What does success look like in urban ministry?

Culture & Language Evangelism Proximity Principle Sustaining Ministry
An image of Duncan Forbes Duncan Forbes
5th June 2024 4 minute read
A chalk heart drawn on a bench

What does success in urban ministry look like? If it’s about numbers, then clearly Jesus’s earthly ministry was not very successful. Yet the common question people ask is, “How big is your church?” This seems to be the piece of information people want the most – which shows we’ve been culturally conditioned to see church size as the most important thing. Imagine someone asking Jesus at a certain point in Galilee, “How big’s your church?” and him replying, “there’s 12 men and some women.” What would that information tell the enquirer about Jesus’s success? Nothing. So, let’s renew our minds from the numbers equals success mindset. 

Hopefully, we also know success is not about marketing and looking good – again Jesus never did this. Neither did the key New Testament urban church planter Paul, in fact he boasted in his weaknesses.1

I was once invited to a think tank about council estate ministry. We were each asked to write an introduction to our ministry. It was interesting seeing some of the same pat answers people felt the need to give, but what stood out most was one man saying, “I’ve learned how to make our church look good, and I can get just the right camera angle to make it look like there’s more people. But I don’t want to do that anymore.” What a great example of renewing our minds from trying to look good to others.  

So, what is success in urban ministry? I think it’s how well we represent Jesus in the urban context. This is firstly about our character, and secondly about our cultural presentation of the gospel. 

Let’s start with character. We were made to reflect God as his image bearers.2 After the fall, our image was marred, so Jesus came as the perfect representation of God, interpreting the Father to us. 3 The goal is that we should also become like Christ.4 So Jesus, in representing God well is the benchmark of success. We represent God well as become more like Christ.5 This is a change on the inside that impacts the outside.6 Paul worked really hard to see this process happen in others.7 Our urban churches are supposed to be working towards becoming more like Christ.8 Therefore, character is paramount.  

We can do lots of impressive things in urban ministry, but if we don’t act like Christ, if we don’t have love, we have become nothing more than a clanging gong. We can dedicate our lives to serving the poor, but if we don’t have love, then it’s nothing of substance.9

Secondly, success is found in how we culturally present the gospel to urban communities. Communication becomes harder when bridging cultural gaps. This is why the Gospels were written in different ways, because they were reaching different people. Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, whilst John explains Jewish traditions so Gentiles can understand. Mark writes a biography in a style Gentiles would appreciate, whilst Luke writes to the wealthy Theopolis (interestingly, emphasising Jesus’s heart for the marginalised). The four Gospels give us blueprints for contextualising the message appropriately to the cultural groups we’re reaching.  

These New Testament examples mean our Gospel presentations should also be contextualised for the urban communities we minister to.

Many people think their Gospel presentations are straight up Bible without any cultural bias, but others listening hear a lot of white middle class culture leak through the presentation. If you were trained in a white middle-class context, you are going to have to do a lot of work to contextualise the gospel to reach other cultures.  

Finally, gospel presentation is not just about the words we use, but also the church life around these words. Church life is the sweet wrapper encasing the sweet gospel. When you open Quality Street it’s the wrappers that tell you how good the chocolate is going to taste to you. To represent Jesus well, we need to cultivate churches that culturally communicate the gospel. This often means discarding the model of a missionary’s sending church, and doing the hard work of considering what an authentic Jesus-community in urban areas looks like.


12 Corinthians 12: 9-10
2Genesis 1
3John 1: 18, 2 Corinthians 4: 4, Colossians, 1: 5, Hebrews 1: 3
4Romans 8: 29
52 Corinthians 3: 18
6Luke 6: 45
7Galatians 4: 19
8Ephesians 4: 11-15
91 Corinthians 13: 1-3


Written by

Duncan Forbes

Duncan planted a heavily contextualised church (worshipping to urban music, evangelising with MCing and DJing) on the estate he grew up on in South West London. He did a Doctorate (DMin) in Theology and Urban Mission at Westminster Theological Seminary and wrote The Urban Ministry Program and the Urban Catechism.

An image of Duncan Forbes
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