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A Church For the City

posted on January 17, 2014, under Conference by

by Gerson Santos, D.Min., Director of Urban Ministries Study Center, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland

Reprinted by permission, Ministry Magazine, May 2013

The world is rapidly moving from a rural calm to an urban explosion. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. One hundred years later, the urban population jumped to 14 percent, with 12 cities having over one million in population. More recently, the world has experienced unprecedented urban growth, and today over 300 cities have a population of one million and more. Today, the majority of the global population lives in urban areas. That majority is expected to rise to 70 percent of the world population by 2050.1 Currently, more than 20 megacities, each with more than 10 million people, make up the urban landscape.

Urban growth is staggering, and this poses a formidable challenge to the proclamation of God’s Word. Every minister, evangelist, and church member faces a mountain to climb as we expect the church to accomplish its global commission. Mission to cities can no longer be called an option but a commanding call.

Mission To the Cities
How do we reach the teaming masses of our cities? How can evangelism keep up with the exploding population? How can people of every language, tribe, and nation hear the good news of salvation and soon return of Jesus?

Perhaps we should begin by recognizing that the mission does not belong to us, but to God. This mission encompasses His activity of grace and love toward the world. “He is a sending God, a going God, a God who incarnates Himself in a specific time and context, so that every person may come to know and love Him. If that was what Jesus did, then we, His followers are to do likewise. Going in mission is not an optional extra—an upgrade for the mature disciple. Going in mission is fundamental to the journey of discipleship.”2

Because mission has become so important, it cannot be just a sporadic, haphazard activity, for mission encompasses the very reason for the existence of the church. Without that crucial focus of mission, rooted in the great commission of the risen Lord to preach, teach, baptize, and make disciples of all nations, the church could well be an association of the like-minded or a social club with ethical stints. Being a disciple and making disciples for Christ describes the mission of the church. Reggie McNeal describes it this way: “We must change our ideas of what it means to develop a disciple, shifting the emphasis from studying Jesus and all things spiritual in an environment protected from the world, to following Jesus into the world to join him in his redemptive mission.”3 Thus the mission of church does not live of its own; even the proper existence of the Christian church is founded in its engagement of fulfilling God’s purpose for herself. “There is church because there is mission, not vice versa.”4 Christopher Wright goes as far as to say, “Mission is what the Bible is all about; we could as meaningfully talk of the missional basis of the Bible as of the biblical basis of mission.”5

How Does Mission Occur?
Even before we become involved in mission, we need to know the condition of the people who are objects of our mission. Jesus described that condition through picturesque words: lost son in the distant land, sheep without shepherd, sick unto death, and more. Ellen White says, “Multitudes are so sunken in sin that they have lost the sense of eternal realities… Many of these can be reached only through acts of disinterested kindness.”6 Jesus gave us a twofold strategy to accomplish His mission: witness and service. “Deeds as well as words of sympathy are needed. Christ prefaced the giving of His message by deeds of love and benevolence. Let these workers go from house to house, helping where help is needed, and, as opportunity offers, telling the story of the cross. Christ is to be their text. They need not dwell upon doctrinal subjects; let them speak of the work and sacrifice of Christ. Let them hold up His righteousness, in their lives revealing His purity.”7

Restoring relationships among people, and between people and God, is another essential part of mission. Human history began with a perfect, loving relationship between God and humans. Adam and Eve shared a loving and positive bond with God. But with the intrusion of sin, this perfect relationship was ruptured and in its place a marred, sinful, selfish relationship reigned between human and human and between humans and God. Against this background, God set in operation His redemptive mission. He sent His Son, Jesus, to become the first missionary—not only to carry the good news of salvation but also to be the embodiment of that good news.

At the foundation of God’s mission is the motive of love—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16 NKJV)—and the movement toward reconciliation—“For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:10 NKJV) At the end of history with the second coming of Jesus, a restoration of perfect relationship will mark the triumphal close of God’s mission. “The mission of God is a redemptive mission. Everything that sin broke is being addressed and restored through God’s mission. This includes not just the ruptured relationship between God and humanity, but also the relationship of humans with themselves, with one another, and with the rest of creation.”8

Thus, mission joins with God in the work of healing all the areas of brokenness. “If we follow the example of Christ in doing goodness, our hearts will open up as well as His.”9 We need to learn from Christ how to apply a healing touch to broken people.

God’s Plan To Reach the Cities
About 100 years ago, Ellen White challenged the Advent movement to reach the cities with the gospel, using innovative methods: “There is means now tied up that should be in use for the unworked cities… These cities have been neglected for years.”10 She urged church leaders to establish centers of influence in urban areas to develop a variety of activities such as lifestyle education, bookstores/reading rooms, restaurants, literature ministry, lectures, small groups, health and culinary seminars, and more. Her burden for city work is without compromise: “Workers with clear minds are needed to devise methods for reaching the people. Something must be done to break down the prejudice existing in the world against the truth.”11

The ecclesiology that was behind such forceful commitment to reaching the cities is one that considered the church not as a building or social club, but an ecclesia—a body of those called by the redemptive mission of Jesus in order to be participants of that mission both personally and among the people in which they live. The church shows itself, not as an architectural showpiece but a redemptive witness: it is God’s community of redeemed sons and daughters, called to make the ecclesia and extend the invitation for others to join and experience the divine wonder of salvation. Jesus spoke of His church, “This is the rock on which I will put together my church, a church so expansive with energy that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.” (Matthew 16:18 The Message)

Perhaps we have spent too much time trying to protect the church from the world in fear that the world would come inside the church. In the process, maybe we have forgotten the need to go out to reach the world. I believe that Jesus was saying that the world should be afraid of the church and not the other way around. Consider the city of Chennai in South India. In this teeming megacity of some 12 million people, 30 years ago there were some five churches. Great evangelistic series were held by great preachers, but the development was slow. Evangelism, wonderful as evangelistic campaigns are, expected people to come to a central place to hear the good news. The churches did not grow to be many, although the existing five were vibrant, financially strong, and carried an Adventist ethos for all to see. But a large megapolis cannot remain content with limited centers of influence.

