus. We must firmly believe that Christ alone gives anyone the authority to minister to anybody. His authority transcends culture. It takes deep conviction to know that the only authority you have to disciple someone in Christ is Jesus himself. Having similar backgrounds and/or experiences doesn’t hurt the situation but they are by no means a prerequisite to pointing someone to Jesus.
For example, in our church a college graduate, young professional is currently discipling an ex-drug dealer. Initially, there was great hesitancy because of the drastic difference between backgrounds. This difference made the discipler feel inadequate and this fear fed into the pride of the disciple who probably had preconceived notions that this person could not possibly teach her anything. Only when she (the discipler) repented from trusting in herself, was she able to begin to trust Jesus enough to humbly and consistently call out sin in her disciple and point her to Christ. Their relationship, although still hard, is moving them both toward Jesus.
4. Evaluate Your Own & Others’ Culture
In the African-American culture, very rarely do we give an accurate assessment of the churches in our community. As I once did, we find no value in community churches because you can easily find a focus being on financial gain, sexual promiscuity, lack of integrity and absolutely horrible hermeneutics. Or we go the other way and think that Creflo Dollar is saying the same thing as John Piper. We wrongly see it as divisive to provide an honest critique of our local church for the goal of us moving toward holiness in Christ.
The African-American church today is extremely flawed at many levels (as are many white churches). Because of this reality, many churches present a distorted gospel laced with decorative tradition. At the same time, with all of it’s ineptness, people still get saved and walk with God within these extremely flawed traditions.
When discipling someone in this context, it is paramount for a person to recognize that they probably have not had the same church experience as you have. But that doesn’t mean you get all postmodern and act like all church experiences are equal. Therefore, it is important we make sure we are accurately assessing our own experience. Assessing your own experience is a good training ground to learn how to help your African American disciple assess theirs. I almost guarantee that you will need to understand his/her experience and then the scary part is you will most likely need to help them see clearly so that they might grow in discernment and maturity in Christ.
This eventually will aid you both in seeing the culture as God sees it (the good and bad). This will allow you to have a kingdom lens and not simply a cultural lens for how you practice spiritual formation.
5. Give Yourself Away
If there is one piece of advice I would give on how to disciple an African-American, it would be: “Give yourself to them.” Let me clarify. It is easier to train people in theology than to labor with someone as they grow up in Christ. Sharing your faith with them, spending time outside your “training” time, building a relationship, serving together requires much more involvment. However, it is what Jesus modeled. Holistic formation, not just theological formation, is what Jesus requires in discipleship.
Don’t mistake giving yourself to them as making them like you. The goal is not to make them middle class, upper class, etc. The goal is always to show them the heart of Jesus. Always make this clear. If we don’t, people will mistake challenges to lifestyles that don’t honor God as attempts to make them like you. To do this well, modeling and training people theologically is extremely important.
When we disciple in a consistent, faithful, and committed way, this provides the best fertile environment to handle cultural challenges. Regardless of our cultural or ethnic background, we are all very rarely are blessed with someone who is deeply in love with Christ and deeply committed to us. Everyone would love to experience that relationship no matter the color. So go make disciples!
Eric Russ is compelled by gospel-transformation in the city and author of Discipleship Defined. He and his wife Sara along with a dedicated team of friends moved to Detroit’s east side and founded Mack Avenue Community Church, where he serves as lead pastor and discipleship is the heartbeat of their ministry.