The Gospel, the Church and Holistic Development of Urban Youth

By: Antipas Harris
Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about our expanding urban world. The future leadership of communities, society and the world rests in the hands of youth. As the world is increasingly urban with accompanying struggles, it seems logical that urban churches place particular emphasis on youth-development. If the total restoration of the situation of depravity, as relating to urban youth, is not the church’s primary focus, the future of urban communities is bleak.

Recently, I presented a paper at Empowered 21 in Tulsa, OK. The paper addressed the need for churches to re-vision their ecclesiological superstructure. I argue that to achieve a goal of transformation, urban churches need ecclesiological outlook grounded in a theology of total transformation. The most fundamental Christian theology of total transformation exists in Christ’s holistic vision of the gospel. Churches, moreover, must maximize the effectiveness of the holistic gospel by embracing a renewed concept of “the Church” as the “Body of Christ” (I Corinthians 12:12-13), advancing the mission of Christ as expressed in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because (the Holy Spirit) has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. (The Spirit) has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

From this passage, James Cone draws an inherent message about Jesus. In Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998, he argues that Jesus’ work is profoundly and essentially one of liberation.[1] By liberation, Cone means that Jesus is primarily concerned with helping, mentoring, advocating for, educating, and healing victims of social oppression.  To this end, Cone contends that Jesus launched “an age of liberation in which ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them’” (Luke 7:22). He further argues that “in Christ, God enters human affairs…. Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair.”[2] While liberation theology provides insight into the social dynamics of the gospel, it is important to note that a gospel of liberation expressed in the life, teaching and works of Jesus is actually holistic in nature. In Toward a Prophetic Youth Ministry, Fernando Arzola Jr. critiques the Liberation theological approach suggesting that while existential liberation is essential to Jesus’ ministry,  a close read of the gospel renders more of a holistic theology.  By holistic theology, Arzola contends that the gospel addresses the total human situation– social, personal, and spiritual.[3] I want to push Arzola a bit further, however. I argue that a holistic theology includes the role of community. All of Jesus’ ministry involved and was concerned with community. For the future of urban communities, moreover, it is imperative that the churches embrace and proclaim this holistic theology as explained in Arzola with my added emphasis on “community.”

I believe, furthermore, that churches with ecclesiologies grounded in a holistic theology develop ministries that focus total community transformation and beyond their own walls. A holistic approach to ministry, grounded in holistic theology extracted from Christ’s gospel, minimizes the celebrity-oriented notions of ministry and reduces the “Hollywood” ministerial aspirations paramount among churches today. Without a holistic vision of ministry, urban churches lose their relevance in holistically developing youth into men and women to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Does Luke 4:18-19 count with respect to urban communities? It seems that churches have a wonderful opportunity to make a holistic difference in the world with respect to youth, urban youth specifically. Will they take advantage of this opportunity or will they let this chance slip away? What do you think?

[1]. James H. Cone, Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), 6 and 7.  Also, see Ronald J. Sider, “An Evangelical Theology of Liberation” showarticle.asp? title=1757 (accessed 5 March 2010).

[2]. Terry Matthews, “A Black Theology of Liberation (Lecture 26),” perspectives/twentyseven.html (accessed 08, February 2010); also, see James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1990).

[3]Fernando Arzola Jr., Toward a Prophetic Youth Ministry: Theory and Praxis in Urban Context (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 32, 33.

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Antipas Harris
This entry was posted by on Thursday, April 15th, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Church Ministry, Holistic Formation, Urban Renewal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “The Gospel, the Church and Holistic Development of Urban Youth”

  1. Jason Wermuth says:

    Dr. Harris,

    Your post raises a number of interesting points. I think you are right that if we are going to see transformation in urban areas, we need holistic transformation that focuses on the whole person, after all, who cares about invisible needs when you are hungry, or suffering at home? Nevertheless, I want to push back against Cone a bit. Not being well acquainted with his work, I will reserve my comments only for your citation.

    You state that from Lk 4:18-19, “James Cone draws an inherent message about Jesus. In Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998, he argues that Jesus’ work is profoundly and essentially one of liberation.” I would say it differently, but perhaps I come out at the same place, I’m not sure. I would suggest that Jesus’ work is profoundly and essentially one of inaugurating the kingdom reign of God upon earth as it is in heaven. That includes “liberation” of the captives, but it also comes with learning to see suffering in a new way. Now I know that this would not be popular to say, but I believe it to be scripturally cogent. In Phil 1:29, Paul writes “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” In 1 Thess 3:4, Paul writes “For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.” Jesus himself says “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What happens to the Apostles and Jesus himself was not an immediate liberation from the pain and suffering of this world, but the reception of a new way of perceiving suffering. In Col 1:24, Paul, speaking of the many afflictions he has been suffering declares “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” In my view, the kingdom reality is absolutely coming to turn this broken, upside-down world, rightside-up again in a holistic way, and yet, the reality is while we are laboring and yearning for the renewal of creation to be fulfilled, we also must learn to suffer as Christ and the Apostles did, not growing weary if we do not see the time fulfilled when the new reign is fully inaugurated on earth.

    As it pertains to youth, I believe that we have to be Christ to them in healing them from their diseases and feeding them and all of the rest that comes with holistic renewal, but we also must help them to understand the new way of seeing the world and their trials and tribulations. The unfortunate reality is that suffering will probably persist until the parousia, and if people are not clear about that, then they will likely grow weary and bitter. Rather than just preaching that Jesus’ primary focus was on “liberating” people from their captivities, we also need to teach that God, in Jesus, was once a captive himself, and so were his Apostles and by the power of the Spirit, these men and women were able to find joy even in the midst of sorrow, while awaiting their complete liberation which will only come through the Spirit’s inauguration of the kingdom of God.

    • Antipas Harris Dr. A says:

      Jason, thank you for your comment. You have raised some interesting points. It is important,however, not to theologize the affirmation of suffering. Rather, one might use your passages quoted as launching pad to theologize the situation of persecution for the name of Jesus. Note that the liberation explained in Cone has to do primarily with racism and human exestential depravation. This, I think, is different from the type of suffering applauded in scripture– suffering pertaining to persecusion for the name of Jesus. I am not suggesting that the church should work to holistically liberate urban youth from suffering for the cause or name of Jesus. I am promoting holistic liberation from the exestential misfortunes such as poverty, fatherlessness, lack of self esteem, systemic oppression, rape, sex trafficing, molestation, abuse, etc.

  2. Jason Wermuth says:

    Dr. A,

    Thanks for your clarification. You are absolutely correct that we as the church MUST set the captives free in the area’s that you mention. As for racism, it is an abomination and it must be extinguished in all its forms. It is certainly our job and mandate as the church to bear these burdens and to right these wrongs, even if it means suffering on our part!