Ordained Servant Online



The Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the City

John S. Shaw

Christian publishing houses continue to roll out new books on the subject of church ministry in the city.[1] There is a growing desire to learn how to plant churches in large urban centers, and also a desire to effectively communicate the gospel across languages and cultures. These desires grow from a response to the changing dynamics of our nation and world.

A quick review of demographic trends tells the story of a world becoming increasingly urban with nationalities, languages, and races mixing in new ways. Consider the following statistics and trends:

The demographic trends tell us something. Obviously, we don’t build our theology or our mission on demographics that reflect cultural movements and shifting human priorities. The Bible provides the only foundation for theology and mission, and that standard never changes despite the movement of the culture. We recognize, as well, that statistics can be and often are twisted to support the political and moral inclinations of the powers of the age. But the demographic realities tell us something: that the world in which we live is becoming more urban and more ethnically diverse. Those realities provide both challenges and opportunities for the church that we must recognize.

Two Possible Responses

So how should the church, and in particular, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, respond to a population growing increasingly urban and diverse? The literature and practice of the evangelical and Reformed church generally suggests two typical responses, what I will describe as being either against the city or for the city.[9]

First, the response that I have described as being “against the city” focuses on the problems of the city (e.g., crimes, drugs, homelessness, overcrowding, poor schools, etc.). Proponents of this viewpoint describe cities as “uncomfortable, congested places filled with crime, grime, and temptation.”[10] Christians that begin from such a starting point approach the city in one of two ways. It is either a terrible place from which Christians should flee, or a flawed place that Christians must fix. You see the results of this approach with certain trends in the American church. Congregations leave behind their building in the city to replant their congregation in the suburbs. (Have you noticed all the empty church buildings in the city and wondered where those congregations went?) And politically active Christians sometimes talk about poverty, welfare, health care, and immigration in ways that communicate disdain for people made in God’s image.

Anyone who has lived in an urban environment has experienced the problems of the city. In my short experience of urban living, I was solicited for drugs in front of the elementary school playground one block from my house; interrupted a drug deal six blocks from my home; lived in a neighborhood with gang shootings, extensive drug raids, and a manhunt that led to the killing of a police officer and the lock down of our neighborhood on an otherwise quiet and leisurely Saturday morning. Of course, you can experience many of these same things living in suburban or rural communities; but the concentration of such events tends to be much higher in urban contexts.

Yet our family also experienced tremendous benefits living in an urban context. Our children played with the neighborhood children quite happily while being some of the only Caucasian children, and that changed their perspective on race and ethnicity. We hosted a Bible club in our backyard with fifteen Hmong children participating in some form and enjoyed hearing five of them recite the Bible verses for that week in our kitchen. Our children learned about maintaining their public testimony as they confronted difficult interactions with the neighbors (for instance, how to respond when a neighbor asks you to play house with their family idols) and invited neighbors for dinner and family devotions. We also celebrated three professions of faith and five baptisms of internationals (Korean, Japanese, and Chinese) in our urban, mid-western congregation.

The biblical answer to the problems of the city certainly can’t include fleeing the city or looking at the city as a place that simply needs to be fixed. Cities are filled with people made in the image of God who need the gospel and the compassion of Jesus Christ. Churches in urban contexts within the United States have a unique opening for gospel ministry, and even the opportunity to minister the gospel in circumstances that we have often relegated to foreign missions.

So what about the second approach—what I have labeled being “for the city”? Maybe that provides the right response to a population growing increasingly urban and diverse. You can trace this particular urban movement within Reformed circles to men like Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz, who have written extensively about how the church should approach urban centers. But the most prolific twenty-first century voice addressing this issue is Tim Keller, a popular author and speaker, and the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. In one of his articles, “A Biblical Theology of the City,” he wrote: “This city [the New Jerusalem] is the Garden of Eden, remade. The City is the fulfillment of the purposes of the Eden of God. We began in a garden but will end in a city; God’s purpose for humanity is urban!”[11]

