In Atlanta: A Blueprint for Urban Discipleship

Dhati Lewis is building something new in Atlanta.

“A lot of our Christian environments are passive—where people simply come, sit and soak. But we leaders get mad when Christians adopt a consumer mindset. Well, if it’s a consumer environment, what do we expect?”

It all started, publicly at least, with a 1958 article in the pages of Fortune magazine. It was titled “Downtown Is for People,” and was written by an unlikely urban activist: a bespectacled mother of three and former stenographer with no formal architectural training. Her name was Jane Jacobs, and she got right down to it.

“Almost every big city is getting ready to build, and the plans will soon be set. What will the projects look like? They will be spacious, parklike and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and orderly. They will be clean, impressive and monumental.

“They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery.”

The fact that Fortune, a business monthly, was publishing a piece on urban planning highlights the buzz around the conversation in the late 1950s. Nearly every major American city was going (literally) back to the drawing board, trying to reverse trends of urban “decay” with the application of big design.

The modern approach that emerged was simple: raze, then raise. Cities were acting quickly, clearing vast swaths of downtown centers block by block. The general idea was to replace rough-and-tumble multiuse spaces that had naturally grown over the life of the city with the ambitious essence of mid-century modern—clean and organized, with long lines. There would be a place for everything, and for everything … well, you know.

People would live, work, play, eat, heal, die, commute and all the rest, in neat and organized places, following neat and organized paths; and downtown (a confusing, even frightening place for many suburbanites) would be Made Great Again.

It made sense on paper. Crisp drawings unrolled on oak desks in city hall, smelling of fresh ink. Candy-colored boulevards of trees stretched out upon them, leading through glimmering city blocks, like something off a Sunday-school poster of heaven. Broad-shouldered businessmen smiled through the windows of rocket buses. Mothers shopped securely for large joints of beef. Children frolicked. And what fault could be found with all that?

For Jane Jacobs, plenty. She named this vision the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful,” claimed it to be a mashup of architectural hubris with misplaced sentiment, and objected to it, not merely because it would prove impossible, but because it would be a “monumental bore.”

She chose her word—“bore”—carefully, filling the term with a horrible deadliness. The life of a city or neighborhood center ought to be magnetic, she argued, having a bustling, unpredictable, bizarre sort of life. That was what made a city productive (ideas and culture blossom), safe (many eyes of invested locals make safe streets) and, most importantly, livable. She equated the predictable efficiency of modern planning to a capital sentence for the city, because it would kill the basic building blocks of overlapping common interest that people organically create when pressed close to one another.

Three years after the Fortune essay, Jacobs published her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which, arguably, had more influence on American urban planning than any other single work of the 20th century. Her observations, on trajectory from her first opinions, still read like revelations.

“Why are there so often no people where the parks are and no parks where the people are?”

“Design is people.”

“New ideas must use old buildings.”

Jacobs’ core argument for city health was simple: Allow the citizen, through simple design, to be an active participant in the life of the city rather than a passive observer. She acknowledged that this would not happen effectively without planning, but what was needed were simple, strategic changes—wider sidewalks, effective mixed-use spaces for 24-hour activity, ensuring that work and home spaces always had a line of sight to the street—rather than razing and rebuilding.

“She began by writing about sidewalks and finished with an account of Western civilization itself,” wrote one reviewer. Jacobs set out a vision. It was specific, it was compelling, it was true to experience. It had implications far beyond architecture. And she, never having finished college, saw what a generation of the experts couldn’t: Cities are for people.

Anything But a Bore

“The Bible spends relatively little time talking about Christian gatherings, but a lot of time talking about issues of disciple-making. We’ve flipped this on its head. Why?”

The day I call Dr. Dhati Lewis, I happen to be “farm-sitting” for my best friends. They’re permaculture farmers here in Oregon—innovating a method of agriculture that mimics and improves what nature is already doing. It’s regenerative, creating dense, diverse tracts of productive land—even able, over the course of years, to turn previously “useless” land (clay, stone, sand, marsh) into rich sources of food and income. In five years, I’ve seen these acres turn from a stand of motley firs to an in-the-black sustainable farm and education hub.

