An essay on the need for missional outreach into our cities.
This article is probably best written by someone like my friend Dave Wilt who is now starting his second church-plant in NYC, but this topic has been laid on my heart quite frequently over the past few months as I drive by downtown OKC on my way to work. Like many of us, we live in suburban areas surrounding the city in our comfortable communities and our established churches. We look at the cities as centers of liberalism, debautchery and crime. They are scary places. In this article, I would like to establish that believers should have a missional outreach in the cities. Even better, that they would have an incarnation ministry among the cities.
A Definition of Terms
Before we begin, it would probably be helpful to lay out the meaning of some of the terms that I have just used. Tim Keller defines a city in an article he wrote for Campus Crusade for Christ as:
“A human settlement becomes more ‘urban’ as it becomes more a) dense and b) diverse in its population.”
A city is essentially a large settlement in our country with a lot of people and a lot of variety in the types of people who settle there. Most of us know exactly what a city is, but this definition helps remind us of two unique benefits that ministry in the cities have: a lot of people and people from all over the World.
Missional living is actually something that God has called all of us to do whether we go overseas to India or stay here in our own communities. Missional living according to Wikipedia is "the posture, thinking, behaviors, and practices of a missionary in order to engage others with the gospel message." It is a lifestyle of thinking and acting like a missionary in order to reach others with the gospel. Sometimes we think that evangelism in the USA is so much different than evangelism in another country, but we have all been called to reach our world with the gospel and the thinking and actions of missionaries in principle transcend culture. Building relationships, teaching, preaching, social outreach, and witnessing are all methods of evangelism that transcend countries. And just so we cover our bases, we must realize that the missionary is not the only one called to evangelize. 1 Peter 2:9 says that all of us have been called an holy nation and a royal priesthood that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light. The word "shew" in this passage is literally proclaim or report. As individuals, we have been called to report to others what God has done in our lives in saving us.
Some have taken the great commission passages as only applying to the 12 apostles since they were the audience every single time that the commission was given; however, the wording of the text indicates that Jesus had more in mind than just the apostles. Notice in Matthew 28:19-20 at the end of the passage, Jesus promises to be with those who are going until the end of the world (age). Did the apostles live to see the end of the world or the current age that we live in? No, this promise and the command have to include those who are living at the end of the age and are fulfilling his promise.
Even better than just missional outreach into the cities is an incarnation outreach in the cities. Incarnational ministry is pictured by Jesus Christ. Jesus as God could have found a way of reaching out to mankind without becoming human, but Jesus chose to take on human flesh (Phil 2:5-8). Not only that, he lived among us and experienced human trials, weariness and pain. Incarnational ministry is living with the people, like the people and being part of community among the people. We can reach into the cities as a suburban church, but the ideal is for someone to live amongst them and reach out to them.
A Theology of Cities
The first cities we see in the bible are clearly not spoken of too highly. The first city that we see mentioned in the bible was the city of Enoch built by Cain in Gen 4: 17. Cain was now wandering from the presence of God. The next city we see mentioned is Babylon, the first sky scraper. From the story, we all know that this was an effort to rebel against God. They had been commanded to spread throughout the earth and they built the tower so high to reach into heaven. So clearly, God's perspective on cities is negative right?
If cities are all that bad why did Abraham seek a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). And if cities are despised by God, why is He building a city for us to live in when we go to heaven, the New Jerusalem (Rev 21). Though spoken of negatively, we see that Babylon in Rev 18 is a place of music and art, craftsmanship, and business. Jerusalem is the joy of the whole earth (Psalm 48:2). Obviously, cities are not in and of themselves a horrible idea. This just goes to show you that the principle of first mention does not hold true all the time. I believe the first two passages in Genesis show a rebellion against God and that is why they are portrayed in a negative light. In the beginning, God had commanded mankind to be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth (Gen 1:28). Once that work of filling the earth was done, the making of cities lost its negative connotation.
Advantages of Ministering in the City
1. The sheer number of people
It is easy to have reached everyone in a small town with at least a presentation of the gospel. Before moving to OKC, my wife and I lived in a small town in rural Virginia of about 1500 people. Needless to say, we had knocked on every door in that town multiple times. I am not intending to diminish the work of pastors in small towns. We need people who will faithfully work even though they may not see much result, but it can't be argued that cities just have so many more people to minister to.
2. The diversity of the people
My wife and I were missionaries to the country of Bhutan prior to returning to the states. Bhutan is a completely closed country to missionary work; so we lived in India across the border. The advantage of cities is that while the rest of the world closes its doors to missionary work, in cities the people are coming to us. A missional outreach in the cities must include outreach to these differing people groups.
Now with a variety of cultures is going to come a different way of doing things. The typical white American church may struggle in this atmosphere. This is where thinking missional is important. You must begin to think outside the box like a missionary to succeed in reaching people groups from other countries. The racial diversity in the city needs to be represented in the inner city church if it is going to be part of the community. There will be different community concerns when you begin to work with other cultures in the church, other ways of doing things, and other priorities.
3. The cities are dark places
Every one knows that liberalism and unbiblical lifestyles are more prevalent in the cities. However, these are people in need. Where the greatest darkness is, there is the more opportunity for the light to shine brightest (Matt 5:16). The cities can be magnets for racism, class-warfare and violence. They are also a gathering place for all the cults. Among the elites, they breed pride, excess, exhaustion, and over-working. The gospel of Jesus has so much to say in this culture.
4. Cities attract the most skilled and the least skilled people
Many of the large business are in the cities. The strongest and most skilled people are attracted to the cities because they can get the jobs that their skill-sets require. Those towering sky scrapers are full of highly qualified people. On the flip side, many of the poor also flock to the city. We tend to think of cities as places that cause poverty and it is true that sometimes certain policies don't help cause poverty; however, the number of poor people is based more on opportunity than mere poorness. If you are poor in a small town, your opportunities for improving are slim to nothing; however, in a city, poor people have opportunities to get a good job and make money.
The cities attract the young, the skilled, the needy, and the diverse. If we want to reach the next generation of young people and the next generation of leaders in our country, we must have a heart to reach the cities. While suburban America looks at the cities with fear, God looks at them as an opportunity to reach people from every tribe, and tongue and nation.
Keller, Tim. “A Theology of Cities: Cru.” Cru.org, www.cru.org/us/en/train-and-grow/leadership-training/sending-your-team/a-theology-of-cities.html.