The largest migration in human history is taking place right now. Unlike previous migrations, it is not across national borders or continental divides. It is not defined by points on the compass. It is a rural to urban migration. The tipping point is projected for 2007, when for the first time in history more people on the planet will live in cities than live in the countryside.
Like most events, there is both good news and bad news in this global happening. For cities, the bad news is that the large influx of people is overburdening the infrastructures, and they are unable to care for the needs of the inhabitants of the city. City budgets are stretched and services, once considered common, are being cut. The good news is that because of the overtaxed infrastructures, there is an unprecedented openness on the part of cities to cooperate or partner with NGOs, including faith-based organizations.
The good news for the church is that since people are most open to faith during times of transition in their lives, this could become a time of great spiritual revival. The bad news is that church and mission organization strategies and successes have typically been more effective in rural rather than urban areas. And so, faced with an open door of opportunity, we have few strategies for entering.
What is true globally is true also in China, only in larger numbers. Already there are more than 180 cities in China of one million or more. That number is increasing by three to five each year. It takes nothing away from the glorious story of the house church movement to note that it is largely a rural phenomenon. So what of the cities?
Three Elements of an Urban Strategy
There are three elements to consider when developing an urban strategy. First is the needs and dreams of the city. Second is the mandate and desires of God. Third is the callings and capacities of the church. To find ways to engage the city the church needs to find the needs and dreams of the city and to pursue the mandate and desires of God coupled with the callings and capacities of the church.
Common grace is found where the needs and dreams of the city intersect with the mandate and desires of God. Included here are God’s creation and the abilities He has given to humankind for social and economic development. The overlap between the mandate and desires of God and the callings and capacities of the church is salvation, or the ministry of bringing people into a right relationship with God. Between the needs and dreams of the city and the callings and capacities of the church there is a clear separation of responsibilities and absence of control. Some duties, such as civil government or law enforcement, are clearly the responsibility of the city, not the church. Likewise, city authorities have no business getting involved in the church’s spiritual life.
However, where the needs and dreams of the city and the callings and capacities of the church intersect with the mandate and desires God, here is the area where the church can engage the city through service. Finding the needs and dreams of the city and addressing those which are within the callings and capabilities of the church and in line with God’s mandate and desires begs the “why” question. Thus emerges the opportunity to share the motivation for the church’s involvement, which is Christ.
This is best done directly than through organizations operating separately from the church. The church can work with other organizations that are morally positive and spiritually neutral, thus spreading out the Christians within the secular community. The result is that more people will come to know Christ through natural relationships as believers serve the city than through the church’s traditional evangelistic efforts. Evangelism-seeing people come to Christ-is our ultimate motive; it is not an ulterior motive.
These are the indispensable elements of an urban strategy. The strategy looks different in every city. One cannot dismiss the necessity or practicality of a strategy because of the difficulty of the setting. The Holy Spirit directs the development of a strategy in settings that are “open” or “closed” to the church. The first three centuries of the church are a testimony to that. In all settings an additional factor is essential.
Too Big To Go It Alone
Jesus prayed in John 17:23 that his followers would experience total unity. The inclusion of the word “total” implies that there can be partial unity. In fact there are different expressions of unity in the New Testament.
Ephesians 4:3-5a is an expression of the unity of family. When each of us comes to Christ we become children of God, which makes us all part of the same family. It is not of our doing. We are placed there. We are all members of the same family whether we acknowledge, or even like, all of our brothers and sisters.
This is the reason for the second expression of unity, the unity of fellowship. Romans 15:5-7 is an encouragement to live in fellowship with one another. It is not automatic. We are to ask God for the ability to praise Him with one heart and voice. The prayer movement of the past ten years is an unprecedented expression of this form of unity. God is bringing his church together across denominational and doctrinal divides.
Having experienced this fellowship in the Spirit, pastors and leaders intuitively sense that there is something morethat they ought to be doing something together. And that something more is the unity of function, or purpose. Paul, in Philippians 2:1-2, calls on those who are already one in Christ and the Spirit to purpose together to have the heart of Christ, the heart of a servant (v. 7). In cities around the world, the church (all of the family of God in a city, like “the church at Philippi”) are working together to have the mind of Christ for their city. They are purposing together to serve their city. This requires a new view of the role of the church.
Unity that enables those within the Body of Christ to work together does not require uniformity in all areas of belief. Rather than asking whether a particular church fits within the “bounded set” of a particular set of beliefs, it asks, “Do you care about what I care about?” In other words, is there agreement about the particular needs and dreams of the city in which the church is called to engage? The “bounded set” limits who can be involved, whereas the “centered set” invites participation by all who care about the particular area of need. Partnerships of churches engaged in blessing their cities will have multiple centered sets, depending on the callings and capabilities of the specific churches involved.
Servants Can Go Anywhere
What the church is discovering in a hostile environment (which is almost everywhere), is that if it wants to control the city, it has to fight for power. Even when it wins, it loses, because the church of Jesus is not attractive when it uses force and does not advance by coercion. The words of Jesus, usually applied to individuals, are no less true of the church. We do not operate like the world. “Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-28). Servants can go anywhere, even into the king’s palace, as the believers at Philippi discovered (Philippians 1:13).
God has called his church to the ministry of Jesus for the city. When Peter summed up the entire ministry of Jesus for Cornelius’ household he did it with two phrases, “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good because God was with him” (Acts 10:36-38). Good news and good deeds. The good deeds of a servant church have the power to change the hearts of people and create an audience for the good news. Overburdened cities, in every environment, around the world, are welcoming a servant church, which is not divided by sectarian agendas, to serve the needs of the city.
A Message to Exiles
The church is in exile in the city. It matters little whether it is Berlin or Beijing or anywhere in between. The church lives in a hostile environment. It has little power or influence. It is right where God wants it to be! God has a message for his exiled people! “Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because as it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7). God’s message to his exiled people is:
- Serve the city—do not fight it
- Pray for the city—not against it
- Seek the city’s prosperity—not its destruction
- Enter into the life of the city—do not isolate yourself (see vs. 4-6)
- Experience prosperity (quality of life) in a prospering city
God loves cities. The Bible starts in a garden and closes in a city. Jesus was born in a village, but died and rose again in a city. God has a plan for cities. That plan is for his unified servant church to bring peace to the city by being and sharing the Good News of redemption.
Sam Williams is a consultant for CitiReach Intl., coaching cities where the church is engaging the culture in spiritual and societal transformation. Brent Fulton, Ph.D., is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio