Lutherans in the Twin Cities

Homegrown urban ministry model gets international recognition

Minneapolis-based School of Urban Ministry got an unexpected salute from the Lausanne Committee

When the Rev. Roland Wells was at Luther Seminary, the last place he wanted to end up was in urban ministry. “I had no interest in the core city,” he explains. “I thought I’d be building churches in the suburbs.”

That was before he came to St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1988. The small, but strong congregation in Minneapolis’ richly diverse Phillips neighborhood had a desire to reach the growing milieu of immigrant cultures outside their church doors. It was not long before Wells flung himself headfirst into the church’s commitment to missions.

In 1991, he developed the School of Urban Ministry (SUM), which received re-cognition at the Lausanne Committee for World Evan-gelism’s 2004 forum. “We are flabbergasted,” says Wells. “For a small, inexpensive program, we have been amazed at the response we’ve gotten nationally.” The SUM program was one of only six from around the world to receive notable distinction as an “example of effective education for world evangelization,” ranked with organizations such as the Asian Theological Seminary in the Philippines and the Hindustan Bible Institute in Chennia, India.

The Lausanne Committee began as a gathering in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. Headed by the Rev. Billy Graham, its intent was “to define the necessity, responsibility, and goals of spreading the Gospel.”

In one of only four gatherings of such breadth, the 2004 forum in Pattaya, Thailand, was attended by over 1,500 Christian leaders. Among the 31 issues discussed was “Effective Theo-logical Education for World Evangelism.” The Commit-tee worked on the premise that “it is possible that the educational institutions of the church do not have a biblical understanding of the mission of the church.” This is something Wells’ SUM program does have.

On Monday evenings at St. Paul Church, suburban volunteers, urban leaders, students of seminary, college and Bible schools, along with missionaries, gather for classes in a year-long course. “The most important thing a pastor can do is make himself expendable,” says Wells of his approach to ministry training. The purpose of SUM, according to the school’s founder, is “training Christian leaders to build ministries cross-culturally in the city.”

The Twin Cities is home to the largest populations of Hmong, So-mali, Oromo, and Tibetan people in North America. As Minneapolis grows in ethnic and racial diversity, the challenge of the Great Commission grows as well. Wells claims that many suburban churches are inward-looking, and need to remember the God-given task of taking the Gospel to unreached peoples. He draws a diagram of overlapping circles to illustrate what he believes is “the model that Jesus used, and Paul, and Wesley.” In the center is the Gospel. Attached to it are needs and relationships. It is at the center, where all three aspects meet, that the church needs to focus, says Wells. Without the Gospel, it’s just good social work, he claims.

SUM’s distinction lies in its low cost and adaptability. Students pay only $100 in tuition, and, while Wells has put in the hours of organization and direction for the program, he claims it is mostly self-run. “All we do is turn the lights on,” he says. The weekly teachers and speakers for the night classes are plucked out of the community, with everyone from college professors to a former drug dealer bringing their knowledge of the city and the church’s mission to the students. As part of what is being termed the “new urban revolution,” the SUM program, as stated in a press release, understands “that global ministry will deal with specific local needs and cultures.”

The SUM program has equipped students to go on to a variety of ministries and services, from planting inner city churches to working in faith-based chemical dependency treatment programs.

The program has also recently given birth to Urban College Cross-Cultural Coa-lition, or “U4C.” This college-credit program brings together the experiential learning approach of SUM with the theological foundations of four area colleges, to form a four-year degree.

Roland Wells may not ever have imagined himself being involved in urban missions as a seminary student, but these days it’s clearly in his blood. And, in some unexpected places these days, his efforts are getting recognition.
Richmann, a student at Bethel University, Roseville, Minnesota, is a writing intern for Metro Lutheran.