Revitalizing Urban Ministry in Theological Education

 A Project of the Center for the Study and Practice of Urban Religion

at New York Theological Seminary


A city isn’t just a place to live, to shop, to go out and have kids play. It’s a place that implicates how one derives one’s ethics, how one develops a sense of justice, how one learns to talk with and learn from people who are unlike oneself, which is how a human being becomes human.[1]

Cities are always made by mobility – or, as in current parlance, by flows – of people, money, goods and signs. They combine, for this reason, paradoxical extremes of wealth and poverty, familiarity and strangeness, home and abroad. Cities are where new things are created and from which they spread across the world. A city is both a territory and an attitude, and perhaps this attitude is culture.[2]



Project Overview


The Center for the Study and Practice of Urban Religion (C-SPUR) at New York Theological Seminary, with support from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, is launching a three-year project intended to help revitalize the study and practice of urban ministry in theological education in North America today. While the vision of the project encompasses the wider global urban reality, one of its primary concerns is with teaching and learning in accredited schools of theological education in North America. Integrating scholarship and practice, and drawing upon a range of academic disciplines, faith traditions, and urban institutions, the project seeks to open a wider conversation that will result in the development of new models for urban learning and leadership training, and provide new resources for teaching urban ministry in theological education today that reflect more inclusive concerns and commitments.



The Challenge


Urban ministry as a field of study and practice in theological education in North America is facing a crisis. For more than two generations, the field has been inordinately influenced by conceptions of the city that have been shaped in the modern industrial era. Cities have often been seen as being “unheavenly” places, and urban life as fundamentally dysfunctional. The city consequently has come to be viewed in many instances primarily as a mission field. Urban ministry has for some has come to be identified as ministry and mission to the marginalized, minoritized, poor, or disenfranchised sectors of the city, be it in the form of evangelism or as work for liberation and justice. In a number of instances urban ministry has been seen as synonymous with African American and/or Latina/a ministries, giving rise to excellent contextual theological reflection and practice, but failing to engage the fuller horizons of contemporary urban experience.

Programs for urban ministry in theological education have often in the recent past focused on specific skills or strategies that define the city both implicitly and explicitly in terms of their deficiencies. Cities have been seen as places of poverty, violence, and oppression that are in need of outside intervention in the form of missions or evangelism. The life and work of churches and other religious institutions and communities that are already located in the city, from the “tall-steeple” to the “store-front” churches, to say nothing of the mosques, synagogues and temples have too often been ignored in these educational models. Equally ignored have been the numbers of people in cities who do not identify with a specific faith community or who identify with one than one, and whose spiritual life does not conform to more traditional religious institutional patterns.   The wider context of urban life with its financial institutions, corporate offices, medical institutions, museums, theaters, sports arenas, restaurants, night-clubs, wi-fi cafes, universities, government agencies, police departments, courthouses, prisons, and complex transportation systems has also too often been ignored both theoretically and practically. The relationship between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural contexts has escaped analysis in many of these efforts. With the emergence of a new urban reality in the form of the “post-industrial,” “post-modern,” or “post-colonial” global city, the theoretical and practical shortcomings of these efforts have become even more pronounced. As a result many of the traditional approaches to urban ministry in theological education have become increasingly ineffective, and in too many instances theoretical engagement with the city has been marginalized within the academic curriculum.



The Program


One can find numerous signs in theological education in North America that a new spring in urban ministry is now breaking out. “Revitalizing Urban Ministry” is intended to accelerate those efforts, drawing together key educators and practitioners to foster new conversations around religion and the city and prepare religious leaders for the global urban reality. It is also intended to bring the issue of global urbanization more fully into focus in theological education around the world. We are keenly aware that theological education reaches far beyond the walls of accredited schools at the graduate level. But we also know that much that happens in programs of urban leadership training look to the graduate schools of theological education to set the standard for learning and practice. We want to impact accredited graduate programs, especially those that are part of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada; and reach beyond to impact other programs of education and leadership training, whether they are granting formal degrees or not.

To these ends during the first year, C-SPUR and several partnering schools will convene four consultations across the USA to reflect upon urbanization, urban theology, and urban ministry. Each consultation will gather theological educators, other scholars, and practitioners from regional settings as well as from the project’s national leadership group. While discussions are expected to be open-ended, each consultation will also have a particular focus related to the overall project.

The four consultations, with location and dates, will be:

“What is the ‘Urban’ in ‘Urban Ministry’?”
Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL
October 29-30, 2014

“What is the ‘Ministry’ in ‘Urban Ministry’?”
Second Baptist Church / New Theological Seminary of the West, Santa Ana, CA
November 19-20, 2014

“Building Bridges in the City”
Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC
March 25-26, 2015

“Cities on the Move: Migration and Global Urbanization”
Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX
April 8-9, 2015

A fuller description of these four consultations is found on the Consultations Page.

