My father had a natural inclination toward order and timeliness. On top of that, he managed a radio station for over forty years. In radio, life doesn’t just run by the clock, it runs by the second hand. When he would say, “We’re leaving for vacation tomorrow at 6 am”—that meant we’d be backing out of the driveway at 5:55. When he taught me to mow the grass, he began with how to mow straight. Our family did order.
Now picture our summer ministry in the inner city. 50–100 kids in a city park doing crafts, playing games and sports, listening to Bible stories, and hearing the gospel. No boundaries. No lines. Just kids, adults, dogs, bicycles, and sometimes a lawn mower in a glorious mess of gospel opportunity we call ‘Summer OFF’. There’s order, but not my Dad’s style.
Depending on your own inclinations, you will be more or less comfortable with the apparent and real chaos of urban ministry. And gospel-informed self-awareness will be important for your own sustainability in this task.
Judged by Outsiders
Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz write about the negative judgment of apparent chaos in Urban Ministry:
The negative judgments of social class, especially outsider judgments, surely play a part in the discovery of chaos. Middle- and upper-class observers assume the good life is defined by order and the choices that wealth makes possible...
In other words, when most outsiders look at urban poor communities, they see chaos, judge it as morally deficient, and pride themselves on being orderly. But the gospel cuts across both order and chaos. Sin and idolatry pervade both.
Conn and Ortiz continue:
‘Malignant chaos’ will need exorcising as surely as an order chosen primarily because it is secure and comfortable. Is the manifestation of chaos truly disordered or only apparently so? Is the urban practitioner equipped emotionally and theologically to see chaos as an ingredient of harmony? Or will a phobia or reticence toward chaos as a path to harmony step around it or trample it…? Safety, after all, is not always salvific, nor is security always sound. Boundaries…are not always beneficial, and surprises are not always subversive. (171–172)
Urban “chaos” comes in different forms. It may be a family tree that looks like spaghetti, or a lifestyle that lacks planning—where one has an inconsistent phone number or a job that doesn’t last more than three months. In a crowded home, lack of space makes it hard to organize your few personal belongings, or to carry out daily rituals. Add alcohol, drugs, and violence to the mix, and you have a recipe for mayhem.
For those who like (crave?) order and see chaos as wrong, we need a fresh gospel perspective. We suggest three gospel-infused realities to adjust our responses to apparent or real chaos.
First, cleanliness, timeliness, and order are not next to godliness. What is? A broken and contrite spirit (Ps. 51:17), repentance and confession of sin (Prov. 28:13), and faith that leads to fruitfulness (James 2:14–17). Simply put, we—the middle-class—must ask God to expose our culturally-bound assumptions about chaos and order. Are you critical of those who don’t return phone calls quickly, stick to the schedule, or can’t plan their way out of a paper bag? Do you turn your nose up at people whose lives seem constantly messy and fragmented?
Of course, there are biblical grounds for order. Consider Jethro’s instructions to Moses (Ex. 18), or Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians about orderly worship (1 Cor. 14:26–33a). But neither justify disobeying Paul’s call to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient. (see Col. 3:12–15).
Second, chaos may—and in my experience, often does—stem from trauma, not from laziness or a bad attitude. Ruby Payne writes: “Material deprivation and stressors lead to instability over time. There are not enough resources in poverty. When there are fewer resources, it is more difficult to plan. Eventually it can become a vicious cycle.”
So if we see a life that seems to be marked by chaos, let’s not lead with “Sinner!” Rather, let’s lead with a compassionate heart that sees a sufferer first. After all, isn’t that how our Lord Jesus approached us in our chaos? Praise God that He didn’t judge us in the havoc of our sin, but instead became like us, even dying in our place, that we might know the settled peace of God’s forgiveness and love.
And for that matter, when we see a brother or sister who craves order, let’s not be quick to judge. They too may have experienced abuse or other trauma, and now seek excessive order as a balm for brokenness.
Let me be clear: I have no interest in excusing sin. Chaotic lives, which are so prevalent in the world’s poorest communities, are the result of a multiplicity of sins. But sin is complicated, and its effects are multifaceted. Every human being on the planet is guilty of sin, and every human being on the planet has also been sinned against. Further, we experience in our bodies the effects of a sinful world (Rom. 8:23). Recognizing the difference between those three, and responding accordingly, is crucial. At times, we should lead with the “sufferer” diagnosis; at other times, the “sinner.”
Third, entering into a community that looks chaotic gives us an opportunity to follow Christ. If you are a relocated church planter (i.e. not indigenous to the community) then you are following Christ as he left His home and went to a different place. For the relocated planter, all of life and ministry is cross-cultural.
Which brings us to perhaps the greatest challenge and greatest blessing of ministry in the urban neighborhood: loving others as Christ has loved you. Christ took on humanity for us (Phil. 2:5–11). Now, in love for our neighbor, we are to take on another culture for others. Perhaps a more “chaotic” one.
To be a Christian is to be sent. Doug Logan writes:
The command to go out would have challenged the disciples to go far and beyond the narrow strip of land in the Near East to reach the globe with the powerful, transforming good news of the Messiah. The Old Testament pictures the inclusion of the nations joining in the blessing of the people of God by joining with Israel on pilgrimage to the temple. In an unexpected twist, the temple goes on pilgrimage to the nations [emphasis added]. The bricks that make up the New Testament temple are the people who have received Christ and have been transformed by the gospel…. Sentness is not simply a special spiritual gift or unique characteristic of certain Christians, it is a condition of proper obedience for all Christians.
An order-loving person who embraces God’s call to serve the urban neighborhood will come face-to-face with many deep-seated heart challenges. The theme of order and chaos will be just one. These challenges will either make one resentful and bitter, or more like Christ. When deep heart change is endured or welcomed out of love for Christ and neighbor, then blessing comes, fruit is borne, and Christ is glorified.
Remember the Gospel
The gateway for that heart change is remembering the gospel. John Bradford, the English reformer, is credited with the saying, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford”, a comment uttered in humility while watching prisoners be led to their execution.
We may say, “there but for the grace of God go I” with the same humble spirit, thanking God for saving us from what we deserve. But it’s also possible to repeat that line with a heart more like the Pharisee in the temple, “I thank you that I’m not like the other men. . . .” (Luke 18:11).
The gospel levels the playing field. It reminds us that we are all the same at the foot of the cross. A little more or a little less orderly, perhaps. But we know full well that the pervasive effects of sin have left us all a chaotic mess. Our well-cherished differences are laughably superficial when compared to our sinful similarities.
Urban ministry confronts the relocated worker with real and apparent chaos. Ask God to sanctify, with His gospel truth, your response to it.