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Treading Urban Ground Like Jesus

posted on January 17, 2014, under Conference by

by Gary Krause, MJ, Director of Adventist Mission, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland

Reprinted by permission, Ministry Magazine, May 2013

Sandal Feet

Nineteen hundred and one. The first year of the twentieth century. In New York City, the Tenement House Law of 1901 culminated years of effort by reformers to turn squalid and dangerous housing to be safer and healthier. The panic of 1901 started the first-ever crash on the New York Stock Exchange—and thousands of small investors limped away bankrupt. And in the summer of 1901, New York City withered under the deadliest heat wave in its history. In a one-week period, at least 989 people died in weather that Cole Thompson describes as “so hot it melted asphalt and drove scores of New Yorkers insane.”1

He noted: “For a solid week New Yorkers cursed, collapsed, threw themselves into wells, leaped to their deaths from bridges, overwhelmed morgues, and stretched police and hospital workloads beyond their limit…. Hundreds of horses lay dead and bloated in the street, preventing ambulance service and removal of the dead.”2 If you were planning to flee the city to find rural bliss, 1901 was as good a time as any.

Still, in 1901, a senior Adventist evangelist and leader, Stephen Haskell, then in his sixties, and his wife, Hetty, moved into—not out of—New York City. Some may wonder if they were ignoring advice from Adventist prophet Ellen White. On the contrary, she told the Haskells that God “was in your going.”3

After four days of house hunting, they found an apartment. On the periphery of the city? In a rural outpost with an acre of green grass, docile cows, and a vegetable garden? No. In the heart of the city, a couple of blocks from the southeast corner of Central Park. “Do not let our brethren forget to pray for us,” wrote Haskell. “Do not forget the address: 400 West 57th St., New York City.”4

Haskell marveled at the urban jungle his wife and he now called home. “In this city there are some buildings over thirty stories high,” he wrote. “In the building where we live there are fifty-three families. The building is seven stories high, and two elevators run night and day.”5

The Haskells were following Ellen White’s counsel that, instead of just preaching to people, Christ’s followers should follow His incarnational ministry—living and ministering among the community. “It is through the social relations that Christianity comes in contact with the world,” she wrote.6 And further: “Our experienced workers should strive to place themselves where they will come in direct contact with those needing help.”7 So it was that in November 1901, Haskell wrote from the heart of New York City: “[We] work among all classes of people.”8

Treading the Ground
Some years ago, a young Global Mission pioneer taught me some valuable lessons about mission. Like the Haskells, Budiman Soreng and his family moved to live among the people to whom they would minister. Church planting at any time is tough work. But when Budiman arrived at his assigned location to plant a church, there was bloody tribal fighting in the streets—complete with beheadings and cannibalism.

When I visited that place, it was some time later (I’m happy to say). By this time, Budiman had established three groups of believers. I asked him how he did it. How did he go about contacting people, touching their lives, and leading them to Jesus?

He smiled and told me, through a translator, that he did not start by preaching at the people. First, he prayed. “At midnight I prayed, ‘Lord, first work in my heart,'” he said. “‘Then I can work with the people. Let me say what Jesus would say.'”

He also “studied the situation”—the place and the people. He wanted to understand the local culture. He then started making friends with Animists, Muslims, Chinese Buddhists, as well as other Christians. “I played football with the people, went jogging in the mornings, and worked with them in the rice fields,” he said.

Budiman soon began visiting in homes, opening the Bible, and sharing with people in their local dialect. At last report, several years ago, more than 200 people had been baptized and, with the help of four other pioneers, five new areas opened up to Adventist work.

The key for successful outreach, Budiman told me, is to be humble. And then he said something I have never forgotten: “We have an expression here—‘we tread the ground.’ That means ‘we come here, we become like the people here.'” That, I thought, is one of the best descriptions of the Incarnation I’ve heard.

The huge mission challenge of rapidly growing urban areas—where most of the world now lives—is daunting. We are like David facing a multitude of Goliaths. How do we best use our limited resources to reach these people? What methodologies should we try? How do we even begin to try to engage the different people groups, cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs, nonreligious beliefs?

Budiman reminds us of the fundamental mission principles. As followers of Jesus, we cannot be content with just remote-control, from-a-distance, drive-by, short-term mission. We must pray, be humble, and analyze the needs. And we must tread the ground.

