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The nitty gritty on the city

Urban Presbyteries Network conference uncovers some truths about big-city ministry

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Owen Lystrup via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — “The world is hungry for healing and hope,” the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, told the Urban Presbyteries Network conference on Thursday following opening worship. “I want to remind us today to keep the main thing the main thing: the church’s call to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”

“Have a wonderful and fruitful time,” Moffett told the 90 or so people listening, “so you can bear witness to Christ in the city or wherever you might be.”

The conference, put on by the Office of Vital Congregations, was held in person at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, and online.

The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones, who directs Theology, Formation & Evangelism, called the work of disciple-making “simple but complicated” because it’s about enacting God’s justice, which includes dismantling structural racism, eradicating systemic poverty and offering hope. “I know these are uncertain times, but I’m excited to do this ministry together,” Jones said. “We are a gospel movement and we are on the right track.”

“I know how critical and valuable these ministries are for incubating ideas and loving on leaders of congregations in ways that remind them that they are enough,” said the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022) and the executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia. “This work — your work — is holy work, especially in urban centers … God’s ultimate fulfillment for all Creation is manifested in the city, the New Jerusalem.”

The conference featured panel discussions designed to be interactive, with questions coming both from those attending in person and online. The Rev. Dr. Jerry Lytle Cannon, senior pastor of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, moderated each panel.

The Rev. Steve Lindsley, senior minister at Trinity Presbyterian Chur

ch in Charlotte, said it’s the task of those doing urban ministry “to seek the welfare of the city, not the welfare of the boiler.”

“Our job is not to tell people what to think or what to think about,” Lindsley said. “I think people who are not a part of a church family are looking to us to help people.”

“We need to be clear on our intentions,” said the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, general presbyter of the Presbytery of Charlotte and the Co-Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly (2016). “Why are we doing what we’re doing? To get new members? Jesus didn’t die for that,” Edmiston said. “He died to change hearts and minds and to save people.”

Keep trying, panelists said, and be willing to dispense with programs and traditions that are no longer working. “Every innovation,” Cannon noted, “has an expiration.”

“The church has to do a better job telling its story,” said the Rev. Ken D. Fuquay, who leads M2M Charlotte: A Matters to Mission worshiping community and is president and chief ambassador of empowerment of LifeSpan, a nonprofit that provides services to people with disabilities. “The traditional stuff they don’t necessarily care about. They care about how we are transforming lives.”

Another panelist, Phil Koonce, a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, said that members and friends there “don’t have to go far to find homelessness, food insecurity and hunger and displacement. The list goes on and on.”

The Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly and the pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, discussed branching out into the community every other Saturday along with church members “to share what we have been able to collect and to ask people, ‘What do you need?’” That simple act lets people know, among other things, that “the pastor is a real person,” Starling-Louis said. “Folks show up whom you don’t expect.”

The Rev. Joe Clifford, pastor and housing project lead at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, described the neighborhood as “a wedge of prosperity surrounded by a crescent of poverty. That did not happen by accident, and I’m not sure the church or human agency has the power to change it. But I do believe God has the power to change it.”

“We pay attention to the stories we are centering,” Starling-Louis said. “We talk about what is our shared goal. God has given us so much, more than we could ever imagine, and therefore we are called to share with joy.”

What does it mean, she asked aloud, “to engage the hope that’s already there? Systemic change is changing the system. We are called to have a huge amount of joy in Christ, and a huge amount of justice.”

“The power that the church does have is love, which can contradict the systems in which we live,” Clifford said. “We keep asking the question, ‘What is the most loving thing to do?’ We ask it of ourselves, our longtime partners and our new partners.”

“The truth is, every community has been gifted,” Clifford said. “We ask, ‘What has God given us? What do we have?’ Look at what you have,” he advised those in attendance, “because the world conditions us to look at what we don’t have.”

“I need to put on my co-moderator’s hat for a moment,” Starling-Louis said, referencing the “When did we see you?” question found in Matthew 25:31-46. “Where have we seen Jesus? Where are there hungry people and people who need freedom or care?” It’s not enough that we merely ponder and pray about their dire situations. “Our embodied selves need to be there,” Starling-Louis said.

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