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For the CityProclaiming and living out the Gospel
By Darrin Patrick Matt Carter Joel Lindsey
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Matt Carter and Darrin Patrick, with Joel Lindsey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGospel-Centered City Ministry (Matt)
In the fall of 2001 I (Matt) went through the church planter assessment process with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC). At the time, the SBTC was taking a critical look at various church planting models, debating the merits and pitfalls of each. The sample of church models included the "Willow Creek model," the "Saddleback" or "Purpose-Driven model," and what people then referred to as the "Andy Stanley model." These were all variants of a generalized "seeker model" of planting a church.
If you were thinking about being a church planter, or at least a successful church planter, you selected one of the major models. You crafted a prospectus based on one of the models. If you were approved in the assessment process, you then traveled to the city to which you were called, set up shop, and executed this model in your city. If a church plant was going to succeed, it was going to do so based on how well it adhered to the model it was based on. Rinse, repeat step one.
In my initial meetings with the SBTC church planter assessment team, they asked me which model I was planning to follow. And they didn't just ask me once. I remember being asked a handful of times to name my preferred model. Each time, I resisted an answer, not out of arrogance, but because the idea of selecting a model prior to moving to Austin didn't make sense to me. After all, the Lord led me to Austin, and through much thought and prayer, he instructed me to get to know the people of Austin, their needs and unique cultural expressions, before developing a detailed plan of action. I wanted to go back to the Scriptures. I wanted to study Acts. I wanted to immerse myself in the Scriptures in order to understand more deeply the values and related principles of a New Testament church.
In essence, I thought the SBTC guys—who are great guys and helped me enormously in many ways—focused first on the pragmatics of models while I wanted to focus first on the principles in Scripture. Both are necessary, but it seemed wise to me to be biblically and theologically driven first, deriving pragmatic applications from the Scriptures, church history, and sound doctrine.
During our conversations, the assessment team and I had open and honest debate about an appropriate philosophy of ministry. Our interactions were friendly and loving, not adversarial. The SBTC guys were (and still are) on my team, just as I was (and still am) on their team. We dialogued as brothers committed to Christ and the mission of his church.
All of my conversation with them, though, came down to one piece of advice and one basic question: "We think you should have a model. Which one will you choose?"
So I gave in. Sort of.
I replied, "You want a model? Here it is.
"Imagine an urban church so influenced by the power of the gospel that it seized every opportunity to proclaim and live out the gospel for the good of the city. Imagine that this church physically and spiritually served the poorest of the poor, but also lovingly rebuked the wealthy. Imagine this church as the epicenter of straight-up, God-fearing, Spirit-filled revival, leading thousands of people to eternal life in Christ in just a few years. Imagine a church that built elderly housing, housed all the orphans in the city, and taught wealthy business people to have a 'double bottom line' so they could run a profitable business in order to support the work of the church and meet the needs of the city.
"In other words, imagine a church that boldly preached the gospel and lived out the values of the kingdom. Don't you want to be a part of a church like that?"
"Of course. Who wouldn't?" they responded.
"What if I told you that the church model I'm describing is as trusted, tried, and true as any you'll find?" I said.
"What model is it?"
"Metropolitan Tabernacle," I replied, receiving blank stares in return.
"Where is it? Who's the pastor?" one team member asked.
A thin smile spread across my face
"London, 1852," I said. "The pastor is Charles Spurgeon."
For those who may not be familiar with Charles Spurgeon or his church, a bit of background may be necessary.
The Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom in the latter half of the eighteenth century, and by the 1850s its effects pervaded England. In this period of great industrialization people left the farms and small towns and flocked to London, Manchester, and other cities. As people congregated in vast numbers, the old infrastructure of London lacked the capacity and resources to attend to the needs of the new crowds. The influx of people into London meant not only a spike in laborers and factories, but also the number of under-resourced women, children, orphans, and widows exploded in London.
