In the wake of the Brown/Garner decisions, it has been revealed that numerous conversations need to take place in American Christian circles regarding culture, race, class, systemic injustice, public policy, Christian responsibility, and so forth. Of course, at the center of each of these themes we place the Gospel and its implications for each.
Enter the urban disciple maker, who has long been considering these themes. The Christian focus throughout the twentieth century on conversion strategies alone has already been weighed by many and found wanting. Our urban disciple makers understand that discipleship is a much longer and deeper commitment than simply moving an individual from impiety to piety. It involves walking alongside men and women from foolishness to wisdom, and making certain that they know – tangibly – that Christ has earned them a valued place and given them a strong, secure and transcendent identity in Him; a place where even sinful choices can be redeemed and kingdom potential realized.
It’s in this place that obedience becomes doxological, and not merely a path of self-righteousness that simply earns one the right to survive in one’s own neighborhood.
The urban disciple maker runs a daily gauntlet of toxic nihilistic culture, organized crime and gang associations, pulpit pimps, familial confusion, the deleterious effects of the prison industrial complex, race hustlers who perpetuate victimhood, destructive public policy, government-funded dependency, and all those acculturated to these external pathologies. He knows that in pre-conversion discipleship, moving from foolishness to wisdom is a ‘two-steps forward, one-step back’ proposition, just as it was with Christ and His disciple making.
The urban disciple maker also knows that in his context, as young people are drawn into Christ and slowly transformed by the renewing of their minds, a single indulgence in foolishness can result in tragic loss of life and the termination of the entire discipleship process.
As if they weren’t already exhausted by this list of daily obstacles to disciple-making, enter ISIS, (also known as the Islamic State) exploiting the Ferguson and Staten Island narratives and aggressively recruiting the disenfranchised via social media and on the ground. ISIS poses a new type of threat to the urban disciple maker; while the prosperity pimp may be after a young man’s money, the Islamic extremist demands his life and soul.
Hate the ‘Thug Life,’ Love the ‘Thug’?
Perhaps an even greater obstacle to the mission of the urban disciple maker is the one that emanates from within the church itself, that denies the value of the young men and women involved in one of our society’s most difficult subcultures. The recent Garner/Brown decisions have revealed a train of thought in the American church that is desensitized to the value of lives of men like Garner and Brown. The resulting dismissal of the redemptive power of the Gospel exposes the hardness of our hearts, and is an indictment against our understanding of Genesis 1-3, as well as the transformative power of union with Christ.
During the height of the tensions of the Garner/Brown incidences, the terms ‘thug’ and ‘animal’ as pejoratives – as well as other terms similar to them – have been bandied about broadly by Christians across social media platforms. Tupac Shakur once attempted to redefine the ‘thug’ by describing a person who perseveres in spite of the heavy, oppressive weight of circumstances stacked against him. The term has been conflated with today’s common ‘gangsta,’ and still holds a decidedly unpleasant and criminal element for those who misunderstand Tupac’s attempts at redefinition.
To dismiss those caught up in dysfunctional ‘thug culture’ as incorrigible and perhaps even dispensable while abandoning them to their ‘just desserts’ sweeps the legs out from under the work of the urban disciple maker. It denies the entire mission of their Gospel engagement, and when allowed to develop to its logical conclusion, opens the door to a form of ‘natural selection’ that we would likely find abhorrent in any other cultural application.
When we find ourselves with no compassion or remorse for a life lost, no matter how we may perceive and rate the moral quality of that life, we even go beyond the fundamental sentiments of the pro-abortion and anti-life movements; we suggest that not only are some unworthy of life, but that others may even be beyond the scope of Christ’s life-changing power. The loss of opportunity for the display of God’s glory and transformative power should be mourned most deeply by Christians, since God Himself delights in the death of no man – not even as He dispenses divine justice.
Christians who follow this path of thought forget that in the perspective of God’s covenant, we are all ‘thugs’. By the pejorative definition, Billy Graham was a ‘thug.’ Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and John Wesley were also ‘thugs.’ Tim Keller, Albert Mohler … they were once ‘thugs’ too. All of our pastors were once ‘thugs.’ This language should not surprise us; the apostle Paul had no problem admitting that he was the ‘chief of ‘thugs.’ We would all still be ‘thugs,’ criminals every one, but for the grace of God and atoning blood of His Son Jesus Christ.
It must be possible then, for Christians to learn to hate ‘thug life,’ but still love the ‘thug,’ even as he or she may still be ‘thuggin’’ and yet simultaneously moving from foolishness to wisdom.
By their actions on the ground urban disciple makers call us to remember our own humanity, to tangibly recall God’s promises, and acknowledge the redemptive power of Jesus Christ who marvelously restores and repairs. Their faithful work confounds our pessimism, and brings one question into vivid Technicolor; “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Indigenous renewal” based on kingdom principles stands in opposition to the alien gentrification that has created a population of perpetually displaced ‘urban nomads.’ Biblically based Christian community development, and the stimulation of commerce and growth opportunities created from resources derived from within impoverished communities under the guidance of local Godly leadership is changing the character and culture of communities from within.
One Baltimore initiative has seen newly released prison inmates become organic city farmers, providing fresh produce in ‘food desert’ communities with no grocery store to serve them. Numerous other initiatives around the country are rethinking educational models that impact not only the individual, but entire families caught in generations of dysfunctional living.
In cities across America, urban disciple makers are not only effecting change on the cultural level and working to address the underlying systemic issues, but are simultaneously pouring themselves into life-on-life discipleship. They are helping young men and women to taste and see that God’s ways are good by modeling spiritual father- and motherhood, biblical marriages and parenting skills, kingdom work ethics, ethical finances, stable and loving communities, critical thinking skills, and the wise application of the word of God to their life-defining and life-controlling issues.
Such is the ingenuity of the urban disciple maker who serves a dual purpose as culture-shaper. Their way of ‘doing church’ may not look like we’d expect, but it is often first-century-style Gospel living occurring right in our own backyards.
‘Step Out the Boat’
The urban disciple-maker lives where many dare not – in our most challenging American neighborhoods. To paraphrase one savvy urban pastor regarding recent conversations on American culture and justice, “Y’all were in the boat and the storm kicked up; we’re already out the boat.” We may add to this that they have been ‘out the boat’ for quite some time, doing what many would call the impossible; defying the cultural odds one step at a time, with their eyes fixed on Christ.
In the wake of our national conversations, we now realize with fresh eyes the complexity of urban disciple making. Not only are most urban disciple makers willing to patiently walk the young from self-destructive foolishness to the newness of biblical wisdom, they often must patiently disciple Christian onlookers out of their foolishness to a deeper understanding of the Bible, of our own flawed nature, and of the deeper transformative implications of union with Christ.
As our conversations move from national platforms to more localized ones, the urban disciple maker calls us to step ‘out the boat’ of sideline opining, to learn with humility, and to follow them as they follow Christ.