Permaculture is farming through the same principles that Jacobs so deftly named—cultivating by partnering with dynamics already at work instead of fighting them. No long, spacious rows, no one-use pesticides, no tracts of “mono-cultures.” It is (to borrow a term you can find elsewhere in this issue of Outreach) a kind of “beautiful, organized chaos.”

It’s anything but a bore. But farmers give something up along the way—the idea that they automatically know best what their land needs. They must become true learners, gaining specific, intimate knowledge of the dynamics that shape their acreage. They must start with the concrete, not the abstract. They must look to see, not just look to use.

As I dial the phone, I picture Dr. Dhati Lewis standing right there at the edge of the field. Lewis, son of former NFL player Reggie Lewis, is lead pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and executive director of community restoration with the North American Mission Board. His ministry is a delightful blend of the strategic and the organic. I’m calling to talk about his debut book, Among Wolves: Disciple-Making in the City (B&H, 2017). The book, drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, outlines eight movements to help people move from a desire to make disciples to, as Dhati puts it, “mobilizing an army for ministry.”

Dhati (D’-HOT-ee) picks up, and we get to know each other for a few minutes. Naturally, our conversation turns to his work. “I was talking to my kids a few months ago,” he says, “about why we live in the neighborhood we do and why we send them to the schools they go to. I told them that the story of the kids in our neighborhood is my story.”

“How so?”

“My dad disappeared for a portion of my life,” he replies. “From 5th grade to 9th grade I didn’t know where he was.” He pauses and clears his throat. “Those were formative years. During that time, I had a typical inner-city kid story. I lived with mom, grandma and aunts. In that time, even though I wasn’t a believer, God used other people in my story. If he hadn’t raised faithful people up, who can say where I’d be today? Every person has a story. We need to be able to learn their stories, learn to identify with their stories. To do that, we need to be in proximity with them.”

“Your book says that we have a problem with ministry cultures of passivity,” I say. “And that attitude is anything but passive. Can you speak to that?”

“A lot of our Christian environments are passive. They are spaces (conferences, concerts, church services) where people simply come, sit and soak. They are being ministered to by just a few people who are active up front. And as a result, most Christians simply become passive receivers.”

Dhati chuckles. “So, our ministry culture encourages this, but at the same time we leaders get mad when fellow Christians adopt a consumer mindset. Well, if it’s a consumer environment, what do we expect?”

Outside, chickens and ducks mingle, browsing along the fence line of their coop. Finding the door open, they waddle out, pecking for grubs. Sidewalks shape the city, I think to myself, fences shape the pasture. Where we put the pews shapes the people.

“Passivity happens when things are simply acted upon you,” Dhati continues. “Activity is when you’re doing the action. What we see in the New Testament is that Jesus is active in his disciple-making. As a result, his disciples are active. He calls his disciples to come alongside him and grow, to co-labor with him. They are not only ministered to, they become ministers.”

“How does that change a church?” I ask.

“It demands we move disciple-making right to the center of things,” says Dhati. “We often focus so exclusively on our Sunday gatherings. We put all our energy into great services, giving lip service to the activity of discipleship, but all our resources to structures that allow passivity. Jesus did the opposite. He put all his energy into the activity of making disciples. The Bible spends relatively little time talking about Christian gatherings, but a lot of time talking about issues of disciple-making. We’ve flipped that on its head. Why?”

It’s an awfully good question. “How does this connect to your work in the city, Dhati?”

“Back to my story—I wasn’t raised in the church. Up until 5th grade, I lived in a pretty privileged environment, in a wealthy part of our city. But after my dad disappeared, we were on welfare the next month. From then on, my experiences were very typical of the inner city.

“When I came to know the Lord in college, I didn’t have a clue of what it really meant to be a Christian, and I quickly ran into a key challenge. As I was looking to really be discipled, there were hardly any people from my home context who could mentor me. I had to leave my dense and diverse context to be trained. Basically, I was forced to choose between being around people who understood my urban identity and context, or people who got my theology and could help me grow in it. It made me into a kind of ‘third-culture’ kid.