Results of these conversations will serve as the starting point for the planning process that will lead to a large national conference on urban ministry and urban theology expected to be held in New York City in May of 2016. During this first year C-SPUR will also be collecting updated information on the status of programs in urban ministry in institutions of theological education across North America. Finally, C-SPUR will undertake two areas of specialized research and teaching. The first is on addressing multifaith community in urban ministry, and the second concerns the role of religion in building sustainable cities, with attention especially to urban churches.

The second phase of the project will entail the planning of a national conference on urban ministry to be held in New York City in May 2016. Beginning in January of 2015, C-SPUR will convene a national planning group to begin the planning process. Building upon the work of the regional consultations, the conference will be designed to bring together for several days of reflection and learning scholars and practitioners involved in theological education, other areas of urban studies, and training of religious leadership outside traditional institutions of formal theological education. Among the expected outcomes of the conference will be opportunities for further networking and learning, and the publication of new academic resources intended for use in theological education and other programs training religious leaders in and for urban contexts.

C-SPUR will continue during the year following the conference to assess and disseminate its learnings. The conference in the spring of 2016 is expected to produce a sizable amount of material that will need to be organized and put into accessible form to be a resource for urban ministry training programs. Among the publications we expect to see is a new introductory text-book for urban ministry that is suitable for classroom use in both an undergraduate- and graduate-level program in religious or theological education.




Leading the project from C-SPUR are:

  • Dr. Moses O. Biney, Assistant Professor of Religion and Society and Director of Research, C-SPUR
  • Rev. Lori Hartman, Director Development and Administration, C-SPUR
  • Dr. Alfred Johnson, Research Professor in Urban Ministry and Leadership
  • Mr. John Ducksworth, Research Fellow, C-SPUR


Joining them from the NYTS faculty are:

  • Dr. Efrain Agosto, Professor of New Testament, former Dean at Hartford Seminary, and former Director of the Center for Urban Ministerial Education in Boston
  • Dr. Kirkpatrick Cohall, Vice President and Academic Dean, and Senior Pastor of the Lenox Road Baptist Church in Brooklyn


The following persons from other institutions are part of the wider leadership group serving as an advisory council to the project:

  • Dr. Charles Amjad-Ali, Emeritus Martin Luther King Jr. Professor for Social Justice and Christian Community and the Director of Islamic Studies, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN
  • Dr. Katie Day, Charles A. Scheiren Professor of Church and Society and Director, Metropolitan/Urban Concentration, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, PA
  • Dr. Warren L. Dennis, Dirck Romeyn Professor of Metro-Urban Ministry, New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, NJ
  • Rev. Joel A. Gibson, Director of Faith Based Services, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, New York, NY
  • Dr. Alice Hunt, President and Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible & Theological Education, Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL
  • Ms. Jennifer Jones Austin, Esq., Chief Executive Officer, Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, New York, NY
  • Dr. Pamela Lightsey, Associate Dean for Community Life and Lifelong Learning, Clinical Assistant Professor of Contextual Theology and Practice, Boston University School of Theology, Boston, MA
  • Dr. Hugo Magallanes, Associate Professor of Christianity and Cultures, and Director, Center for the Study of Latino/a Christianity and Religions, SMU Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, TX
  • Rev. Dr. Ivan Pitts, Pastor, Second Baptist Church, Santa Ana, CA; Trustee, New Theological Seminary of the West, Pasadena, CA
  • Dr. Doug Powe, James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism and Professor of Urban Ministry, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC
  • Dr. Lester Edwin Ruiz, Director of Accreditation and Institutional Evaluation, Association of Theological Schools, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Dr. R. Drew Smith, Professor of Urban Ministry, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA
  • Dr. Helene Slessarev-Jamir, Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Ministries, Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, CA
  • Rev. Phil Tom, Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, the US Department of Labor, Washington, DC
  • Dr. Ronald C. White, former Dean, San Francisco Theological Seminary; Trustee, New Theological Seminary of the West, Pasadena, CA
  • Dr. Kevin Yoho, Adjunct Faculty, New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Regional leader in the Presbyterian Church (USA)


For more information contact Rev. Lori Hartman, C-SPUR at NYTS, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 500, New York, NY 10115; (212) 870-1211; or


[1] Richard Sennett, “The Civitas of Seeing,” Places: A Quarterly Journal of Environmental Design 5:4 (1989): 84.

[2] United Nations Human Settlements Programme, The State of the World’s Cities 2004/2005: Globalization and Urban Culture (London and Sterling, VA: Earthscan / UN-Habitat, 2004), 10.


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