Adam Thomason is the Pastor of Damascus Road Church in Flint, Michigan and CEO of Collision Records.
Urban ministry and urban contexts are often treated like a zoo—people come, visit for a short time, take pictures of animals in their cages, leave, and do a show and tell with some of their friends back home. For many people that’s where it ends. They don’t leave desiring to come back and be a zookeeper. A zookeeper intimately knows the pleasures, tediousness, joys, dangers and needed perseverance of living and existing long term in a zoo environment. A zoo-visitor, on the flip side, doesn’t feel any burden to begin living a different or more intentional lifestyle. The zoo is there, more or less, as a form of entertainment for its visitors. There’s no real sacrifice or change expected of anyone who enters and exits through its gates.
Too often this is how we treat urban communities as the body of Christ. Even when Christ was just “passing through” some of the zoo-like environments of his day, he poured out sacrificial love on those he interacted with. He wasn’t there as a mere spectator. He wasn’t there to show and tell others where he had been. Jesus was there with an intimate understanding of the spiritual and physical needs of those who lived in that environment.
Urban ministry is obviously just one of many ministry environments the Lord calls and equips his people for. Wherever people are is where we hope and pray solid, biblical, God-honoring churches will be whether that is urban, suburban, rural or otherwise. But let’s pause for a moment and ask ourselves the honest question of how we view urban ministry in particular. Most of those ministries are certainly in need of and grateful for the financial gifts they receive. But if we took some time to stop and ask those who are living among the urban communities what some of the bigger, unmet needs are in helping them impact their communities, many will say, “more zookeepers.” They’ve seen plenty of zoo-vistors politely pass through. But the real need is for more hands and feet on the ground committed to those communities that are so easily written off as too hard to live on or void of any opportunities for gainful employment. People who are willing to wrestle through the difficulties of living in an area with awful schools which greatly limits and increases the difficulty of choosing a sound schooling option for their children.
As Christians, we clearly recognize where the zookeeper analogy ends and where biblical reality begins. We aren’t “better-thans” looking down upon “animals” in a cage, we’re fellow sinners in need of God’s grace, gifted in ways to pour out our lives in those communities and humble enough to recognize our need for the gifts of people from those communities as well. We’re all equals when it comes to the need for Christ’s death and God’s grace (cf. When Helping Hurts). And let’s be careful not to think that those who take up the burden to become “zookeepers” long-term are better than those who don’t. There are plenty of people serving long-term in urban contexts more out of self-righteousness than out of a Christ-love for people living in difficult contexts, and there are plenty of people living out a biblical love of God and neighbor in non-urban environments as well. But may God burden us all to look around the community we’re currently living in, recognize the “zoo” environments present, seek out those who are currently doing zookeeper-type work, find out what the true needs are, wrestle honestly before the Lord about whether or not we’re treating the urban community as a zoo-visitor, and come alongside our brothers and sisters serving in what are truly difficult contexts to serve in. Let’s also recognize what we can learn from our urban brothers and sisters and bring back into our own communities as well.
Follow Adam Thomason on Twitter @redrev.