To summarize, being “for the city” in this context means to focus on the blessings and opportunities of the city. Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard describe cities as centers of power, culture, and worship; as magnets for people, amplifiers of voice, and engines of culture and ideas; and thus consider cities to be unique gateways for the ministry of the gospel.[12]

Once again, this particular viewpoint includes much that is true. Due to the nature of urban populations—with large concentrations of people from various people groups, and with a greater concentration of professionals, universities, and the arts—cities exercise an immense influence on the direction of culture and ideas. In addition, the large concentration of people in a relatively small geographic footprint provides great opportunities to reach many people with the message of the gospel. Churches within these contexts have an opportunity to speak loudly and broadly the message of the gospel, with a much greater reach than is generally available in smaller towns and rural communities.

Yet there is an accompanying danger in the message of those who fall into the camp of being “for the city.” They at least suggest, if not boldly state, that God possesses and the Bible expresses a preference for the urban. “God’s purpose for humanity is urban!”[13] Keller proclaims. The unstated implication is that God’s purpose for humanity is not suburban or rural (or small town or whatever other category you might want to include). Such an attitude leaves people in small or rural communities to wonder, what happens to us if Christ and his church prefer the urban? Such an attitude could also lead the church to wonder, “Why would we bother planting churches in rural areas or small towns when demographics, and even the Bible itself, tell us to go to the city?”

A Third Response

I would suggest a third response to the city that looks somewhat different from the two already mentioned. Rather than focus on the city as something the church should stand for or against, this third response focuses on the people who populate the city. To explain, let me begin with Bible passages that stand at the center of books that present a “for the city” approach.

Um and Buzzard build their argument for a city-centered ministry on a biblical theological walk through the Old and New Testaments. They suggest that their “for the city” approach finds its greatest support in the earthly ministry of Jesus, focusing on Luke 9:51 and 19:41–48. Building from these passages, Um and Buzzard make a bold statement concerning the ministry of Jesus:

Jesus’s ministry is not only set in an urban context, we must remember that in some sense its goal—that by which it is gravitationally pulled—is a city. This is eminently clear in Luke’s Gospel where the bulk of the story is shaped around Jesus’s journey toward Jerusalem. The major turn of the book occurs in 9:51, where we see Jesus “[setting] his face to go to Jerusalem.” The travelogue continues until Jesus enters the temple in 19:45, effectively taking Jesus to the center of the city immediately outside of which he will soon be put to death. Though it will not be a refuge for him, Jesus is determined to get to Jerusalem. To recognize the centrality of the city of Jerusalem for Jesus’s ministry is not to deny or undervalue his ministry in rural or pre-suburban settings, it is simply to acknowledge the shape of his ministry as it is presented in Scripture. As we will see, in Jesus, God’s commitment to the city is at its peak.[14]

This whole chapter, “The Bible and the City,” provides many opportunities to wrestle with the exegetical implications of the passages they consider, but I will leave that task to a more skilled exegete. It seems to me, though, that Um and Buzzard miss the most basic and clear application of these passages to our practical theology. When you consider the words of Jesus in Luke 19:41–44, he weeps not so much over the city as an institution or structure, but rather over the people who will perish as the Lord judges the city. Consider what he says in verses 43 and 44: “For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side, and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you.” Jesus focuses on the judgment (the visitation mentioned later in verse 44) that the Lord will visit on the people of Jerusalem and their children.[15]

Throughout this chapter of Um and Buzzard’s book, and throughout many similar books, the authors read their own definition of the city (a metropolis) into every mention of cities (both particular earthly cities, like Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and also every mention of Zion, the city of God, in places like Hebrews 11 and 12 and Revelation 21). In the process, they often miss the beautiful message of the Lord’s love for the people within the walls of earthly cities. Even more important, they miss the particular love that Jesus reserves for the people of Zion, his bride and the apple of his eye, the church.

When Jesus approaches earthly cities, he looks with compassion on lost and perishing sinners “who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:35–36). Also, “the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob,” not because of a particular bias toward the urban, but because he founded that great city as a dwelling place for his beloved and chosen people (Psalm 87:2ff). That city points us, ultimately, to Christ’s church.

