Nazarene Theological Seminary's president Ron Benefiel (former pastor of Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene and founder of Bresee Institute for Urban Training) has noted, "The need and opportunity for the Church to minister in the city is evident. The challenge is certainly there before us. The question is whether or not we will respond by taking the good news of the Gospel into our cities."1
Nazarenes claim to take the Scriptures seriously. Then, we must take the Great Commission and Great Commandment equally seriously. Add to these the Scriptural truths, the facts of an urbanized world, and the imperative before us could not be more clear.
The mission strategy of the New Testament church is evident from a quick scan of the list of letters the apostles wrote to the churches they had planted in the cities of their day. For those who use the "harvest principle" to determine deployment of mission resources, the ripe harvest fields today are in the cities. For holiness people, this harvest has always been in the cities: from Wesley in Bristol, Palmer in New York, the Booths in London, to Bresee in Los Angeles. Along with the countless others they inspired and led, these men and women courageously responded and showed us the way of the urban imperative.
Ministering with people in cities is challenging, the issues often complex, and the questions prevalent. But there can be little doubt, it is the imperative for the Church today, and especially so for a denomination in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition.
What remains to be seen is whether we as a people will be faithful to Scripture, its historic tradition, a reasonable, rational understanding of population realities, and recent experience in the cities. Will the Church responding to this urban imperative, direct its resources to minister intentionally and intensively and extensively in the urban centers of the United States and Canada?
Should these arguments prove unpersuasive, let me appeal baldly to the pragmatic, "can do" attitude of the American culture. A church committed to the Great Commission and Great Commandment surely realizes that it can be faithful to these, only as it can connect with people. Today, the overwhelming majority of people in the United States live in an urbanized context. What can be the long term result, for church growth and the literal survival of the institution, of planting churches in rural and small towns, since fewer and fewer people live in those places? Religious sects that will not invite "outsiders" into the fellowship and practice celibacy do not exist long. Churches that insist on ministering exclusively to their own kind and in their group's native language will soon disappear, as the second and third generation children of these immigrants speak primarily the language of their country and limit use of their parents' and grandparents' traditions to holidays and the occasional family celebration.
Ron Sider wrote a few years ago: "three sets of facts simply do not fit together. There is widespread poverty in our world. The Bible says God and his faithful people have a special concern for the poor. And North American Christians give less and less every year."2 To his strong words, let me add three additional sets of facts: the Christian church's beginning, as well as the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition's ministry focus, was the cities. The United States is an urbanized nation. Only 33% of Nazarene churches in the U.S. are in large cities.
Ninevahs are not pleasant places, certainly not places that God-fearing people would want to visit, let alone live in with those pagans and cultural misfits. But remember the facts of the Biblical record: a holy God is concerned about unholy people. A prophetic, missionary message can reach into another culture. Cities can be won; redemption and transformation can take place.
One veteran urban practitioner and educator volunteered a warning: The worst thing a denomination could do is to start something (in urban ministries) that it can't or won't finish.3 As we have seen, the Church of the Nazarene has a record of engaging and disengaging from the city. We need to listen to the wisdom in this warning and make choices accordingly.
Mission Support Initiatives
Mission Support US/Canada ministry, operating within the US-Canada Regional Office remains a ready resource for districts in this urban imperative in two distinct ways.
District Urban Initiative
With a growing recognition that cities represent the epicenter of God's abiding grace, Mission Support has initiated urban strategy workshops with district superintendents and their leadership in an effort to formulate designs for an increased holiness presence. Workshops have been held in Cleveland, Seattle, and Minneapolis.
While the jury is still out on the results of these efforts, it is our conviction that the urban centers represent a harvest of untapped human capital that could be the challenge for decades to come. In Seattle alone, because of the workshop conducted, more than six Hispanic congregations resulted.
In the future, Mission Support will continue to partner with districts to develop strategies for launching assaults on cities through:
- Assessing ministry potential through a SWOT analysis
- Defining the mission of the district and local congregations
- Exploring the options available through demographic research
- Designing a district and local ministry plan.
Urban Mission Resource Centers
With the increasing stock of church buildings vacated by urban plight, Mission Strategy would help design strategies to transition these edifices into Urban Mission Resource Centers. These buildings would be transformed into centers of comprehensive missional opportunities for the training of urban leaders and the implementation of strategies and programs for urban evangelism.
A UMRC would create its own 501(c) 3, with a board of directors and would be resourced by funding from a partnership of interested congregations, foundations, and state entities. This opportunity could be the catalyst for a NewStart congregation, as well as the conduit for urban community organization and development.
Education: Providing education about changing communities, issues concerning urban ministry and ways churches can respond, small church ministry, and other relevant topics.
Research: Providing congregations with practical information about their community, including demographic and sociological analysis. Statistical analysis and interpretation may also be available.
Training: The urban community brings special challenges in interpersonal relationships. The Center will provide education seminars and personal development workshops in the areas of human diversity, racism, reconciliation, and relationship issues.
Community Development: The center would be the incubator for the implementation of programs that address the structural barriers that hinder residents from assessing community services and entitlements.
The Urban Imperative is a video and a booklet. Both resources depict the burning need to collectively respond to the challenges and opportunities that the urban mystique presents to the church today.
FOR INDIVIDUAL AND/OR GROUP REFLECTION
1. Conduct a study of the following persons from the Hebrew Scriptures: Joseph, Jonah, Jeremiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. What do you learn about the nature of sin, salvation, the role of God's people in cities and the larger society? Can you detect and define any models for urban ministry? Could any of these be adaptable to your city?
2. Review the ministry of Jesus. What was His understanding of the gospel? Of salvation?
3. Study the Acts of the Apostles for examples of how the Early Church ministered in an urban and multicultural world. Did Paul have a single evangelism approach for all the cities? What values, principles, and strategies might apply to 21st-century urban ministry? Note especially Chapters 2, 8, 10, 11, 13, 16-19.
4. From your study of Acts, how did the Early Church understand the role of the Holy Spirit in the missionaries' urban church planting, cross-cultural evangelism, pastoral care, and socio-economic issues of the communities?
5. How does the Early Church view Christ as presented in Colossians? Do you see a different aspect of Christ presented in the book of Philippians? If so, what might these differences mean for our understanding of Christ and salvation? How can these two epistles help us know God more deeply and have a fuller understanding of God's nature and will?
6. How does Paul portray the Church in his letter to the Christians in the city of Ephesus? What imagery, models, or language does he use to describe those who are in Christ? Are there insights from his teaching to this urban church that could help in ministry with your city?