Racial Reconciliation Series: Ministering to Families in the Urban Context
As part of the release of fall 2017 edition of Contact Magazine, the Office Hours Faculty Blog is proud to present a 6-week series on racial reconciliation featuring articles written by experts, scholars and ministry leaders from Gordon-Conwell. The weekly release each Friday and will include articles A Conversation with Dr. Emmett G. Price III, Beyond Colorblind, Ministering to Families in the Urban Context, How Do We Learn to Love Our Neighbor, Racial Reconciliation: My Personal Experience and Can We All Get Along.
Ministering to Families in the Urban Context
Dr. Virginia Ward (MA ’10, D.Min.’16), Assistant Professor of Counseling, Director of Counseling and Academic Support Initiatives and teaches at the seminary’s Boston Campus.
Churches in the urban landscape are poised to reach families of all ethnicities.
More families are living in urban areas than in the past. The United States Census Bureau reported that in 1950 only 56 percent of the population lived in the city. That number increased to 76 percent in 1989 and to 80.7 percent in 2010.
The urbanization of communities during the mid-century created new challenges for families. The major support systems of the family, school and work encountered a different set of demands. Urban youth were faced with social and economic problems at a greater rate than their suburban counterparts.1
The biblical “first family” gives us a snapshot of the complexity of the urban family:
• A father, although present, is not walking in his full authority
• A mother, deceived by Satan, disobeys God’s commandment
• An angry, envious son kills his brother
• An obedient son innocently loses his life
As a result of these complex issues, the family is a) displaced from their original home environment (the Garden of Eden), b) in trauma over the loss of a son and, c) faces economic hardship due to Adam’s new job situation. Many of the issues facing urban families are displayed in this account: opposing agendas, lack of male leadership, unsupported females, sibling rivalry and economic hardship, to name a few.
Although the first biblical family had a father present in the home, 70 percent of urban families [currently] do not have a male parent living in the home. For the 30 percent that do, most of the parents are struggling to find their spiritual identity and do not feel adequate to help their children.
Today, the urban family is not as well defined as in bible times. The biblical mandates requiring parents to train their children in the ways of God and equip them for life assumed that each home unit was comprised of a father and mother. These mandates were taught from the previous generation and passed on to the current generation in order for them to instruct future generations. Fathers and mothers were given specific roles to accomplish this goal.
The current urban family description does not fit this pattern. With the exodus of men and women from the home to the world of work and the increase of fatherlessness, the traditional, biblical model of parenting is in question. Given the abandonment of children to the influence of technology and the streets, coupled with the epidemic of violence that touches the lives of youth, today families require additional support.2
The extended family of grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and all blood relatives used to be a constant network to rely on in times of need. Over the years this extended network has fragmented and families are left with minimal internal support. Immigrant families often have an additional language barrier to face.
Governmental agencies and community supports have risen in attempt to meet the challenge of supporting families. Urban churches can also assist with this challenge to support families, even in complicated circumstances, if youth leaders are properly trained to do so.
In cases where the mother is the head of household, the Church must support single mothers to become the spiritual leaders and champions in the home.3 We have witnessed many single mothers who have raised Christian children who are successful academically, socially and financially. Using the Church as a community, single mothers, Christian and non-Christian, can connect with strong Christian families. Men serving as uncles, big brothers and fathers support the children.
Urban fathers are not totally out of the picture. There are some hard-working fathers who have stayed in the home despite the special challenges and barriers facing urban fathers. Dr. Willie Richardson, author of Reclaiming the Urban Family, declares that the Church cannot build strong families without reaching out to fathers and sons. The Church can help men address the issues plaguing their parenting successfully in an urban environment by being intentional about including men in the spiritual development of youth.
The urban church is a great resource for families seeking additional support for their children’s holistic development. Eugene Roehlkepartain of Youth Ministry in City Churches believes that each urban church must develop its own plan to reach youth and families in their community. He states that since no city is exactly alike; the youth ministry models will also vary. Although the ministry components may be similar, there is no one size fits all approach in urban youth and family ministry.
In Hardwired to Connect it is noted that religious institutions are recognized as one of the strongest civic institutions in low-income neighborhoods.4 Urban churches can provide better leadership by empowering youth leaders to build authoritative communities to support youth and families. This is a practical approach, enabling youth leaders to connect with the multiple systems that surround our youth. Urban youth ministry models must address all aspects of youth development in connection with the family. The urban family needs a connection to the Church and other supportive systems. The youth leader can be the facilitator of these connections.
The living parts or systems in urban environments include the family, health, education, justice, poverty, trauma, faith, court and penal institutions, civic duty and the multi-faceted cultural component. These systems in the urban environment surrounding youth connect with each other, some by choice and others by force. Youth workers should be able to identify these systems and connect with them for strategic ministry to youth and their families. Understanding urban and family systems are essential keys to ministry in an urban context. Youth and family ministry in the urban environment demands an understanding of the complex systems surrounding the urban family and urban church.
In their book The Cat and the Toaster, Dr. Doug and Judy Hall, who for 50 years led the Emmanuel Gospel Center in urban Boston, present a biblical narrative of urban systems and a challenge to urban ministries to think systemically about how to navigate and connect in their communities. Urban church based youth leaders can benefit from these principles and develop relevant ministries to youth and their families.
1 Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Youth Ministry in City Churches: Proven Tips From Over 40 Youth Ministry Veterans (Loveland, CO: Thom Schultz Publication, Inc., 1989), 24.
2 R. Miller, “A Brief Introduction to Holistic Education,” The Encyclopedia of Informal Education (2000), accessed
3 George Barna, High Impact African American Churches, 136.
4 The Commission on Children at Risk, Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. (New York: Institute for American Values, 2003), 45.
Dr. Virginia Ward is Assistant Dean of Gordon-Conwell’s Boston Campus and Assistant Professor of Ministry and Leadership Development. Previously Director of Leadership and Mentored Ministry Initiatives at that campus, Dr. Ward has extensive experience as an urban pastor, ministry organizer and youth ministry expert. A third-generation minister, Rev. Ward and her husband, Bishop Larry Ward, have co-pastored the Abundant Life Church (Cambridge, MA) which they founded in 1988. She has also been a trainer for the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative and the Black Ministerial Alliance, and Director of InterVarsity’s Black Campus Ministries.
- Read the full Fall 2017 edition of Contact Magazine.
- Find more information on Gordon-Conwell’s new Institute for the Study of the Black Christian Experience.
- Read alumna Sarah Shin’s discussion of ethnic identity.
- Read our interview with Dr. Emmett G. Price III on racism and the church.