Monday, December 20, 2004

The Urban Imperative
An article for the Mission Strategy Magazine – January 2005

Oliver R. Phillips – Director, Mission Strategy US/Canada

“They shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” Isaiah 61:4b

In a 1997 book entitled The Twenty-First Century City, then Mayor Stephen Goldsmith of Indianapolis forecast some sweeping changes that were taking place in city halls across America. Goldsmith talked about union workers who cut their own budget to compete for contracts to provide services; neighborhood leaders who organized midnight drug marches to drive out crack dealers; a private company that reduced the operating cost of the city’s wastewater treatment plant by 44%; and former welfare recipients who have rejoined the workforce through simple reforms.

While optimism and hope seemed to be the motif of Goldsmith’s book, one would think that the church would be the paramount catalyst for the changes that were taking place. That was the missing element. The church was significantly absent.

In the past, as we have done ministry and started new congregations, it is probably safe to say that the city has been demonized. We have viewed it as the locus of dirt, filth, violence and sin. Consequently, this has shaped the mindset of pastors and churches, both in and out of the city. Those within the city have morphed their role and calling into the subversive forms of escapism and lost-cause evangelism. Those outside, most prominently seen in suburban settings have dismissed any idea of city ministry. Is this what missional ministry should look like?

Armed with the most potent ingredient to bring about deep-rooted transformation in the cities, the church very often has relegated ministry to agencies and organizations whose message, policies, and programs are patronized and co-opted by delivery mechanisms that are neither shaped nor asked for by the recipients. We could be accused of facilitating ministry by default.

Albeit, ministry in the city is much more nuanced and complex than that of the suburbs, the biblical mandate to redeem the city is forever before us. The sacred Judeo-Christian writings are replete with directives to reclaim the city with the message of hope. We read in the Old Testament, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’” (Jeremiah 29:7). The New Testament is equally demanding, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).

It is this author’s abiding conviction that ministry in the city is not an option for the faith community. It is an imperative. In subsequent texts the Bible magnifies the city. It tells of God’s servants pursuing their call to care for the city. Abraham prayed for Sodom. Moses directed the construction of the cities of Egypt. Jonah was sent to Nineveh. Jeremiah wept for his captive kin in Babylon. Isaiah, in response to God’s call, asked, “How long?” and God answered, “Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate” (Isa. 6:11).

Jesus was born and grew up in the cities of Bethlehem and Nazareth. He wept for the multitudes in Jerusalem. The Early church was launched in the city, as the apostles tarried in Jerusalem to be “endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

Paul, the missionary, recognized culture as an invaluable vehicle for the communication process. A Roman citizen, he chose to be a Jew among Jews (see 1 Cor. 9:19-22). Paul’s missionary journeys took him to the urban areas of the known world. People of diverse cultures, who spoke a variety of languages, were those with whom he sought to communicate the gospel.

Such are the biblical images with which we could seize the opportunity to chart a commitment to the city. These images lie deep within the call to holistic ministry and relevant evangelism that cry daily for freshness and relational connection. For if indeed the Gospel message is no respecter of persons, to deny ministry to those in the city is to obfuscate what otherwise is a clear imperative to care and nurture those for whom the Gospel is intended. Such accusation should never be granted validity by our neglect and sanctified selectivity of mission.

Honesty about the present state of our ministry efforts would unveil a startling deficit in our strategies. Consider the following:
In seven of the forty-nine major cities, the White, non-Spanish population is less than 50% of the total, with Los Angeles at only 35.6%. Pittsburgh has the largest percentage at 89.3%. Overall, more than one-third of the large-city population is from a cultural group other than White, non-Spanish.
While 54% of the 2002 USA population lives in one of these 49 areas, only one-third of our active congregations (organized churches or reported NewStarts) are in these areas, and only 30% of our members are.

In the U.S. 222 of every 100,000 people are Nazarene members. But only 125 in 100,000 living in the 49 largest cities are Nazarene members. Milwaukee's ratio is poorest, at 10 per 100,000, with New Orleans close behind at 19. At the upper end, Oklahoma City claims 797 of every 100,000 people and Kansas City claims 641.

Perhaps the redemption of the church lies in its capacity to reverse the past trends of turning a blind eye to the city and being humble to the extent that a new resolve is developed to reach the city for God. In the spirit of good conversation, what would be the impact if 10% of our suburban congregations decided to sponsor a new ministry to the city? The result would be staggering! Imagine 500 or so congregations with a mandate to reach God’s city!

The revival of ministry to the city we need cannot be muted by arguments about cost and human resource. The reversal must be stimulated by creative opportunism and missional strategies. The America we’ve come to know after 9 – 11 demonstrates that we are a people who can only be limited by our own devised self constraints. We are a resourceful people who can grapple with the most complex challenges. The faith community must not be shamed by the secular world.

How do we then proceed to effect this reversal? There is a real and urgent need for us to find some way of conceiving and implementing the most appropriate response to this clear mandate to minister to the neglected urban centers of our land. How do we respond to the imperative?

I would like to suggest a new manifesto for responding to the Urban Imperative:
We need to view city residents as God sees them, the guaranteed inheritors of the Kingdom of God.
We need a renewed integration of witness and service in order to craft ministry to the city.
We need to see the city, not in static terms, but as a repository of the dynamic activity of God’s salvation history.
We need to approach the city as the incarnational foundation for new ministry in new ways.
We must develop an urban Christology, “I have come that they might have life and that they might have it in all its fullness.” John 10:10
We need an indigenous city strategy for ministry. It comes from below, up. It never starts from the top and goes down.
We need a city ministry that does not merely form God’s people, but transforms God’s people through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Only a radical comprehension of God’s interest in the city will move us forward. It is my hope that we would be courageous enough to admit our failures, and be humble enough to seek God’s face in the reorganization of our missional priorities.

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