“The city is not to be regarded as an evil invention of… fallen man… The ultimate goal set before humanity at the very beginning was that human culture should take city-form… There should be an urban structuring of human historical existence… The cultural mandate given at creation was a mandate to build the city. Now, after the fall, the city is still a benefit, serving humankind as refuge from the howling wilderness condition into which the fallen human race, exiled from paradise, has been driven… The common grace city has remedial benefits even in a fallen world.”
Thus says Meredith Kline reflecting on the nature and role of the city in call of the Gospel. Quoted in Timothy Keller’s insightful book ‘Center Church.’
Keller builds the case for the Christian community to intentionally target cities in its missional strategy for it is there that we can have the greatest influence over the greatest variety of peoples and cultures.
Keller is not naïve about the challenge. As he says, “The earthly city is a metaphor for human life structured without God, created for self-salvation, self-service, and self-glorification. It portrays a scene of exploitation and injustice.” At the same time however, the critical reason cities are so important to our mission is that “… God “has compassion on all he has made” (Ps 145:9). But of all the things he has made, human beings have pride of place in his heart, because they were made in his image (Gen 9:6; James 3:9). Cities, quite literally, have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth.”
Furthermore the pattern of evangelization set in Acts reflects precisely this priority. “The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery in its article on “City” states the following:…There is a sense in which the city is vindicated in the history of the early church — not in the sense that the city is mainly good or cordial to the gospel but in the sense that the city is where most people now live and where the influential power structures exist… It is easy to see that the mission strategy of the early church was to evangelize the city. It is no exaggeration to say that in Acts the church is almost exclusively associated with the city.” This the city sets the pattern for the early spread of the Gospel by informing the shape of how the Church will function within the city.
Paul’s pattern of working within cities proved that, “…if the gospel is unfolded at the urban center, you can effectively reach the region and the surrounding society. Stott cites J. A. Alexander’s insight that Acts shows the spread of the gospel “by the gradual establishment of radiating centres or sources of influence at certain salient points throughout a large part of the Empire.”
In his bookThe Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark offers a very clear picture of how the Church both used cities to further the cause of the Gospel and was influenced by the structure of cities in shaping its missional task. “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity…”
The need for Christian influence in our cities has hardly diminished over the last 2000 years but the means by which they are influenced has changed I believe. People today are used to single stop multichoice environments in cities and, to a certain extent at least, churches need to reflect this in the way they structure themselves. That we have something to offer is not in question but how we offer it is. We need again to be influenced by the structure of cities in the offering of the Gospel and frankly this means shaping ourselves to deal with the problems of larger churches.
The mission, essentially, hasn’t changed. There is still a clear need to care for the poor and under-resourced people in cities; there is still a need to address the results of immigration both legal and illegal and there is still a need to provide pathways to better socialization but the general style of living has changed from one centered on communal living and large multi-generational family groups to much smaller, nuclear family or even single generational groups who tend to be much more isolated from their neighbours and other family members. For this reason among others the style and shape of effective Church communities has had to change. This means that in general people are more comfortable in large and anonymous community settings where there is an emphasis on freedom of choice and the ability to take what one wants from an experience without necessarily buying into the whole package.
Interestingly enough this can and should include boutique experiences because this is exactly how the city works. No city would be complete without the small eateries, cafes, boutique fashion shops and dairies. They offer a special experience, very different from the large malls and department stores, which appeals to many. The buying power and efficiency of the larger stores is attractive to most but the smaller shops provide something important as well.
To leverage the efficiencies of a larger group of people with greater buying power Churches in cities now need to be at least 200 strong and be able to grow a group of support staff around the senior minister. This doesn’t so much replace volunteers as provide a structure to more effectively motivate and utilize voluntary labour. And it also shouldn’t preclude the offering of the boutique experience; the contemplative worship experience or the celtic worship experience or the age specific worship experience or the liturgical worship experience. These should be supported and provided by the larger church and they will need support. They seldom can find enough support to remain stand-alone just as the small boutiques shops require the foot traffic of the larger stores to bring customers to their door fronts.
So the issue of how to manage and maintain larger churches is, I believe, a key issue for us today. Cities require much more sophisticated management ability to run smoothly. They require specialist skill to remain livable and large churches require a quite different approach to continue to flourish and gain momentum. We need to be providing this and training for it in order that we might remain effective in the city.
Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (p. 150). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.