How should Christians approach the city? Is there a single Biblical model for Christian ministry in urban areas? Actually there are several. Each of the Bible stories below provides us with a model, agenda, mandate and principle to follow. These are illustrated by 21st century examples taken from cities across Europe.
The Jeremiah mandate
The great urban mission commission (Jeremiah 29:7) is “Seek the peace and prosperity (shalom) of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Urban Christians depend on this just as much as the great commission in Matthew 28:19. They work through relationships and invest in prayer. How many prayer groups meet in your city to pray for it?
In Antwerp’s old inner city, the fruit of loving and patient witness was seen by a Dutch couple who worked for many years with Turkish young people. The ‘Bible-house’ became a place of community and a spiritual home for a number of Muslim families originating from southern Turkey. One day three of these young men who had got into trouble asked the Dutch evangelist, rather than the local imam, to visit them in prison.
The Pauline principle
“To the weak I became weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I may save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) We need to be culturally sensitive like the apostle Paul was in Mediterranean cities. In Philippi he reached different classes through a Bible study group (Acts 16). In Athens he reached intellectuals through sculpture tours (Acts 17). In Corinth he reached labourers through his job as tent-maker (Acts 18). In Ephesus he reached Jews through dialogue (Acts 19).
In Berlin, after the Iron Curtain came down in 1989, a new synergy took place with Christian ministries from the two sides of the wall. Ministry to the elderly on the east side and addiction ministry on the west came together. Berlin City Mission – one of the largest City Missions in Europe – cares for a metropolis of 3.5 million people (many of whom are from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Asia) where their twenty churches act as mission stations. The Mission also owns three hotels in the city, reaches out to German professionals, and has programmes with Turkish and Arabic peoples bearing witness to the love of Christ with people of other faiths.
The Nehemiah model
Nehemiah responded to the news of Jerusalem’s terrible condition with tears, prayer, fasting, humility and seeking the Lord. The story is about the importance of vision, resources, research and action plans. He dealt with the people’s questions and issues first and only later was the priest Ezra called in. We need to nurture and encourage people and give them permission to act. If power is the capacity to act, those long denied it need to learn to use it.
In Rotterdam, two Christian youth workers brought the local community together by inviting a local Christian footballer to join them. They said that they were not there to convert the young people but cared deeply about the drugs and violence in the area. Their parents agreed and an after-school project started up. Computers for school work and patient conversations led to many Antillean people, the most frustrated youth in the Netherlands, making it their home. This social project eventually led to ‘Thugz church’ starting up on a Saturday night.
The Isaiah agenda
The second half of Isaiah 65 (verses 17-25) became the basis for congregational evangelism in Hong Kong. Raymond Fung organised the women in his church to engage with others in the factories on a wide range of issues mentioned in these verses: housing, employment, economic development, healthcare, prayer, personal relationships and joy.1 This agenda shows that urban mission is holistic.
On the north side of Lisbon, I heard that the newly elected mayor by-passed the traditional priest to visit an Assemblies of God church to seek a blessing from the evangelical pastor. The church had grown from 30 to 300, and many of the congregation were migrants, but the reason for the visit was that the municipality knew this new church for its holistic care for drug-addicts and the elderly. Of the 75% who went back to live in society following rehabilitation, more than 50% joined a church and more than 25% found regular employment.
1 Raymond Fung, The Isaiah Vision: an Ecumenical Strategy for Congregational Evangelism, WCC, Risk, 1982
This article also features in our June 2012 edition of Sphere. Click to see more Sphere articles.