Reaching Our Cities for Christ

Christopher Wright said it well, “We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God expects for his mission in all its comprehensive fullness.” (Wright, 534) Alongside this line of thinking, another way to look at this is “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.” (Wright, 534) To find any “success” in ministry, that thought is very important. To be effective, we have to allow the Holy Spirit to shape, mold, and transform us into the instruments and vessels he wants us to be. Otherwise, we are doing ministry for our sake instead of for the sake of the Kingdom of God. When looking at cross-cultural urban ministry, Wright’s questions help us put into, better, context what the Apostle Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV)

So what does this look like? Is there a way to be effective in the way Paul was? Yes. Whenever Paul went to a new area, he made sure he went to the city centers. “[Paul] concentrates on the district or provincial capitals, each of which stands for a whole region…These ‘metropolises’ are the main centers as far as communication, culture, commerce, politics, and religion are concerned…Paul thinks regionally, not ethnically; he chooses cities that have a representative character.” (Bosch, loc. 3259-3274) Why did he do this? Because this is where Paul knew the most effective way to communicate to the regions was located. When he did this, he was able to “shift” his speeches and explanations of Christ to show the people he understood them and was willing to do life with them and guide them to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul knew how to be the kind of person the people needed, without giving up on who God created him to be. All of this helped to equip the people to carry on the ministry after Paul left and continued on his missionary trek. 

At the same time, Paul knew he was not doing his own work but, rather, the work of Jesus Christ in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit. He practiced incarnational ministry and did it well. “The significance of incarnational ministry is that ministry belongs to God and His work, first and foremost.” (Buckman, 181-82) This is one of the reasons Paul was successful, he knew he was doing the work begun and continued by the Holy Spirit. He was confident in his calling and did not waiver in the message he proclaimed. So it should be with us. Do we know and have the confidence Christ has called us and given us purpose in this life? It is because of this confidence that we can handle what we go through. “The pastor…who enters a new culture, no matter how hard he or she tries to identify with the people, must expect to suffer, both out of longing for what is left behind and because of resistance to what the people are being called to accept or become.” (Wingeier, 38)

One of the interesting things about cross-cultural ministry is the opportunity to learn more about another culture. “Since most multicultural communities in the United States consist of the dominant (powerful) culture plus at least one other less-powerful culture, justice issues need to be paramount in any cross-cultural ministry, not relief, not charity, but what the New Testament calls righteousness.” (McConnell, 592) This means that opportunities are available if we take the time to learn about different cultures and how people live. “Henri Nouwen teaches us that a powerful ministry occurs with people of a powerless culture when we demonstrate a capacity to learn from them and a willingness to show our gratitude for the gift they thus offer.”( McConnell, 593) The gratitude we experience comes from the knowledge of the blessings God has bestowed upon us. As the cliché goes, “we are blessed to be a blessing.” “’Be a blessing’ thus entails a purpose and goal that stretches into the future. It is, in short, missional.” (Wright, 211) This brings us to contextualization.

Contextualizing the Gospel message to any culture is important. “Contextualization begins in those areas where the biblical context overlaps with the contemporary cultural context. One often talks about certain parts of culture in abstract terms like ‘collectivism,’ ‘honor/shame,’ ‘patronage,’ or cyclical vs. linear views of time. After all, no one today existed in the time Scripture was written. That distance creates an unavoidable degree of abstraction. The critical point at this stage becomes finding how we move from abstract categories to their concrete modern expressions.” (Wu, loc. 1686) There are ways of communicating, here in the United States, that would not fly overseas, like and area such as Saudi Arabia. What is the goal of the missionary? “We desire for people to see all that is good in the gospel. However, this takes time. Thus, we must take steps so that people can see, as much as is possible, what is good in this news. By drawing from the entire Bible, not simply our favorite texts, we gain a balanced perspective on salvation. By not developing a ‘canon within a canon,’ one identifies the major themes or motifs that God uses to explain salvation.” (Wu, loc. 1530) When we do this we communicate the full scope of the Gospel. Jackson Wu says it well, “In a word, the gospel is the message by which sinners are saved. Naturally, evangelism in its fullest sense requires we talk about sin in some form or fashion. This story is not complete without making clear God’s reaction to sin.” (Wu, loc. 1514) He also reminds us “judgment has a positive side. In judging his enemies, God brings salvation to his people and righteousness to the earth.” (Wu, loc. 1522) What about the cities?

