Urban Ministry in the End Time
The three angels’ messages call for the gospel to be preached to “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6, NKJV). Thus, wherever people live, the message must be brought to them. And because so many now live in cities, to the cities we must go.
In fact, urgency for city work intensified in 2007, when the United Nations statistical experts declared that for the first time in recorded history, the majority of the world’s population was living in metropolitan areas. Today, urban ministry has become the central issue for Seventh-day Adventist mission strategy.
In many nations, Adventist outreach has accomplished more in the small towns and rural areas outside the metropolitan regions than it has in the cities. Surveys have shown that in some major urban complexes, the majority of people have never heard of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and thus know nothing of the three angels’ messages.
Hence, it’s clear that to reach out to the world, we must reach out to the cities.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, September 17.
Cities bring together many different cultures, ethnic groups, languages, and religions. Traditionally, each group had its “quarter,” or defined territory. Increasingly, all kinds of people live next door to one another throughout metropolitan regions. This multicultural reality creates risk and complexity, but it also provides great opportunity for the gospel. There is greater tolerance for new ideas, a greater willingness to listen to new religions, than often exists in the more traditional cultural settings outside the cities. The city could provide access to many people who otherwise might never come near the Seventh-day Adventist message.
In these urban centers, there was a mosaic of many languages, cultures, and ethnic groups, just as cities have today. Paul found specific types of people with whom he connected. He found people who shared his connections to the Jewish faith, to Roman citizenship, and to the tentmaking business in which he was trained. He used these skills to support himself. He lived in the household of a couple who became believers and evangelists themselves. He taught in the synagogue until he was kicked out, and then he started a house church in the home of a believer. He trained and mentored enough new believers so that when he moved on, he could appoint people to lead the group.
Clearly, Paul understood and was comfortable working in the multicultural, multifaith context of the city (see also 1 Cor. 9:20–23). He knew how to adapt to the environment that he was in, and he learned how to present the truth in order to best meet the needs of those he was trying to reach.
As Christ made His way through Jerusalem, Capernaum, and other cities of His time, the sick, disabled, and poor crowded around Him, the Healer. His heart went out to suffering humanity.
In the city, there is more of everything—more people, more buildings, more traffic, and more problems. This presents a real challenge for churches. Those sharing the gospel cannot simply ignore the massive human needs around them and concentrate on the message alone, because to do so discredits the message. If our actions do not demonstrate the compassion, grace, and hope of which we speak, then what we speak will be powerless. It will be heard as just another one of the many voices competing for ears of the masses.
Our world is a hurting place. It groans under the weight and suffering of sin. None of us, no matter who we are, escapes that reality.
This pain also offers us powerful opportunities for witness. But we also need to be careful here. When it comes to how a church is perceived by nonmembers in terms of its neighborliness, it is important to understand the difference between community events and an ongoing service that actually meets needs. There is a difference in the minds of a community between a church that delivers food to families once a year during a holiday and one like a particular Adventist church plant in a large city.
What does this church do? It meets in a community center that operates on a daily basis. People can go there any morning and get a hot breakfast! And it is not even that large of a church. It has only about seventy-five members, but they are fully committed to meeting the needs of their neighbors in an urban neighborhood. This is a great work but one that takes dedication and a sense of obligation to help those in need.
Imagine the impact on our communities if all our churches were doing something to help to respond to the groans that are surely rising up in our neighborhoods.
Though set in a rural context, this parable is, in fact, more important in urban ministry than in small towns and rural areas, because urban areas have a greater variety of “soils.” This explains why it is more challenging to conduct evangelistic campaigns in cities than in more rural areas.
Different soil conditions produce different kinds of results, suggesting the need to study the soil conditions before investing in evangelism activities. If, after studying the community “soil,” your church discovers that it has limited “good ground” in its territory, you must plan to improve that soil by softening the hard pathways, removing the rocks, and pulling up the thorns. That is, for evangelism to be successful, the church must work ahead of time, preparing the soil. This can make a great deal of difference in how effective an evangelistic campaign can be.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4, the Scriptures teach about spiritual gifts. They say that there are a multiplicity of different gifts but only one mission. The types of soil mentioned in the parable show the need for many different gifts to be included in reaching the cities. In the large cities, “men of varied gifts are to be brought in,” Ellen G. White has written. “New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living.”—Evangelism, p. 70. Through the gift of divine insight, she saw what is necessary to be effective in urban ministry. It is even more necessary today to have a wide variety of approaches and gifts working within a large, multifaceted strategy. A single campaign or one major project will not achieve much in the long term. The massive scale and complex structure of the city simply swallow such programs, and within a few weeks there is no trace of an impact. More needs to be done beforehand.