“The big moment for me came at seminary. I was rocked by what I was learning. I saw the richness of Scripture against the impotence of our ministry efforts. If this is true, I thought, then why isn’t our world any different? Why isn’t there change? That was the moment where I shifted from passive to active. I decided to commit the rest of my life to doing something. I wanted to work so that others could be transformed, and that led me back to the realities of urban life. I wanted to be part of the last generation who had to leave the urban environment to be trained.”

After a short pause, he continues.

“Look, Paul—there are so many challenges for an urban person going out to be trained. There are the assumptions of so many of our Christian institutions that favor majority culture. We see it in everything from the common family analogies of most Christian children’s books, to biblical interpretation. The person coming from outside is at a disadvantage. Urban believers are strong, they can handle it. But I wish they didn’t have to.

“And this principle cuts both ways,” he adds. “When we interpret Scripture only from a place of privilege, we miss its nuance. Look at James 1 for example. It encourages those with privilege to think lowlier of themselves, and those without it to think more highly. We all gain through that! At the foot of the cross, we’re all peers. All people are received with dignity. You miss those nuances if you’re just reading from a place of disconnected privilege. You miss the racial tensions, say, of Acts, between Hebraic and Hellenistic Christians, or the undertones in Romans and Galatians. Someone like me, when having to leave and study in a context of privilege, can miss himself as a minority in the Bible. But the truth is that the Bible has so much to say to the inner city.”

The Bible in the Inner City

“I wanted to work so that others could be transformed, and that led me back to the realities of urban life. I wanted to be part of the last generation who had to leave the urban environment to be trained.”

“We could talk about that all morning,” I say. “But get us started.”

“Historically, American Christianity has been most successful in rural and suburban areas. But the whole world is shifting toward urbanization. It’s historic—a major turning point. Most sociologists see the huge shift from rural and suburban areas continuing this century. But the problem, from a ministry perspective, is that most seminaries and large, ‘successful’ churches are suburban. The city is left desolate in a lot of ways, meaning that Christians native to urban contexts need to leave their home environments to be trained and discipled elsewhere. What we need to do is embrace the beauty and complexity of the city.

“Urban areas are characterized by density and diversity. How do we engage those complexities? How do we face the challenges of navigating the divides between rich and poor? How about multiethnic and multicultural divides? Multigenerational ones? All the different nuances that come in the city can enrich our faith and discipleship. But we need to figure out how to create disciple-making cultures that produce within the context they are intended to serve. We shouldn’t have to leave the urban environment to be trained for ministry in a growing urban environment. We want to know how it looks in our context. We want to perfect sharing the gospel in our context. We need to find indigenous planters. We need to raise up people who are native to the urban context to do ministry there.

“Too often our church planting strategies involve people moving from outside the urban context to do ministry. This just fosters a process of gentrification in urban areas that simply means that new church plants still reach the same suburban crowd, who now just drive in—or move in—from outside the city.”

“What are you learning about ministry in a gentrifying environment?” I ask.

“The Old Fourth Ward is ground zero for gentrification, and it sets up unique pressures. We find both worlds—longtime residents and those moving in—have extreme pride. The gentrified community, who show up to neighborhood association meetings and that kind of thing, are saying constantly that they ‘love the neighborhood.’ But with the implication that if we could just get rid of that subsidized housing, it would be perfect. Meanwhile the indigenous communities are saying, ‘Hey, we’re the last standing ’hood. We are the neighborhood, and we aren’t going anywhere.’

“I often tell our congregation that we are one bad traffic stop away from having Ferguson repeat itself in our neighborhood, riots and all. The tension is huge. It all comes down to xenophobia. In this meeting of rich and poor, black and white, all these different dynamics get on top of one another. And they fear each other, because they fear the unknown. Both sides find themselves around a strange culture. It makes them uncomfortable. They’re in proximity and not used to it. They aren’t accustomed to their neighbors, who don’t talk, look or act like they do. And this brings us right back to the need for urban leaders who don’t have to move to find effective ministry training to impact their context.

