Thick-Skinned Urban Missionaries
I love superhero movies and television series. I also have a love for comics. Next month, Netflix is launching a new series on the superhero, Luke Cage. Like super heroes such as Black Panther and Falcon, Luke Cage is African American. He resides in Harlem, New York, standing against evil and fighting for justice. Luke Cage has a very interesting superpower – his skin can’t be penetrated. Bullets just bounce off of him; no knife is able to puncture him. His tough skin enables him to take on crime of the urban streets.
Through my many years in urban ministry I have learned the importance of developing thick skin. To be fruitful and faithful as an urban missionary, pastor, or evangelist, you need thick enough skin to deal with the evil, the challenges, and the broken systems that keep the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed from discovering their true identity and purpose.
To be thick-skinned is a term that defines a person’s insides more than their outside. It is a paradox that a term pointing to the outside of one’s body is used to really get at the core of one’s being. Being thick-skinned is about how you respond to being offended, to navigating tough social issues, and dealing with opinions opposite of the ones you hold dearly. To be thin-skinned is to be easily offended and desire a life of minimal conflict. If missionaries are thin-skinned, they won’t last long in a calling to be a vehicle of empowerment and transformation in urban and under-resourced communities. The life of the urban missionary is one of standing in the midst of conflict, pain, division, dysfunction, and injustice. It is a life of loving people who are not only surrounded by brokenness, but also dealing with a stew of conflict boiling in the pot of their own souls.
There are also issues of ethnicity, class, and race that can come into play for the urban missionary as well. If you didn’t grow up in the urban context and yet are called to the urban mission field you’d better allow the Holy Spirit to toughen you up. Being a cross-cultural missionary is about being able to endure being looked at as an outsider and stranger by the people you have been called to serve. Tough-skinned missionaries and pastors are able to extend love and grace to those who don’t know how to love back.
Being an urban missionary requires a humility that sees potential and giftedness in the unchurched urban poor. You have to be willing to serve under the one who is transformed into an urban indigenous leader and to trust and respect existing urban churches. The urban church that has remained rooted in the city for years is a thick and robust institution. I have such great respect for the churches that have stayed in the city after other churches left for a more resourced mission field. The urban missionary can be toughened up for greater fruitfulness in ministry by sitting at the feet of the church that has stayed committed to the city.
I am realizing after 25 years in urban ministry that I need to continue to toughen my skin. It’s what enables me to keep my skin in the game of loving urban communities and people. I grew up in the city and it toughened my skin. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and ever since the Holy Spirit has been toughening the skin of my heart and soul so that I might mature as a minister of the Gospel. Being thick-skinned for the Kingdom of God can only come about through intimacy with God, identity in Christ, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Only out of the overflow of this dynamic relationship can we be used as urban missionaries to empower the poor, strengthen the church, and transform communities.
August 30, 2016 | Noah Filipiak
Great post Efrem, thank you! Sadly it’s hard to find resources and encouragement for urban ministry (though plenty out there for suburban ministry…). I’m 33, white and grew up in the suburbs. I planted a church 10 years ago in Lansing, MI that God awesomely turned into an urban church, which we are now in the (long) process of leading it into being a multi-ethnic church.
I tell you, one challenge urban ministers can face is when their spouse doesn’t have the thick skin that they have; now there’s a challenge! Doing urban ministry is awesome though; a person can’t really know what it’s like unless they are living in the neighborhood and living it out. I do struggle with the tension of feeling a little self-righteous / judgmental about my brothers and sisters doing suburban ministry exclusively to the elite, but at the same time a genuine conviction from Scripture that there’s something missing from that. Have you wrestled with that feeling at all?