Because of the massive size of urban populations, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that faith is personal. The bottom line in reaching the cities, or any other place, is individuals finding a personal relationship with Christ. Research has shown that the vast majority of converts to the Seventh-day Adventist Church say that they joined because of a relationship with an Adventist acquaintance. And oftentimes friendships, especially in the case of outreach, involve death to self and a willingness to work for the good of others. Plowing the ground, planting seeds, nurturing the sprouts to harvest, and preserving the harvest—all of these things work best if there is a strong relational element. We need to learn how to be friends with people; we need to learn how to listen to them; we need to learn how to love them. If these are essential elements for any outreach, how much more so in urban ministry, in which individuals can, at times, feel lost and uncared for amid the vast and teeming population?
The vital element of urban small-group ministries might take the form of the “house church” as it existed in the New Testament (Acts 2:46), or it may simply be small groups within a larger congregation. Wherever there is an urban neighborhood or suburban town that does not have a local church, but where there are three or more Seventh-day Adventists, some kind of small-group should be organized and begin to function in that community. (See Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 7, pp. 21, 22.)
This approach is essential to urban ministry for several reasons. One is the complex mosaic of cultural, ethnic, language, and socioeconomic groups to be reached within the hundreds of communities and subcultures in even medium-sized cities. Unless there are small groups targeting each of these segments, Christ’s mission will not be completed.
Small-group ministries also are needed because of how difficult it is for believers to follow Jesus in the city. There are many pressures, temptations, and encounters with alternative faiths and ideologies. Some believers simply give in to the pressures and drop out of church, while others develop a hard shell to protect their feelings and become insensitive to the people around them who need a loving representation of Jesus.
No one is saying that outreach and ministry are easy. The fact is, they are not. Humans are fallen, corrupt, and not naturally spiritual. As Paul said about himself: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14, NKJV). If Paul says that, what about those who don’t know the Lord or who have never had a life-changing experience with Jesus?
And if our natural fallen natures weren’t bad enough, cities have always been known for their notoriously bad influence on people. People face so many temptations that the enemy of souls uses to ensnare them and keep them bonded to sin and the world. Thus, no wonder that outreach to cities especially is not a simple task; it is, though, a task that must be done, and we as a church, to be faithful to our calling, must be doing it.
2 Pet. 3:9
1 Tim. 2:4
According to the Word, Christ’s death was universal: it encompassed all humanity, from Adam and Eve down and all who follow. This would, of course, include the endless masses living in the great metropolitan centers of the world. They, too, need to hear the great truths that are so dear and precious to us.
“There is no change in the messages that God has sent in the past. The work in the cities is the essential work for this time. When the cities are worked as God would have them, the result will be the setting in operation of a mighty movement such as we have not yet witnessed.”—Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry, p. 304.
The call to reach the cities is personal. It is a call to a deeper experience with Christ ourselves and a call to earnest intercession as well as comprehensive planning and implementation. It is built completely on the foundation of revival and reformation, for it is going to be accomplished only by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Further Thought: Read Ministry to the Cities (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald® Publishing Association, 2012). It is a collection from the Ellen G. White Estate of most of the Ellen G. White materials on urban ministry.
A Seventh-day Adventist expert in urban ministries did a study in the Ellen G. White periodical index regarding her counsel on moving in or out of the cities. Out of 107 articles, 24 articles gave instruction on moving out or establishing institutions outside cities. But 75 articles gave specific instruction to move into the cities to reach the cities. The other eight articles were neutral. A church historian summarized Ellen G. White’s counsel on city work, showing that relating to institutions, she advocated working from outpost centers outside the city, and when dealing with local church work, she advocated working from within the city.
What are the plans in your church to reach the cities? Where is your local church located in relationship to the nearest major metropolitan area? No church should think that reaching the cities is irrelevant to them. Every Adventist congregation needs to make some contribution toward this most important missionary goal. Ignoring the cities and focusing only on reaching the areas outside the metropolitan regions is not a faithful response to the mission that Jesus has given us.
“Why should not families who know the present truth settle in these cities? . . . There will be laymen who will move into . . . cities . . . , that they may let the light which God has given them shine forth to others.”—Ellen G. White in Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 29, 1891.