We do learn how to approach the city from the example and teaching of Jesus. He calls us not to be against or for the city, but rather to be for people. To approach men and women with the same love that characterized our Savior. To approach lost sinners with compassion because we recognize the terror of God’s wrath, and to approach believers with great love because we recognize the price of Christ’s sacrifice for them. Jesus’s earthly ministry, and in fact the whole scope of biblical theology, calls us to approach men and women with compassion modeled after that of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Such an approach gives us a method to build churches and gather sheep in every context—whether urban, suburban, rural, or small town. Because Christ loves people and possesses a special love for his chosen people, we plant churches anywhere that we find people. Yet this perspective also gives us good reason to focus attention on large cities and urban centers. The Lord sends his church to gather the sheep, and we find the greatest collection of people (and potential sheep) in large cities.

In addition, this particular perspective provides good reason to focus our attention on places where a diverse population of people (across languages, races, and cultures) is gathered. The Bible describes the church as a collection of people from the nations, even nations that previously hated each other and hated God and his people. Psalm 87:4 describes Zion as including citizens from every geographic direction and even from those nations who sought to destroy Israel (Assyria, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Egypt). Revelation 7 describes the people of God as including “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v. 9). The growing diversity of our nation’s cities, rather than a threat, presents an opportunity to bring the gospel message to the nations. How wonderful to see the Revelation 7 vision reflected in churches in our own country.

The increasing urban and diverse population of our nation certainly presents challenges. But the Lord provides, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, a plan to unite all things in him (Eph. 1:10); and he promises to unite all things especially through the message of the cross of Jesus Christ carried by the church (Eph. 2:11–22; 3:10). The church finds in these demographic trends an opportunity to proclaim Christ to a growing and diverse population, and to offer them the only answer to those things that otherwise divide people. The flow of biblical theology calls us to love people, and therefore the flow of biblical theology calls us to places where people, many in number and diverse in population, gather. In conclusion, let’s consider a few ways the Orthodox Presbyterian Church can tangibly love people in the city.

Loving People in the City

First, the church tangibly loves people in the city simply by their kind presence. Most large American cities are littered with empty church buildings or repurposed church buildings. Christians have fled city cores in droves, and the void of gospel influence leaves tangible marks. Urban cores feel the painful results of the fall in a concentrated way, and they need the gospel. When Christians offer their presence, following the instruction of Paul in Romans 12:9–21—blessing those who persecute you, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those weep, living in harmony with one another, associating with the lowly, living peaceably with all, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, overcoming evil with good—the Lord blesses those labors of love. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church should be present in cities expressing genuine Christian love for our neighbors.[16]

Second, the church tangibly loves people in the city by proclaiming the truth of the Scriptures, without hesitation or compromise. The only answer to sin that tears down and divides is the gospel of Jesus Christ. He calls his church to disciple nations as we go by baptizing in the name of the triune God and teaching them to observe everything that Jesus commands (Matt. 28:18–20). For people to believe and call upon God, we need to send those who preach the good news (Rom. 10:14–15). People need truth and they want truth, no matter what secular sources might claim. The Lord gives his church everything necessary for life and godliness. Let’s boldly teach the truth.

Third, the church tangibly loves people in the city by establishing congregations committed to the fullness of the Christian ministry laid out in Acts 2:42–47. Congregations devoted to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers (v. 42). Congregations committed to helping any who have need (v. 44–45). Congregations committed to regular fellowship, regular worship, and opening their homes (v. 46). Congregations characterized by joy and praise (vv. 46–47). Congregations known as good neighbors who have favor with all the people (v. 47). Congregations in the city must plan for an active diaconal ministry and a vibrant prayer ministry. The Lord blesses such churches and makes them a blessing (v. 47b).