The city was in crisis. The leaders didn't know what to do. They saw the mountain of needs that confronted them from every angle. Thus, in the 1850s a lot of London churches did what a lot of American churches have done during the last thirty years: they fled the cities. These churches moved their locations to the outskirts of London. But Metropolitan Tabernacle, pastored by Charles Spurgeon, decided, "We're not going to do that. We're going to stay here. We see this as an opportunity for the gospel."
Metropolitan Tabernacle looked at the needs of the people in the city and began to engage in helping them with their problems. The problems of the desperately poor were the most pressing, so Metropolitan Tabernacle leaders created almshouses for people who lost their jobs and needed time to get back on their feet. The poorhouses in London operated in terrible conditions, but the almshouses of Metropolitan Tabernacle provided a crucial alternative. The church also built a large number of homes for the elderly where they would care for them and help them die with dignity and in peace. The church created an orphanage where they educated, cared for, and fed thousands of orphans. They created homes for single mothers who had lost their husbands and helped them find employment. Metropolitan Tabernacle started a school for pastors from rural areas to receive a theological education and helped clothe and provide books for these impoverished pastors. They started programs for businessmen to use their entrepreneurial efforts to expand the kingdom through their businesses.
Metropolitan Tabernacle's influence spread so quickly throughout the poor and all the way up the class ladder to the aristocracy. It got to the point that if Metropolitan Tabernacle had shut down at any point during that decade of grappling with the problems of the Industrial Revolution, the city of London would have been crippled. They would have grieved the loss of the Tabernacle. Can you imagine serving the needs of the city, being so attuned to the common good for the sake of the gospel, that your city would grieve if you picked up and left?
With all of this focus on serving the poor and meeting the needs of people, you might be wondering, "Did Spurgeon ignore the preaching of the gospel?" The answer is clear: absolutely not! So many people began coming to the church, including many lost people who had never attended a church, that Spurgeon asked his Christian members not to attend worship once a month so the lost people would have space to come. Spurgeon saw five thousand people coming to worship at the church each week, and his collections of sermons are regarded as some of the finest gospel preaching ever published.
What Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle did that was so radical and unique was to seize the opportunity all around them afforded by the needs of the people of London. It was a ministry to all people, and ultimately the ministry pulled in not just the poor but also the wealthy and influential.
So that's what I told my church planting friends and "mentors": "That's my model—Spurgeon and the Metropolitan Tabernacle—preach the gospel, meet the needs of the city, especially the poor."
And that's what we started doing.
Seeking the Welfare of the City
Two great Old Testament prophets can teach us a lot about how to reach our cities. Both Jonah and Jeremiah knew what it meant to be strangers in a strange land, which is exactly what Christians are. As C. S. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." Jonah and Jeremiah, however, addressed people living in Assyria and Babylon respectively. Both of these men of God teach us important principles regarding the way God's people are to seek the welfare of their city. We'll spend a great deal of time unpacking Jonah's lessons to us in the final chapter of this book. For now, let's learn from Jeremiah.
Tim Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, often talks about the importance of seeking the shalom of the city. In fact, it was Keller's teaching on Jeremiah 29 that first helped me to understand that the church does not exist to simply "fix" problems. Instead, the church is to carry the burdens of the world to Jesus. Let me explain.
In Jeremiah 29, many of the people of Judah are exiles in Babylon, the capital city of their enemies. The Lord comes to his people through the pen of Jeremiah and says, "Seek the shalom of your enemies. Seek the welfare of your captors. Sink down roots. Build houses. Plant gardens and eat. Take wives and have children. Give yourself to the prosperity of your captors in Babylon and you will have prosperity" (cf. Jer. 29:4–9).
American Christians, when they hear the word "shalom" or "peace," think that the word means something like "the end of war" or is the way one hippie greets another. But that's only a sliver of its fuller meaning.
Shalom is much richer than the absence of conflict or a trendy way to say good-bye. Biblical shalom connotes universal human flourishing. By seeking the shalom of the city, God was asking those in Babylonian captivity to live and invest in the midst of the social and cultural world of their enemies, encouraging and supporting the goodness and enjoyment of life by creating shalom in every niche of society.