Then came a young man, Johnson, full of passion, vision, and mission. Instead of expecting people to come to hear him preach in a great hall, he decided he would go where the people are: to their homes. With much prayer and little cash, he turned his church office into a recording studio, used blankets to make it sound proof, borrowed some cameras and recording machines, recorded a series of TV Bible studies in the local language, and went around the city looking for a TV station that would broadcast the messages. Rejection followed rejection and after weeks of painful visits to numerous TV centers, God answered in a mysterious way. One TV station offered a slot at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning—hardly the time to get a large audience. But Johnson took it, and his message was a simple one—what Jesus can do to you. The gospel has a way of penetrating rock-hard souls, and soon letters from the hearers flooded the little Adventist church, many of the letters with a little gift to enlarge the ministry. This single pastor, with his highly motivated members, kept the TV show going, conducted group meetings in homes where neighbors can gather, and soon there were baptisms. Cottage meetings, block sessions, home visitations, and prayer marathons over the phone followed, and today in the megapolis the Adventist churches have multiplied to some 80 congregations, fully self-supporting, and organized into a conference. Johnson did not wait for people to come and hear him. He went where people were—hurting, searching, sick, and looking for a blessed hope. With Johnson, mission is go where people are with the One who loves them all. That’s Jesus’ way.

What makes a successful church? A church that meets our needs? A church that has great preachers who make us feel good or challenges us just a little, but not too much? A church that has music pleasing to us? A church that has a program or two that makes us feel as if we have a place to serve? There is nothing wrong with good preaching, good music, and well-run programs; but these things do not define a successful church.

A great church, a healthy church, is one in which we find Jesus Christ in word and deed. A God-honoring, gospel-loving church is one where we find the Word of God as the primary motivator for doing the work of God—a church seeking the shalom of the city. “Shalom is much richer than the absence of conflict or a trendy way to say good-bye. Biblical shalom connotes universal human flourishing. By seeking the shalom of the city, God was asking those in Babylonian captivity to live and invest in the midst of the social and cultural world of their enemies, encouraging and supporting the goodness and enjoyment of life by creating shalom in every niche of society.”12

The God of Shalom has not changed His method or purpose. He seeks after the lost. He wants the wanderer to come home. He wants the slave to be set free. Every one of the billions living in the concrete jungles today, in nameless communities, is precious to Him. God searches for them. He wants to bring them into the fellowship of the redeemed.

Four Ways To Relate To the City
There are typically four ways a church relates to the city. The first: the “church in the city.” Their heart beats to get people in the doors to hear the gospel. They are geographically in the city, but they are not effectively engaged with the people and culture of the city. The second: the “church against the city.” The church adopts a defensive posture toward the city. They are located in urban areas, but everything about the surrounding culture is seen as not just bad, but irredeemable. The third: the “church of the city.” Here the church embraces the culture of the city so much so that they lose the flavor in their salt and the brightness of their light. Then, there is the “church for the city” that speaks the truth of the gospel and does not fear upholding a biblical worldview and moral standards. Such a church proclaims the truth of Scripture with passion, clarity, and boldness, while seeking to commit itself for social, spiritual, and moral well-being of the city.13

How does a “church for the city” become a reality? How can your church boldly and faithfully proclaim the gospel and engage your community with acts of service and mercy? Cities are at the epicenter of God’s earthshaking movements today, and it is important that any model for starting new churches takes into account the unique nuances of ministry in an urban context. Many of these principles are applicable and transferable, from an urban church in New York City to a metropolis in West Africa. We need to fulfill God’s will, and catch a vision of biblical ministry by churches that preach and serve as Jesus intended. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we want our churches to be places where Jesus is preeminent, God’s presence is obvious, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the church loves its city.

Last fall, right after superstorm Sandy had reached the northeastern part of the United States, I was walking in one of the most affected areas of New York—Far Rockaway. As I left a church building that was adapted as a distribution center, I saw another one down the road. The first one was messy; volunteers were busy unloading trucks, distributing canned food, clothes, blankets, and hot meals to hundreds of residents. The second one looked very clean and tidy, with a tall young man standing by the door, sharply dressed in a black suit. I wondered, “If Jesus were passing by that day, which church would He be attracted to?” I saw the answer in the faces of those who were meeting the needs of the community. I saw Jesus’ face on each of those in line to receive assistance.

God’s purpose for His church includes being an agency for the salvation of all of His children. “It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world.”14 The main goal of the church is to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), connecting people to Jesus. To be His church is a high calling: a church visible, dynamic, interrelated, integrated, irradiated, and not segregated. God’s church should be a community of grace, enthusiastic, and Spirit-filled. To be church involves embracing the cities with the love and care of God.

  1. (assessed on January 8, 2013).
  2. M. Breen and A. Absalom, Launching Missional Communities, Kindle edition, Loc 431-432.
  3. Reggie McNeal, Missional Renaissance (San Francisco, CA: Josse-Bass, 2009), 10.
  4. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 390.
  5. Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2006), 23.
  6. Ellen G. White, Christian Service (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1947), 190.
  7. —————, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1948), 7:228.
  8. Reggie McNeal, Missional Communities, Kindle edition, Loc 624.
  9. Ellen G. White, Christian Service, 150.
  10. —————, Manuscript 11, 1908.
  11. —————, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1952), 129.
  12. Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter, For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel (Zondervan, 2010), 23, 24.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ellen G. White, The Acts of Apostles (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), 9.

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