Cities, urban areas, are very important. As we have seen, the Apostle Paul utilized the cities to spread the Christian message of Jesus Christ to the outlying areas. He was strategic in where he went and who he spoke to. We should do the same and realize how quickly the landscape is changing within the cities. “The rapid growth of urban populations is well known and has been well documented. In 1800, for example, less than three percent of the world’s population lived in towns of more than 5,000 people. By the year 2000, half of the world’s population lived in cities of more than 100,000 people. As cities have grown, they have become more diverse with respect to culture and class, as well as professional and residential differences, and almost endlessly multifaceted.” (Buckman, 183) Allan Buckman goes on to say, “Moreover, the City has enjoyed a reputation for being welcoming and hospitable toward immigrants and refugees…In other words, the considerable flow of New Americans into the City will almost certainly continue into the foreseeable future.” (Buckman, 183) What does this have to do with contextualization? For starters, this means there is a diverse group of people all in one place. 

Different groups (cultures) may live in certain pockets within the city limits, but they are still gathered and lives intersect with others. As Jesus says, “the harvest is plentiful…” (Matthew 9:37 NIV) so there is an incredible opportunity to reach different people. “In the city can be found pockets of small village-like communities where people live as much as they did before they migrated to the city. Within that community they shop at family-owned stores where personal ties are important. They discussed choices with their neighbors. Outside the neighborhood, however, they learn to make decisions as city folk do, and this begins to change their community.“ (Hiebert, 179) This makes strategic movements within the city very important. We cannot just go in and start something new, we have to take time and follow any “chain of command” there is, whether it is stated or not. “When attempting to develop a ministry or program among members of these communities, one must always receive some kind of approval of one or more of the community leaders. If a ministry is to be developed in a manner meaningful to the ethnic community you are trying to reach, it is obligatory.” (Buckman, 186)

One of the challenges with cities we should be aware of is migration. People come from all over the area just to live in the city, but refugees also come from other countries to live in the cities. As ministers/missionaries we have opportunities to reach these people as well. “According to the United Nations Population Fund, there are 214 million displaced people in the world, which is 3% of the total population.” (Wingeier-Rayo, 19) How we live our life affects this group of people also. We may even have to step out of our comfort zone to aid and support and minister to any person that is displaced. “Jesus has crossed geographic, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, and socio-economic borders.” (Wingeier-Rayo, 30) To illustrate this point further, Philip Wingeier-Rayo goes on to say, “[Jesus] left his comfort zone in Galilee…He identifies with the people of his region and shows solidarity with them…” (Wingeier-Rayo, 31) Ready to leave the comfort zone? To do this, we need to make sure we are sensitive to the culture and background of the people. Urban areas provide opportunities to come in contact with a diverse group of people. “This increased cultural and ethnic diversity demands that we attend to and respect the gifts of the various groups now represented in our society, church, and institutions. It also requires us to develop intercultural sensitivity and skill. Most importantly, it asks us to reexamine our understanding of ministry, which can be seen as a way of bridging different ‘cultures.’” (Wingeier, 35) How we communicate the Gospel matters.

Dr. Hiebert writes, “Communication of the gospel across the chasms of cultural differences rests upon the quality of interpersonal relationships between human beings—between missionaries and the people they serve.” (Hiebert, 147) As we communicate, we have to know how to speak to the people. This is where it is important to live a life free of reproach so the message we proclaim is heard from words and actions. “[T]he mission in the church, according to Peter, includes both vertical proclamation and ethical living, and the impact of his tight argument is that both are utterly essential.” (Wright, 390) The context in which people live is important. Context really is king, especially when proclaiming the gospel. “We face a very practical question. When it comes to preaching the gospel, which context is king? The ancient biblical world? Literary context? The interpreter’s culture (or subculture)? How about the cultural context of our listeners? If we are honest, finding an answer is far more difficult and sobering than one might expect.” (Wu, loc. 266) Taking time to understand the meaning of the scriptures and how to communicate them, in any setting is essential. This creates a unique challenge within urban settings. You have to know who you are talking with, and at least some of their background, to be able to understand how to communicate with them the core of the Gospel: Jesus Christ is King. Proclaiming this fact can be done in any setting. “Contextualization, if done well, keeps in perspective for us the fact that Jesus is King of every context.” (Wu, loc. 671)

Before continuing, we have to realize we may not be called, by God to try and reach “everyone.” But we are called to go to different people. It is these people, and this culture, we can immerse ourselves in and learn how God is speaking to them today. This will help us to be flexible in the manner in which we proclaim the Gospel yet remain firm in the core message. “Christians need a contextualization method that has both flexibility and firmness…The gospel does not change. On the other hand, biblical writers clearly present the gospel in contrasting ways. Even within the Bible, there is no single prescribed way of preaching the gospel. In addition, the world’s cultures are diverse and ever changing.” (Wu, loc, 1363) For example, a person in China is more likely to respond to communication about honor and shame versus guilt and punishment. “A person in America may not use words like gaining or losing ‘face,’ but they might talk about ‘people pleasing’ or ‘trying to look good in front of others.’” (Wu, loc. 1391)