Christ’s Method…Alone
Of course, Budiman was just following the example of Jesus, who was not content to stay in heaven and minister from a distance. He came down and “trod the ground” with us. He became one with us, pitched His tent among us, drank the same water, ate the same food, shed human tears. He broke down any social, cultural, or religious walls between Him and us (Ephesians 2).

Ellen White beautifully summarizes Jesus’ approach, which she says is the only method that “will bring true success.” The Savior:

  1. Mingled with people, desiring their good.
  2. Showed sympathy.
  3. Ministered to needs.
  4. Won confidence.
  5. Invited people to follow Him.9

Ellen White envisioned wholistic ministry centers, which she called centers of influence, being established in every city around the world.10 These urban centers were to take church members out of the pews and into their communities. They were to be based 100 percent on Jesus’ method of ministry.

According to White, centers of influence could include such centers as vegetarian restaurants, treatment rooms, lifestyle education, small group meetings, literature, public meetings, and “reaping” ministries—anything to connect to the community.11

She commended the work of the fledgling Adventist church in San Francisco, which she called a “beehive.” Church members visited “the sick and destitute,” found homes for orphans, and jobs for the unemployed. They visited from house to house, conducted classes on healthful living, and distributed literature. They started a school for children in inner-city Laguna Street, and maintained a medical mission and a “working men’s home.”

Right next to city hall, on Market Street, they operated treatment rooms as a branch of what is today St. Helena Hospital. At the same location they ran a health food store. Even closer to the heart of the city, a vegetarian café served healthful food six days a week. On the San Francisco Bay waterfront, Adventists ministered to sailors. And just in case they did not have enough to do already, they also held public meetings in city halls.12 They mingled, showed sympathy, ministered to needs, won confidence, and invited people to follow Jesus.

Adventist urban mission cannot focus exclusively on trying to attract people, like a spiritual magnet, from the streets into church buildings. Of course, our churches should be attractive and friendly. Of course, we should have captivating preaching and music. Of course, we should run interesting programs and activities. But the major role of the church should be to inspire, train, and launch members out of the pews into the community.

But too often our focus, as Christians, has been inward rather than outward. And too often others have gone ahead of us. Michael Baer writes: “I once asked an Indonesian Christian why the country had become so predominantly Muslim…. She said that when the Western Christians came…they built missionary compounds and missionary churches and expected the Indonesian people to come to them. The Muslims, on the other hand, came as traders, farmers, merchants, and businesspeople and simply lived among the natives. Today, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation. I wonder how different it could have been?”13

Ah, by the way, we’re also a church.

Each step in Jesus’ method is vital. Skip bidding people to follow Him, and we short-change and short-circuit our ministry. Overlook mingling, sympathy, ministering, winning confidence, and we neuter our effectiveness, undermine our credibility, and fail in making true disciples.

Church or Social Agency?
Over the past several decades, most Australians—religious and nonreligious—have looked fondly on the Salvation Army. It is one of Australia’s best-known and most-loved institutions. As a kid, I would sometimes go door-to-door collecting money for the annual Salvation Army’s Red Shield appeal. This was easy work, and I do not remember a negative response or a closed door.

Referred to affectionately as “the Salvos,” or “the Sallies,” this church is widely recognized for their work to help the poor and needy. “The Salvation Army in Australia occupies an unprecedented position in terms of public acceptance and popularity for a Christian church, indeed for any organization,” writes Salvation Army Major Gregory Morgan.14 The challenge for this church, however, is to be recognized as a church—not just as a social agency—a church that eagerly wants to reverse its decline in membership.

“Public surveys reveal that 96 per cent of Australians are favorably inclined toward it,” says Morgan. “But alongside this is the stark reality that the church aspects of our Movement have been in decline for many years. Attendance and membership figures are dropping. Everyone loves us, but fewer and fewer want to join us.”15

He adds: “Some fear that the evangelical side of the mission will be lost, that the Salvation Army will go the way of other venerable social agencies initially founded as spiritual missions, and lose its evangelical character.”16

For some years the Salvation Army has been trying to address this challenge. I remember an advertising campaign they ran some years ago—complete with ads and billboards—reminding the Australian public that the Salvation Army is a church where they would be welcome.

