the shape of leadership

What Hard Places Have Taught Me

Three lessons from urban ministry

R Dale Stephens Jr on May 5, 2020

Ministry has seasons that are hard everywhere for everyone, and God uses those seasons to shape us all in the image of Christ. I grew up in Atlanta’s middle-class suburbs.

We sensed God calling us to plant a church in the city where we had been living for a decade. When we launched, we were green enough to be idealistic but old enough to be measured.

Planting a church in the city was a radical shift in ministry — from serving a primarily middle-class community to serving a diverse economic and ethnic population. The personal growth that comes from that shift in ministry can feel challenging and overwhelming.

This journey has taken us beyond the textbooks and into the reality of learning through experience. God is teaching us that urgency is rooted in reality, contextualization is key, and God has never left His people.


Last summer, we took a dozen or so kids to youth camp. During our trip, the group received word that Drebo, one of the kids from our neighborhood, had been shot and killed.

In his Instagram photos, Drebo poses shirtless with tattoos across his chest and his pants sagging. He looks like a young kid playing an adult game, one that cost him his life.

The kids routinely wear a tough mask, but they didn’t that day. The tragic news rocked them to the core. They were broken.

For children in this community, death is real, and it is close. The stakes are too high to be playing church. It’s critical for pastors to urgently share the full gospel in word and deed.

Stories like Drebo’s remind us we live in a fallen world. People will suffer. Some will get sick, and others will die.

Many Israelites died at the hands of their oppressors, Paul had his thorn in the flesh, and Stephen was stoned to death. Suffering is a part of the human experience.

Yet there is great hope in Christ — not because of the absence of suffering, but because God is with us in the suffering (Matthew 1:23; Hebrews 13:5).

This journey has taken us beyond the textbooks and into the reality of learning through experience.

There will be incredible victories, and there will be moments when the sin of humanity will steal life. Through it all, we must maintain our sense of urgency to reach the lost.


Diving deep into the culture of the community has been crucial for building relationships and effectively sharing the Word.

Longtime resident Ms. Karen has been our guide. She’s taken me beyond learning the common quips and phrases of our neighborhood and into a deeper level of cultural understanding.

I think of the shallow forms of culture as the typical common interests, food or music. As we dive deeper into culture, we uncover the deeper cultural pillars, like values and beliefs.

Those are the real markers of culture. I’ve learned that cloaking “Christianese” in cool lingo is a poor representation of the gospel.

I’m reminded of Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17), who utilizes the local philosophy, theology and artistry to communicate the truth of God. He shares the gospel in a contextualized manner that moves beyond colloquialism into the structures of values and beliefs to connect with the people.


The last lesson is grounded in a theological concept familiar to us all: God is omnipresent. In the early days of our church plant, I would go door to door and connect with neighbors.

Many outsiders see the neighborhood as dangerous and corrupt. To some, it might seem as though God has abandoned the people and left them to their own demise. Through my friend Ms. Cynthia, God has given me a very different perspective on so-called “bad neighborhoods.”

Ms. Cynthia is a prayer warrior. She’s a woman of God, and her presence carries strength. I knew when I first met her we needed her on board with what God was calling us to do.

Cynthia taught me God never left the neighborhood. Many believers left for better property and schools, but God never left. God was always with her.

In fact, she speaks to Him each morning and each evening right there on her block. Ms. Cynthia knows, like many people across the world, that God is everywhere, revealing himself.

It’s been a sobering and growing experience, pastoring in hard places. We have learned that urban neighborhoods have incredible resources, such as rich histories, Spirit-filled believers and God’s presence pouring out His love.

The last few years have solidified in all of us these biblical convictions of urgency, contextualization and God’s presence.

I hope we all stay urgent for the sake of the gospel and for those suffering. May we, as the Church, continue to contextualize the gospel in meaningful ways in word and deed.

Remember, God has never left His children. No matter how dark or bleak it may look, He is with you. I believe your perseverance will produce a Romans 5 character and hope that will sustain.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Influence magazine.

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