Fourth, the church tangibly loves people in the city by emphasizing the teachings of Scripture (the content of the gospel and the commands of God) and de-emphasizing other things we consider important (politics, personal choices for school, etc.). I recognize this point may touch some nerves, but the church should be about the gospel and about the Bible, calling people to faith and obedience to the Word of Christ. In contrast, the church should not be about party politics, homeschooling versus Christian schooling versus public schooling debates, health food, homeopathic medicine, or environmental causes. Christ calls the church to proclaim the whole counsel of God, and we must focus our words on those matters.

Fifth, the church tangibly loves people in the city by being good neighbors and good laborers. There are probably several good articles to be written on this point alone. Without question, clear, biblical preaching and teaching are essential and powerful (Rom. 10:14-15; 1 Cor. 1:18–2:5); yet it is important to recognize that most Christians exercise their Christian witness most directly by how they treat their neighbors and how they serve their employer. Careful attention to these matters has opened many doors for the gospel.

Do the demographic trends so clearly evident in the twenty-first century mean anything for the church? Yes, of course they do. The Lord, in his good providence, has gathered large and diverse populations into urban centers throughout the United States and the world. There are new opportunities to bring the gospel to the nations even in our own backyard. May the Lord give us wisdom to speak clearly and grace to speak kindly the words of life, so that a multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, might worship the one true God.

Endnotes

[1] Some examples: Jon M. Dennis, Christ + City: Why the Greatest Need of the City Is the Greatest News of All (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Darrin Patrick, For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010); Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012); Mark Gornik, To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard, Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013).

[2] “Urban Population Growth,” World Health Organization, accessed July 26, 2013, http://www.who.int/gho/urban_health/situation_trends/urban_population_growth_text/en/.

[3] “Growth in Urban Population Outpaces Rest of Nation, Census Bureau Reports,” U.S. Census Bureau press release, March 26, 2012, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/2010_census/cb12-50.html

[4] “America’s Urban Population: Patterns and Characteristics,” ProximityOne, accessed July 26, 2014, http://www.proximityone.com/urbanpopulation.htm.

[5] “U.S. Urban Population Is Up ... But What Does ‘Urban’ Really Mean?” Nate Berg, Citylab, last modified March 26, 2012, http://www.citylab.com/housing/2012/03/us-urban-population-what-does-urban-really-mean/1589/.

[6] “Children of Immigrants: 2011 State Trends Update,” Devlin Hanson and Margaret Simms, Urban Institute, last modified May 5, 2014, http://www.urban.org/publications/413113.html.

[7] “U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now, U.S. Census Bureau press release, December 12, 2012, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/population/cb12-243.html.

[8] “2012 National Population Projections,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed July 26, 2014, https://www.census.gov/population/projections/data/national/2012.html

[9] Obviously, this is an oversimplification of the issue. But gathering the typical evangelical responses into two categories seems the best way forward for a short article.

[10] Um and Buzzard, Why Cities Matter, 16.

[11] Resurgence, a ministry of Mars Hill Church, accessed July 26, 2014, http://theresurgence.com/files/pdf/tim_keller_2002_a_biblical_theology_of_the_city.pdf.

[12] See Um and Buzzard, Why Cities Matter, chapters 1 and 2.

[13] Resurgence, a ministry of Mars Hill Church, accessed July 26, 2014, http://theresurgence.com/files/pdf/tim_keller_2002_a_biblical_theology_of_the_city.pdf.

[14] Um and Buzzard, Why Cities Matter, 68–69.

[15] This is not to deny that the Lord Jesus weeps over the judgment that will come against the creation, which includes more than simply people. The pattern of Scripture bears out such a concern for all the creation. But the focus of his sorrow rests on the crown of creation, men and women made in the image of God.

[16] I would argue that the relational ministry to which we are committed—including an emphasis on Christian fellowship, pastoral visitation, and family visitation—is well-suited for urban ministry. People want and need that kind of Christian nurture and committed presence. Our pastors have committed to being with and loving people—the house-to-house ministry that Paul describes in Acts 20:20.

John S. Shaw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as general secretary of the Committee on Home Missions and Church Extension. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2014.

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