Why has it been such a challenge for them to build the bridge from social care to church pew? Morgan suggests one reason might be that “our social welfare expression has become large, professional, and program based. This is a far cry from the early Salvation Army, which passionately believed in, and practiced, incarnational mission.”

At times the Salvation Army may have seemed to work more “for” the community than “with” the community. It is difficult to get someone to come and sit next to you in the pew if they feel you only see them as a charity case.

Our urban mission must be long-term, on-the-ground, and incarnational. We must take care that we minister “with” people not “for” or “at” them. Where possible, we join existing community organizations, programs, and activities. We enlist believers and unbelievers to work with us on good causes. And we look for every opportunity to empower people to take ownership and more effectively deal with their own problems, challenges, and needs.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church is not called to become just another social welfare agency—as important as such agencies are. The spiritual framework and motivation of our ministry must underscore and inform everything we do—every bowl of soup we share, every coping-with-stress seminar we run, every vegetarian restaurant meal we serve. Certainly, it is wrong to even hint that someone must accept our message before we give him or her physical care. Our community work should show no-strings-attached compassion. But that does not mean we should separate humanitarian care and Christian witness.17

We cannot be content to just mingle, show sympathy, minister to needs, and win confidence. We must pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the final and vital step—leading people to Jesus. This is not some sort of artificial construct that we place on top of everything else. It naturally flows from the other dimensions of Christ’s method.

For many post-moderns and believers from other world religions, the idea of walking through the doors of a Christian church building is a formidable obstacle. Many just cannot do it. That’s OK. We go where we are supposed to go—to meet them in their context. Small groups to study spiritual things will spring naturally from the centers of influence, and they can meet in homes, public places, even in the centers.

But what if someone does not accept Jesus? Do we dismiss them, and move on to more “fruitful fields”? Certainly not. We follow Christ’s method because this constitutes Christ’s method. We mingle with people because He mingled. We show sympathy because He did. We minister to needs because He did. This ministry cannot be conditional on people accepting Jesus. When people ignored Jesus’ bidding, He did not discard them. He kept loving them.

Dr. David Paulson who, along with Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, helped pioneer Adventist wholistic urban mission in the late 1800s, wrote: “The man who is interested in only those who he thinks can become church members as a result of his ministrations, will find fewer and fewer openings for missionary work; for he gradually develops in others a spirit of distrust and suspicion, which closes more and more doors against him; while, on the other hand, the worker who has allowed the needs of humanity to touch his heart, will try to benefit the “nine lepers” even if he knows perfectly well that they will never join his church.”18

Are we content when people do not respond to the call of Jesus? No. Do we stop loving and caring when they do not respond? Of course not.

Who Will Go?
It has been more than a century since the Haskells moved to 400 West 57th Street to “tread the ground” in New York City. During all this time the challenge of urban mission has not disappeared and certainly has not diminished. Today there may be many new and creative methods to urban mission. But if they are to have any success, they must be firmly based on Christ’s method and Christ’s method alone.


  1. Cole Thompson, “Tornado on the Hudson,” http://myinwood.net/tornado-on-the-hudson (nd) accessed October 20, 2012.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Letter 132. 1901. Quoted in Ella M. Robinson, S.N. Haskell: Man of Action (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1967), 194.
  4. Stephen Haskell, Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, July 9, 1901, 448.
  5. Haskell, “The Bible Training School,” Adventist Review and Sabbath Herald, November 12, 1901, 739.
  6. Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2005), 480.
  7. —————, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8. (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn. 1948), 76.
  8. Haskell, November 12, 1901.
  9. Ellen G. White, Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1942), 143.
  10. —————, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7. (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 115.
  11. The Office of Adventist Mission is working to resurrect, for the twenty-first century, Ellen White’s concept of centers of influence. For more information about Life Hope Centers visit www.lifehopecenters.org or www.adventistmission.org
  12. Ellen G. White, “Notes of Travel—No. 3: The Judgments of God on Our Cities,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 5, 1906, 8.
  13. Michael R. Baer, Business as Mission (YWAM Publishing, September 1, 2006), 81.
  14. “Great Aunt Sally,” by Major Gregory Morgan, http://armybarmy.com/JAC/article3-41.html (nd) accessed November 3, 2012.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, see Gary Krause, God’s Great Missionaries (Boise, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2008), 78.
  18. David Paulson, “The True Motive of Christian Service,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 5, 1901, 5.

Urban Walk


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