It is real popular to talk about “city renewal” in the same breath with church planting and missions nowadays.
That is not a bad thing. Too often in the past, methods of mission eroded into handing people tracts with some bullet-pointed step-by-step on getting out of hell. Or, they were mass conversion tactics, designed to see how many people would raise their hand, walk an aisle, and chant a pre-written prayer. These methods at their best (and they were not all bad, mind you), were word-only gospel proclamation. As long as we rattled off the bullets of the “plan of salvation,” then we felt we had done our duty to the lost around us. What is worse, sometimes our actions in engaging culture did not match our message at all. Today, I believe many churches realize that is an error. However, we must be careful not to make another one.
In short, you cannot renew your city. Only the gospel can.
Any attempts at city renewal by the church that do not place priority on the proclamation of the gospel will be limited at best and most likely ineffective altogether. While poverty, inequality, corruption, and discrimination are very real, our efforts are in vain if we simply seek to alleviate those social ills.
Take as an example an alcoholic who is prone to brawling when he gets drunk. He comes in night after night bruised and beaten. His knuckles are bloodied and he has a gash above his eye. And yet, this man’s problem runs deeper than his cuts and bruises. We can patch his wounds, and they will be back again tomorrow because there is a root cause that lies under the surface. It is a cause that a bandage and ointment cannot cure. In fact, your work is done in vain unless you address the root problem of his addiction.
Sin is more than an addiction. It is a curse, an inescapable curse than has tainted all of creation. Your city is marked and marred by sin. Any city renewal effort that does not make proclamation of the gospel the central part of its method does not take seriously the effects of sin. Sin is not a behavior to be fixed but a curse to be removed.
Only the gospel has the power to transform your city.
Our talk nowadays about being a church “for the city” is good language, as long as we are clear about its meaning. Our cities need to know that we do, in fact, love them. They need to know that we genuinely care about their plight, but we must never come across as the answer to their need. The reason your city needs your church is not because you can fix it, but because you point to the one who can.
Our engagement with culture, our efforts to meet human needs, our social concerns are important because they serve as a preview of how the gospel transforms our own hearts. The church is a preview of the kingdom, now moving and working in secret but one day coming in fullness with Christ’s return. The church’s genuine love for its city is a result of the gospel, and when it comes to missions, it authenticates our message.
But the gospel has the power to transform your city. Paul tells us he is not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the very power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). In a city marred with the effects of sin, programs only serve to bandage knuckles and salve the cuts. Something must be done to get to the root of your city’s problem, and there is only one thing we can provide that cuts to the root. Any method, any missions strategy, is incomplete and ultimately ineffective unless it is built upon a foundation of gospel proclamation. Our best chance at transforming the world around us is bearing witness to the one who changes hearts from the inside out.