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The Spirit and the Prophetic Church, Part 2, by Antipas L. Harris

From Pneuma Review Summer 2013

The Spirit and the Prophetic Church

Building Ministry Coalitions for Urban Ministry

Part 2 of 2

Editor’s Note: Read Part 1 in the Spring 2013 issue of The Pneuma Review

The Situation of Post-Katrina New Orleans

The situation of Cradock in Portsmouth is not an anomaly. This is important to note. The city of New Orleans has various relevant examples. During Katrina in 2005, churches in New Orleans were ruined, communities were destroyed, some people were severely hurt and others even lost their lives. Even today—seven years later, churches in distressed communities of New Orleans continue to struggle to rebuild and many of the communities remain discombobulated. Considering the history of the Black Church,35 the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who is a veteran civil-rights activist in Atlanta and former ministry colleague with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., developed a plan. He wanted to bypass the government and organize an ecumenical consortium of churches to work together towards rebuilding the churches and revitalizing the ramshackle urban communities. Rev. Vivian thought that he would be able to pull other predominant African American churches together in the ecumenical spirit of the Black Church to play a key role in revitalizing New Orleans.36

Persistently broken communities are sad examples of churches missing opportunities for prophetic ministry.

In October 2005, Rev. Vivian joined the National Council of Churches and aimed to create an organization called Churches Supporting Churches. He had hoped to raise $30 million in three years to restore thirty-six New Orleans churches, their congregations and their neighborhoods. Based on his prior experience in pulling together churches in the Civil Rights era, he was confident that in six months they would be able to start the revitalization project. To the reverend’s surprise, however, it did not happen. By early 2007 (almost two years later), Churches Supporting Churches had merely raised $200,000. Only a handful of churches have agreed to “adopt” a church and community. 37 Regrettably, more than thirty-six churches in distressed communities of New Orleans continued to struggle to survive, little able to help the people nearby or to rebuild their neighborhoods.

There are thousands of well-to-do churches in America with ministers who are millionaires. Yet, the Church Supporting Churches organization in the hurricane-torn New Orleans has essentially failed in its efforts to revitalize several communities and churches. There is a national disparity of unified support in communities from churches. This problem has become a Christian travesty. The broken communities of New Orleans, like Cradock in Portsmouth, are sad examples of churches missing opportunities for collaborative and prophetic urban ministry.

The Bible, God, and the City

Many seminary and bible school graduates wrestle to connect the theological training they receive in the traditional seminary with doing ministry in the city. Much of today’s theological education system has been irresponsible in providing a necessary bridge between biblical, intellectual, and practical life in the city. This is partly due to stubborn methods for theological discourse. In Urban Ministry: An Introduction, Ronald E. Peters rightly comments that only theology that maintains a bottom-up perspective will continue to be relevant for ministry on the margins.38 Thinkers such as Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino, Juan Luis Segundo, James Cone, Gayroud Willmore, Cornell West, Roswith Gerloff, Jeremiah Wright and others have championed other approaches from bottom-up perspectives. In general, their work has sought to address the painful realities of social, political, and racial disenfranchisement associated with theology that produces inept ministry in distressed, urban-type communities.

The failure of “healthy” churches to help congregations in distress has become a travesty.

Interestingly, traditional Western theology was bottom-up theology indeed. Yet, as Peters points out, that which was once bottom-up has forgone its original sensitivity to social vulnerability.39 The now top-down Protestant theological culture purports perspectives that dislocate the focus of theological discourse from a ministry in communities to church maintenance.

Evangelical theology, moreover, struggles to appropriate its focus. One the one hand, it is community-focused in that it places a premium on evangelism. On the other hand, it fails to engage people in their everyday situations. Its top-down approach to theology emphasizes the church’s own agenda in the community to “save souls” but seems oblivious to the biblical call to liberate the oppressed and care for the degraded. God, as perceived by such theology, seems to care mostly about people who read scripture and obey. But how might a distressed and impoverished urban dweller perceive this evangelical understanding of obedience? If getting someone to escape to heaven is all that matters, 40 then their everyday cares and chronic desperation means nothing.

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Category: Ministry, Pneuma Review, Summer 2013

About the Author: Antipas L. Harris, D.Min. (Boston University), S.T.M. (Yale University Divinity School), M.Div. (Emory University), was appointed as the founding dean of the Urban Renewal Center in Norfolk, Virginia in the Spring of 2017. He is the Criminal Justice System Director for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), president of the Global Institute for Empowerment & Leadership Development, known as GIELD, and he serves as the Director of TheUrbanCircle.Net, a relational network of urban ministries and churches. He has additional experience as an educator, academic lecturer, itinerant preacher, pastor, youth director, motivational speaker, and Christian musician. He is the author of Holy Spirit, Holy Living: A Practical Theology of Holiness for Twenty-first Century Churches (Wipf & Stock, 2013) and Unstoppable Success: 7 Ways to Flourish in Your Boundless Potential (High Bridge Books, 2014). AntipasHarris.com | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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