As churches seek to embrace this call to promote human flourishing in every area of society, there are typically four approaches that they follow:
Church IN the City
There are churches that are merely in the city. Their heartbeat is to get people in the doors to hear the gospel. That's a good goal. But, unfortunately, that's often where it ends. Such churches create programs for people inside the church walls, and the reach of their ministry only occasionally goes outside to the city. The primary focus of these churches is what happens inside the church building. Churches like this are geographically in the city, but they aren't effectively engaged with the people and culture of the city.
Church AGAINST the City
Churches of this type have adopted a defensive posture toward the city. These churches are often located in urban areas, but everything about the surrounding culture is seen as not just bad, but irredeemable. The arts, the business world, and the media are minions of Satan bent on destroying the church. Believers in these churches often align themselves squarely against the culture and proclaim that they are taking a stand for Christ. A church against its city says:
Certainly, there can be good intentions in a church like this, and there is often an authentic desire among these churches' members to avoid what is evil and cling to what is good. Faithful Christians are continually forced to think critically about what to accept and reject within the prevailing culture.
But a church against its city settles, even prefers, an "Us vs. Them" mentality.
Church OF the City
If churches against the city are defensive and antagonistic toward the surrounding culture, churches of the city go to the opposite extreme. These churches wholeheartedly embrace the culture of the city, so much so that they lose the flavor in their salt and the brightness of their light by abandoning the call to be in the world without being of the world. They bend so far to the culture that they lose their distinctive Christian identity—they lose their ability to speak truth effectively.
The loss of godly distinctiveness in an ungodly culture is not a new phenomenon. This was the primary problem with the people of Israel on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moreover, in Amos 5, God acknowledges that the Israelites were following him. But both their obedience and their witness had been undercut by their loss of godly distinctiveness. Instead of faithfully worshiping the only true God, they worshiped "Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves" (Amos 5:26). Sikkuth and Kiyyun are Assyrian idols. The people of Israel had become a church of the city.
Church FOR the City
While each of these first three church examples highlights a negative aspect of involvement with the surrounding culture, there is a model of engagement where a church speaks the truth of the gospel and is not afraid to uphold a biblical worldview and moral standard. Such a church proclaims the truths of Scripture with passion, clarity, and boldness. At the same time, though, this is a church that commits itself to seeking the shalom, the flourishing, of the city. This means seeking the shalom of the people they live in community with, living sacrificially and using their gifts, time, and money to seek the peace and prosperity of their neighbors.
Sounds like a great idea, right?
But how does a church like that become a reality? That's what we hope to show you in this book. For the next nine chapters, Darrin and I are going to flesh out how you can be a church that boldly and faithfully proclaims the gospel and engages your community with acts of service and mercy.
As pastors and church planters, we have lived out these ideas in the context of city ministry. Cities are at the epicenter of God's earthshaking movements today, and it's important that any model for starting new churches takes into account the unique nuances of ministry in an urban context. But for those of you who aren't located in a larger city, many of the concepts we discuss will work equally well where you are. Much of what we show and tell in this book is transferable, from an urban church in New York City to a village in West Africa.
Anyone who has studied history and the work of God over the centuries knows that what we are talking about is nothing new. After all, Charles Spurgeon was doing much of this more than 150 years ago. But these ideas didn't originate with Spurgeon either. Jesus, when he designed and instituted his church, told them to "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).
Believe us when we say that we didn't write this book so people would start more cool, hip, trendy, and relevant churches. That's not what either of us wants for the congregations we shepherd in Austin, Texas, and St. Louis, Missouri. What we want is for you, the reader, to catch a vision of biblical ministry, ministry done by churches that preach and serve as Jesus intended. We hope and pray that by God's grace you'll be inspired to plant and lead churches that recognize and seize the opportunities existing within your own city and cultural context. We want to see an increase in churches that don't separate their theology from real world social, economic, and cultural influence. Inspired by Metropolitan Tabernacle and other gospel-centered churches that have served and met the spiritual and physical needs of people, we want to have a lasting impact in our cities.
Excerpted from For the City by Darrin Patrick Matt Carter Joel Lindsey Copyright © 2010 by Matt Carter and Darrin Patrick, with Joel Lindsey. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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