It was the first weekend after the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, was on the phone in his Manhattan home when he heard a band playing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Intrigued, he headed out into the street and saw a small marching band of African-American teenagers.
The band was a group of Seventh-day Adventist students from Oakwood University. They had driven from Alabama to share a bit of joy the best they knew how. Those teenagers touched the heart of the secular editor of a secular magazine in one of the world’s most secular cities. “Their noble posture and their music held the people around them like a pair of loving arms,” wrote Carter.1
Today the cities of the world desperately need to be wrapped in the loving arms of the gospel. “The Lord has been calling our attention to the neglected multitudes in the large cities,” wrote Ellen White, “yet little regard has been given to the matter.”2 She wrote that 100 years ago, but has anything changed?
Imagine standing in the New Market area of central Dhaka, Bangladesh, watching rickshaws roll down Peelkhana Road, each carrying a person, one every minute. Statistically speaking, you’d be standing there for nearly seven days before a rickshaw came past carrying an Adventist.3 And don’t even try to find an Adventist church; it would be easier to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Similar scenarios—some more dramatic—play out in urban areas around the world. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a rural church, and we’ve scarcely made an impact in urban areas.4
Wednesday, May 23, 2007, should have been a wake-up call to Adventists serious about Christ’s commission to go into all the world. Researchers estimate that on that day, the world’s demographic center of gravity changed. For the first time in history, a majority of the world’s population were now living in urban areas.5 But most Adventist churches, institutions, services, agencies, and members remain outside the cities.
More than 20 years ago, the 1989 Global Strategy document, the blueprint for the Church’s Global Mission initiative, referred to the growing urban areas as just one of the church’s biggest mission challenges. Today it’s our biggest challenge.
As we face the incredible challenge of the cities, how should we move forward? Ellen White summarized the incarnational ministry of Jesus, which she called “Christ’s method,” in five steps.6 This method is key to urban ministry.
1. Mingling. In the late 1990s, under the leadership of Mark McCleary, the Southwest Philadelphia Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Pennsylvania, planted three new congregations. He led his church members in mingling with the people in their areas. Pastor McCleary was an officer on the West Philadelphia Partnership Board—a group of organizations partnering to enhance civic life in the community.
Their church plants have been involved in everything from helping people find jobs to baby dedications and Vacation Bible Schools. When McCleary received a call to lead a church in Washington, D.C., community leaders lobbied the mayor of Philadelphia to keep McCleary in the city.7
Jesus chose not to conduct His mission to our world by remote control. He left heaven, came to earth, and rubbed shoulders with us. In Matthew 8 and 9 alone He touches five people, including a leper.
Christ-like mingling requires time, possible discomfort, and commitment. It might mean forming relationships with people who are different or indifferent to us.
Literature, public evangelism, radio, TV, and the Internet can play a vital role. But they can only support and never replace personal, hands-on, mingling ministry. Just as we send missionaries to other lands and cultures, so we need missionaries in cities to make a long-term, on-the-ground commitment to city ministry.
2. Showing sympathy. Speaking of the city of Nineveh, God asked a rhetorical question: “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11). 8 Centuries later, Jesus echoed that same concern: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
Wayne Krause pastors a church he and a small team planted in an urban area near Sydney, Australia.9 It’s in the middle of a community of thousands of young families, the vast majority of whom have never stepped foot inside a Christian church.
One day when a couple of women from Wayne’s church were shopping, a young man asked them to take him to a methadone clinic. Without thinking twice, they took him there immediately. Afterward they drove him home and cooked him a hot meal.
The young man started attending church each Sabbath and afterward members took him to the methadone clinic. At a court hearing several members surprised the young man by showing up to support him. A few weeks later his entire family came to church.
Dressed in heavy metal regalia, they sat down in the front seats. Wayne looked out from the platform and decided to change his sermon and talk about the great controversy between good and evil.
None of the family was Christian, but Wayne discovered they had come to see what sort of church would show such sympathy and support to their son and brother. After the service they asked Wayne how they could be on God’s side in the war between good and evil. After Wayne explained the gospel to them, they all asked Jesus to be the center of their lives.
As we look at the urban mission field, we must look through the compassionate eyes of Jesus. We’re not looking at a target group or mere statistics, we’re looking at sons and daughters of God who need to know the love of Jesus. They may have given up on church and religion, but they’re open to Christ’s followers who show the sympathy of their Master.
3. Ministering to needs. If we’re going to minister to needs, we need to know what those needs are. We need to study our communities. What are people reading, watching, and listening to? How do they spend their spare time? What’s causing our urban neighbors pain? What’s bringing them joy?
A few years ago Wayne’s church discovered that some students were arriving at the local public school each day without having had a proper breakfast. Soon this Seventh-day Adventist church was serving the needs of these hungry kids. Later, when the school decided to hire a chaplain, they turned immediately to Wayne’s church. Now Rochelle Madden is employed as school chaplain for this public school, fully funded by the Australian government.
“My role as chaplain is to be a window to Jesus,” says Madden. “I really want the kids, parents, and teachers to see a Christian as someone who really cares about them and what’s going on in their lives.”10
Seventh-day Adventists should be at the forefront of making cities better places. Are people hungry? Adventists should feed them. Are immigrants struggling to adapt? Adventists should care for them. Does a city park need a clean up? Adventists should roll up their sleeves.
Jesus modeled a holistic ministry that perfectly balanced the spiritual and the physical: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35).
4. Winning confidence. In 2004 Andrew Clark was called to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to head up Adventist Community Services in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ivan and Francis. Clark and his team helped families rebuild their homes and lives. After the floods subsided, the local town council met to discuss whether to grant Adventist Community Services an occupancy permit. In a powerful tribute, more than 100 people from the community came out to support Clark and the church.11
5. Bidding people to follow Jesus. Inviting people to follow Jesus isn’t some artificial construct placed on top of the other four steps. It’s a natural outgrowth. Will all people accept Jesus? No. Does that mean we stop mingling with them and serving them? Certainly not.
As Clark and his team mingled, showed sympathy, ministered to needs, and won confidence, they received criticism from other Adventists. “You’ve been mingling for months now; where are the results?”
But God has His own timing. One day a tattooed teenager Clark had been working with said, “Pastor Clark, am I an Adventist yet, or what?” I received a message from Clark pleading for help to find a Bible worker. Bible study requests were starting to flood in.
Ellen White wrote that Christ’s method, when accompanied by the power of persuasion, of prayer, and of God’s love, “will not, cannot, be without fruit.”12
When Moses sent the spies into Canaan, he instructed them to specifically investigate three things: (1) the land (2) the people (3) the cities.
The spies returned with glowing reports of the land and its produce, but also a daunting picture of the people and cities (Numbers 13:26-30). The people were giants; the cities were “fortified and very large” (verse 28). Only Caleb and Joshua dared speak of victory against such formidable obstacles.
Today’s twenty-first century cities are also “fortified and very large.” The fortifications aren’t made of stone; they’re reinforced by the intangible fortifications of secularism, postmodernism, and consumerism. Will we have the faith of Caleb and Joshua to say that with God’s help, “We can certainly do it”? Will we seek to break those fortifications by the embrace of Christ-like love?
Jibade was sharpening a farm tool when he heard the wail of an ambulance pass by. “Dear God,” he prayed, “please let my children be OK."
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