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Biblical Foundation of Urban Ministry
Excerpted with permission from the book Transforming the City (1)
As Christians we care about the city because God loves the city. The Gospel we preach is first and foremost God's gift to the poorest of the poor, who to a large degree now abound in the cities of the world.
Our commission is to reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ while we are meeting their human needs in a way that empowers them. In this task, Jesus is both our message and our model.
When Jesus rose from the dead, he said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20,21). We are not only to preach as He preached, but also to do for people the deeds of compassion He did. For us, that includes issues of health, housing, justice and any other areas that affect peoples' lives. So, we obey God's mandate to care for his creation and to open up the kingdom of God to as many as possible.
"As the Father has sent me" not only means focusing on the same issues and priorities as Jesus did, but also serving in the same style. The emptying, suffering servant that Jesus modeled goes against the grain of human nature. The cross is the most demeaning form of death; but for Jesus it was the most powerful instrument of grace. If we are to be effective in urban ministry, the cross must be central.
As we look at the world today, we see that urbanization and urbanism are the two most widespread phenomena of our time. We are here in the cities of the world because we have no choice but to be involved. It is part the calling we received.
Every nation on earth is undergoing urbanization. And urbanism (the adoption of urban life-styles and urban values) is a product of urbanization, but is not necessarily limited to those living in a large city. Rural inhabitants viewing a satellite broadcast (or a webcast) absorb the same cultural influences as city dwellers.
Urban ministry in our time is at the heart of the greatest transformation of human society in the history of the world. Cities today are at once centers of riches and power, as well as poverty and helplessness. As we try to understand more specifically how God would have us respond to the whole city, first to the poor and those who find themselves on the margins of society and then to those at the centers of power, we need to be able to understand what the Scriptures have to teach us about cities and urban ministry.
In today's world, accelerating change constantly presents us with countless opportunities to implement new visions for urban ministry. Unfortunately, resistance to new methods and unwillingness to give up control - to cooperate rather than compete - greatly inhibits our ability to minister to the city. According to Ray Bakke, one of the realities of Christianity today is that 85% of the barriers to creative and effective urban ministry are within the church itself.
The city is a dynamic complex of inter-related systems in which it is impossible to isolate any particular problem from the whole. We need many visions to approach the city, some of which will undoubtedly challenge the established thinking about how we should do ministry and with whom it should be done.
Ray Bakke has said, "The seven last words of the church will be 'We've never done it that way before.'" Wherever Christians struggle for control, the poor and the city lose. It essential that Chrisitian leaders keep an open heart and mind in a spirit of love.
The world of the Bible was far more urban than many people realize. More than 100 cities are mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, and the word "city" occurs 1,250 times - 1,090 times in the Old Testament and 160 times in the New Testament.
Even a very brief overview suggests that the Bible has much to say about urban ministry.
Almost every aspect of city ministry is included in this practical book: politics, safety, labor issues, financing, decision making, self-interest of the volunteers, the role of the church and scripture, commerce and trade issues, credit policies, and a host of other relevant issues familiar to urban practitioners.
The Bible begins in a garden, but it ends in a city.
Nehemiah wrote the most contemporary practical urban handbook in scripture. He was a lay man who caught a vision for rebuilding his city and prayed for the right opportunity. When the time was right, he asked his boss (the King) for a leave of absence, a government grant and in-kind gifts; he mobilized a volunteer service project and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem in fifty two days. In a most radical and practical strategy, Nehemiah recruited people of faith from the suburbs to relocate into the city and reneighbor it.
Other Biblical characters model different urban leadership styles. What are the odds that an ex-convict from an extremely dysfunctional family (ten half-bothers and multiple step mothers) will make it as an urban leader? Joseph was betrayed and sold into slavery in Egypt where God gave him an ability to interpret dreams. That gift landed him a position as Secretary of Agriculture for the most powerful city-state on earth. Joseph models for us the values of persevering through years of isolation and using his official government status to benefit the multitudes.
And talk about long-term leadership training programs: Moses was classically educated in pharohic studies and then spent 40 years in the desert tending sheep in preparation for leading a nation. The son of a welfare mother, he was a partner in a bi-racial marriage and needed his father-in-law's advice on how best to manage his affairs. Moses also made the hard decision early in life to turn his back on the privilege of the court and to identify with his own people in slavery and poverty. His model is one of moral courage and long apprenticeship on the way to becoming an effective leader who practiced community development with poverty-level migrant immigrants.
In the New Testament, it is clear that the gospel conquered the Roman world by penetrating its major cities. What Paul did on his missionary journeys in Acts was to go from city to city, finding culturally appropriate ways to introduce the Gospel in each city.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, there is a rich variety of themes relating to urban ministry.
- Homelessness: The theme of homelessness pervades the Bible. Adam and Eve were evicted from their garden home. Being homeless was one of the things Cain feared as God confronted him over the murder of Abel. Job had to leave his home because of the great traumas he experienced and could not return until these were resolved. Abraham became voluntarily homeless in order to follow God. The people of Israel and Judah experienced numerous exiles. People were forced to mortgage their homes because of poverty as they rebuilt Jerusalem in Nehemiah's time.
Jesus, too, was homeless-first as a baby born in a borrowed stable and then as a refugee in Africa. As an adult he had no place to rest his head. The early Christians counted homelessness as part of the cost of their apostleship; the last book of the Bible was written by a man forcibly removed from his home.
Since homelessness is one of the most challenging problems in large cities today, the references noted above help us to discover something of God's attitude to homelessness. In particular, we see that it is impossible to separate the theme of homelessness from the issues of justice, righteousness and mercy, all characteristics of God.
- Macro-Ministry and Micro-Ministry: In Jonah 4:11, God calls Jonah to be concerned for every lost person in the city and for the city itself. Urban missions embraces a macro view, the big picture of the whole city, but also a micro view, each individual and family.
- Compassion: Urban ministry is motivated by a deep compassion for the "harassed and helpless."
- God's Focus on the Poor: It is overwhelmingly clear from the Bible that one of God's primary concerns is for the poor and the oppressed. That is how Jesus defined His ministry during His time on earth: good news the to poor, bad news to the rich. Early Christians took all this very literally and shared their wealth with anyone in need. The New Testament characterizes this kind of practical action as pure and faultless religion in the eyes of God.
It is the same in the Old Testament. God judged Sodom because it neglected the poor. The legal system He established in Leviticus was designed to protect and support the weak and the outsider, especially immigrants, who were to be treated the same as the native born. When the poor complained to Nehemiah about how they were oppressed, Nehemiah confronted the oppressors and told them exactly what they were doing wrong. Speaking through the other prophets, God explained over and over to Israel just how He expected them to treat the poor: with righteousness, justice and compassion.
That is what urban ministry is all about. We can no longer sit in our pews and wait for the people to come us. We must go out to the lame, the crippled, the blind, the impoverished, the hurting, and love them in the name of Christ.
Transforming the City was developed by participants in a workshop organized by International Urban Associates (IUA), which brought together Christian leaders to ask the question, "What does it take to be effective in urban ministry?" Steve Ujvarosy, a facilitator for the project, granted us permission to publish excerpts from the book.
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