“Amid gentrification, it’s critical to shift from an ethnic missiology to a neighbor missiology. We must think through how we’re reaching our neighbors. Being in the Fourth Ward has forced us to think more holistically. A ‘build it and they will come’ model won’t work here. But too many church services are depending on a relevant church service to attract the neighborhood.”

“What principles are you learning that transfer to those working outside the urban core?” I ask.

“Gentrification and urbanization don’t just impact the city. They also reshape suburbs and rural areas. As a result, dynamics that may not have been familiar in the past are moving. Sociologists are saying that urbanization is going to continue. It’s at about 51 percent of the global population now and is expected to move into the upper 60s in the next decade or so. What that means is that we’re not going to have what we thought of as a typical inner-city model. Rural and suburban areas are going to become more ‘urbanized.’ Even now, we have more people living in poverty in suburbs and rural areas than in the inner city. So, if you’re doing ministry in suburban or rural areas, many ministry dynamics traditionally associated with the city are coming to you very quickly.”

The Great (Holistic) Requirement

“It’s not just something that we talk about, but something that we live out. It’s not just something to be thought. It’s to be experienced.”

Dhati pauses. “But here’s why the idea of holistic disciple-making is critical. Evangelicals in America have long had the bad habit of believing that if we save the soul, everything else takes care of itself. We’ve missed it. We’ve limited our Christianity to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. But what we have largely lost is the great requirement—Micah 6:8: ‘He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’

“That’s holistic. It certainly addresses the spiritual, but also the emotional, the social, the economic. And this is what disciple-making is about. We see this all throughout the book of James, for example. We are asked to lead people into holistic faith. Jesus fed the people. He healed them. He spoke against a religious system that oppressed them. That benefitted his disciple-making process. He was holistic and sent his disciples out holistically. We inherit their mission.”

“Tell me about the wolves, please. After all, you titled your book after them. Who are they? What are they?” I ask.

“The wolves are really life,” Dhati replies. “Where life exists anywhere out of a sheltered environment of ‘insider’ Christian life. The wolves are on our block, in our neighborhood, jobs, schools, government, anywhere believers and unbelievers mix. The wolves, basically, are our opposition. Those who, intentionally or unintentionally, destroy the gospel,” he says.

“It sounds like they are systems and individuals?” I respond.

“Yes—both. And that’s a very important distinction.”

“Tell me about doing work between communities that emphasize the systemic wolves, and communities that emphasize the individual ones,” I say. “Painting broadly, most conservatives pound the pulpit on individual responsibility, but clam up when you start talking about the moral qualities of systems. And again, many progressive or urban communities are quick to point out the systemic issues and de-emphasize individual action.”

“What you just did is important,” Dhati replies. “Often when I address these issues, I use a four-fold process: awareness, or ‘Where are we?’; vision, ‘ Where does God want us to be?’; strategy, ‘How do we get there?’ and courage, ‘What are the obstacles or fears that would keep us from doing that?’

“What you just did was create an awareness between us. We need to first become aware that we all have a shared problem in front of us to even begin the discussion.

“For example—racism. White conservatives tend to address the problem in individual terms. But most minorities see social systems as part of the problem. To move forward, we need to understand how we understand it. If we’re all going to call racism sin, how are we going to address it? Someone may be coming from a more individualistic perspective, but I may be coming from a more systemic one. Let’s talk about it! Let’s address those things!

“Being aware of those dynamics is the first step. Otherwise, we’re missing one another. It can even lead to a point where some of us are not even willing to call racism sin, because we’re not even willing to identify our perspectives in that environment or acknowledge that other believers have different perspectives.”

“Bring this back to Blueprint,” I say. “How does your own church fit in with this right now?”

“This is why we are so adamant about discipleship being the ministry of the church. This is why we say that ‘a call to ministry is a call to discipleship.’ Everything we do emphasizes that reality: We are all being discipled by this church; me too, and every leader.

“It’s only the power of the Holy Spirit that allows us to overcome the challenges we have set up with our disciple-making strategy in a passive environment. The body of Christ needs to reengage with activity—active disciple-making.

“I want us to create a culture of disciplers. I want us to move from