Now no matter what context we serve, there will always be the truth God “desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) In urban areas, there are multiple places and venues and ways to find “a truth” that fits the individuals, even what will fulfill the desires each person faces. This raises the reality of other “false gospels” that people will buy into to be justified in the lifestyle they have chosen. “A culture’s false gospels also answer the four questions mentioned above. Thus, we first could ask, ‘Functionally, who is the savior-king in the culture?’ Personally, one asks, ‘Functionally, who is the savior-king figure in my life?’ Second, ‘What has this savior-king done in the past?’ Again, the answer to this second question clarifies both what kind of a person the “savior” is as well as his significance. Therefore, it matters that one knows about this savior-king’s character and power.” (Wu, loc. 2944) In Acts 2, Peter was speaking to a large crowd. They were in the city of Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. It is possible some people were searching for a relationship with Jesus Christ. Then, when Peter got up to speak, they found what they’ve been looking for, in the mighty works of God through Jesus Christ Peter spoke about. The same is true today. To help people see why God is vital and is enough, we speak about what he has done. We do not have to be fancy with the language we use, we just speak about God. “When talking about God, we need to highlight his works in history in order to explain what God is like. We do not merely want to say he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. This is how systematic theology describes God. Rather, we seek to emphasize how God demonstrates his character and attributes.” (Wu, loc. 1245) This is a great undertaking but well worth it. The works of God include the person of Jesus Christ and his atonement for the sin of the world, as well as the personal sin of the individual.

When we present the Gospel, especially to people who can find their pleasures fulfilled on a whim and find purpose in their jobs and people they hang around, there are going to be some questions that will need to be answered when giving a Gospel presentation. “The biblical gospel answers four key questions. I’ll review them briefly. There is a clear logic to the order of the questions. (1) ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’…(2) ‘What has Christ done?’ This question aims to show what kind of a person he is. (3) ‘Why does Christ matter?’ In other words, why is Jesus significant to us? This point largely deals with salvation. Traditionally, evangelicals have laid the greatest stress on this aspect of the gospel message. (4) ‘How should we respond?’” (Wu, loc. 2925)

Now, the challenge will be avoiding syncretism, especially when a concept sounds close to one the person has known before. In the urban areas, even cross-cultural settings, it is possible to keep certain traditions, customs, and way of life and still think they are living as a Christian. One of the ways to combat this is to fully immerse ourselves in the setting. Many call this “incarnational” ministry. The point is to become involved enough in the culture and community to gain the respect of the people. Relationships matter. “If the success of missions depends largely upon the quality of the relationships between missionaries and the people to whom they go, the parent/child relationship model is not biblical. The biblical model is that of incarnation. To bridge the cultural gap between heaven and sinful earth, God became human and dwelt among us, eating our food, speaking our language, and suffering our sorrows, yet without giving up his divine nature. Incarnation is identification, but it does not deny who we originally are. It is, in fact, a bicultural or by personal state. Just as God became one with us in order to save us, we must become one with the people to whom we go in order to bring them to message of salvation.” (Hiebert, 158) Only when living life, on some level, with the people will trust begins to develop and the mission and proclamation of Jesus Christ will be heard and lived out by the people we serve.

This is truly only possible with the presence and person of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who guides as he did for the Apostle Paul by sending him to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). Following the leading and guidance of the Spirit prevents us from proclaiming our own culture and ideas. The Spirit helps us proclaim the full gospel. This is what is important in urban centers and any kind of cross-cultural ministry.

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. (2014). God Dwells Among Us : Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth: Vol. North American Edition. IVP Books.

Bosch, D. J. (2011). Transforming mission : paradigm shifts in theology of mission (20th anniversary ed. / with a new concluding chapter by Darrel Guder and Martin Reppenhagen.). Orbis. Kindle Edition

Buckman, A. R. (2012). Contextualization in an urban setting. Missio Apostolica20(2), 181–189.

Martin, M. (2011). Cross-cultural perspectives on the call to ministry. Vision (Winnipeg, Man.)12(2), 70–78.

McConnell, T., & McConnell, J. (1991). Cross-cultural ministry with church and family: the final report of a research project. Religious Education86(4), 581–596.

Wingeier, D. E. (1992). Emptying-for-filling: an approach to cross-cultural ministry. Quarterly Review12(2), 33–56.

Wingeier-Rayo, P. (2015). Jesus as migrant: biblical understand of immigration as a cross-cultural model for ministry. Apuntes35(1), 19–32.

Wright, C. J. H. (2006). The mission of God : unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative. InterVarsity Press.

Wu, J. (2015). One gospel for all nations : a practical approach to biblical contextualization. William Carey Library.

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Ryan Stratton

Ryan Stratton is a pastor in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He serves with his wife, Amanda, along with their children. He writes about life, faith, and leadership through his blog.

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