The Church and Her Mission to the Cities

We need better ministry methods in our cities.

There is a lot of talk out there nowadays about cities. Everyone, including me, is quoting that statistic about half the world’s population. Fresh calls come forth regularly for a focus on our cities, and they need to. We do need to be working in cities, and I am excited that people are starting to talk about this. Any long view of mission of global missions (that is abroad and here at home) must take into account two realities. First, a strong majority of the very people we are trying to reach will be urban in a generation. Second, our Christian ministry for the last several generations has trended rural (or suburban). We are comfortable there, most of us are from there, and a great deal of our missions efforts overseas have been thrust toward reaching that remote village.

Honestly, I just described myself. I was born in the middle of farmland in Tennessee, lived and worshipped in small, mostly rural churches most of my life, and then I moved overseas to be a missionary in Africa… to that remote village at the ends of the earth.

I am not saying we ditch mission to that village, or that our rural areas in America do not matter anymore. I am saying that a paradigm shift is in order. The world just flopped over to urban, and our missions methods need to as well.

And while the chorus calling for fresh urban mission is growing, I do feel a word of caution is in order. Good missiological method requires a foundation on good theology. Missions is often a pragmatic exercise, too pragmatic at times, and it is easy to rush to the perceived need without considering the actual commission.

Any missiological method needs to be graded, so to speak, against the rubric provided by a healthy theological vision. In other words, we need a lens through which to view current attempts at urban mission, and more importantly, to help craft new method and get people started doing good ministry in our cities.

I am currently writing this post on a plane to Dallas. In a few hours, I will be presenting some research on developing healthy theological vision for urban mission.

Here is a brief summary of my thoughts on the matter:

Applied theology must be grounded in good exegesis of the biblical text and the modern context, but sometimes we cut corners in our thinking. It is easy to overlook the biblical text and run straight to the context, but this produces a “just do something” mentality. Cities have many needs, but the church has a specific mission. Certainly, that mission is pretty all-encompassing, but if we want to call what we are doing in cities missions, then we need to make sure it is advancing the mission of the church.

We need to develop a healthy theology of urban mission. In order to do so, we must take a look at three things: a biblical theology of the church and her mission, a biblical theology of the city, and a close look at the contemporary urban setting. With these three anchors in place, we can craft an applied theology, or one that is useful in actually doing ministry in the urban setting.

Without getting into the particulars of my research, I will leave you with this axiom: Good urban mission consists of local churches in the city, made up of residents of the city, bearing witness to the gospel in the city, for the glory of God. That may sound obvious, and in a lot of ways, it is. But each piece of that statement bears some weight, and I believe a great deal of contemporary urban mission is missing one (or more) of the pieces of that axiom.

Some ministries are just that: ministries. They are agencies or organizations that freefloat apart from the church doing all kinds of needs-based work in the city. And as needed as these are, if they are not supporting the church by helping (even tangentially) develop more disciples and churches in the city, then they are not about the basic mission of the church in the city. Partnerships with these organizations can help the churuch with its mission, but they are not the mission.

On the flip side, there is an increase in church involvement in cities by churches outside of the city. They want to load people up in a van and take them into the city once a month for a weekend to paint houses or do backyard Bible clubs. These are good, but again, these churches are not in the city, nor are their residents in the city. A long term theological vision for any city should lead us to increase the number of churches in the city that are made up of its own residents. Parachute ministry may provide bursts of momentary relief to people, but it does not give them the gift of a gospel community that can change everything about how they live.

These are just two of the ways we frequently look at urban mission without considering a healthy theological vision for the work. I am excited that the city is in our sights, I just pray that we consider our responsibilty to the commission of our Lord as we roll up our sleeves.

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