Concepts of Conversion in the Inner City
What do people in America’s inner cities think about conversion?
I’m not referring the geographic center of cities, but to the urban areas that are often riddled by crime and characterized by social and economic blight. From west Philadelphia to Chicago’s south side; from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn to Watts in Los Angeles; from Anacostia in southeast Washington D.C. to the north side of St. Louis—what are the common understandings about how one becomes a Christian?
In some ways, this is a difficult question to answer, because no two inner cities are exactly the same. There are common elements, but each inner city possesses a wide range of worldviews, cultures, education levels, and theological backgrounds.
Also, over the past forty-plus years since the beginning of the civil rights movement, the church’s influence over the minds, life philosophies, and values of many people in the “hood” has steadily diminished, especially over the young men. People don’t view the church as a viable option for addressing the needs and crises that press in upon them. Christianity is often seen as either “grandmom’s religion” or something for drug addicts and the incarcerated when they hit rock bottom. In place of the church, a wide range of religions and non-Christian cults have literally grabbed the mic. Hip-hop culture, too, has been used as a pipeline through which unbiblical ideologies flow into the hearts and minds of many.
All that to say, if you were to explore the outdoor areas of most inner-cities, aside from the ubiquitous church buildings and storefronts, you may not see or hear much evidence of Christian thought or influence.
You will find groups such as the Nation of Islam, Hebrew Israelites, and The Five Percent Nation having a very public presence, often preaching or selling their literature on the corner. All of these groups stress the political and socio-economic empowerment of African-Americans and have been seen by many young African-American men as an attractive alternative to traditional Christianity.
As religions, these groups are works-based, and they each focus on the ethnic heritage of African-Americans as a basis for divine privilege, to the exclusion of other ethnicities. They use different writings and “holy books” to justify their ethnocentrism, but this is precisely what they emphasize. Each of these three groups has surfaced as a religious response to the effects of the systemic oppression that find myriad expression in their neighborhoods. If you were to ask them how someone converts to “Christianity,” as they understand it, they would say that someone would have to make a choice and then follow the rules. No divine action is necessary.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also have a strong presence in many inner cities. They would see participating in Kingdom Hall activities, refraining from celebrating holidays, and aggressively going door-to-door and “evangelizing” on the street as evidence of conversion. Again, it would be a matter of the individual making a conscious choice to conform to external standards of behavior. Because these are not Christian groups, they obviously fall short of a biblical understanding of conversion.
CHURCH IN THE ’HOOD
If you were to leave the public square for the many storefronts and church buildings, you would find a wide range of Christian denominations. Many of these groups, including the Church of God in Christ, the Apostolic Church, and the Assemblies of God, are rooted in Pentecostalism. There is a wide range of beliefs about conversion within these groups. In some of them, there is the false notion of conversion as a baptism of the Holy Spirit, which the prospective believer must “tarry” for and will ultimately be evidenced by speaking in tongues. In some of these churches, however, you will find pastors who teach the true gospel and who wholeheartedly denounce the unbiblical excesses of other Pentecostals.
Additionally, you will find churches belonging to mainline denominations. The most common of these are African-Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) churches, as well as certain Baptist denominations. These churches tend to stress political and social activism, so they avoid drawing sharp doctrinal lines for the sake of cooperating with others who share their social justice goals. They may even deny the necessity of a personal conversion to Christianity for salvation.
There are also a number of broadly evangelical churches that range from non-denominational with a Word of Faith/prosperity gospel emphasis to more theologically conservative Baptist and independent Bible churches. In both cases, Billy Graham’s influence is evident. They view conversion as a “decision for Christ” or “accepting Christ into your heart,” usually accompanied by an altar call and a “sinner’s prayer.”
HOPE FOR THE INNER CITY?
From this brief survey of the urban theological landscape, it may seem like there is much to be discouraged by. However, in my travels as a Christian Hip-hop artist, I’ve observed encouraging movements happening in many of these areas. Many, especially younger people, are embracing the doctrines of grace, which emphasize the sovereign work of God in salvation. Many would rightly say that conversion is a gracious act of God by which he transfers undeserving sinners from darkness to light through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 2:9, Jn. 3:8, Tit. 3:5). This grace is received by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Acts 26:18, Rom. 5:2). A good number of these young people from the inner cities of places like Memphis, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Houston are enrolling in reformed Bible colleges and seminaries, with desires to plant indigenous churches in the neighborhoods in which they grew up.
We may not see the fruit of these movements for years to come, but the seeds are certainly being planted—often through the unlikely vehicle of Christian hip-hop music! Surely God uses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. Join me in praising God for what he’s already done and in praying that he would raise up a generation of pastors and church planters who would take the gospel to the ’hood as they boldly and lovingly proclaim that, “Salvation is of the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9).