Several years ago I read some insights from Tim Keller on the subject of a church’s engagement with a city. This writing was especially interesting for me personally in light of the fact that I was planting a church in the city of Austin, Texas.
Austin, at the time, was one of the least-reached cities in the United States, and thinking biblically and systematically about how to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ here consumed a great amount of my time. Keller argued most churches fit in one of four categories.
Four Types of Churches
Keller spoke of the first category of church as simply in the city. This church meets together, gathers for worship, and creates programs for its congregants. But apart from ministering to the people who gather within the four walls of the church, the church has little to no effect on the city around it.
The second category of church can be classified as against the city. This church has an “us versus them” mentality. In other words, the church is good, and the city is bad. The people of the city are bad, while the people of the church are good, and the church people therefore need to be kept isolated from the evil people that surround them.
A third category of church is of the city. A church of the city has bent so far to the culture that it has ceased to be salt and light in that city. When addressing the Ephesian church in Revelation 2:1–7, Jesus spoke about hating “the deeds of the Nicolatians.” Many scholars believe that the Nicolatians had been so concerned about being relevant to the culture that they lost their ability to stand apart as “a city set on a hill.” In the midst of trying to impress people with their cultural sensibilities, the Ephesian church lost the effect of the gospel of Christ.
Keller spoke of a final category that he calls a church for the city. This church seeks the shalom or the welfare or flourishing of a city for the glory of God and the exaltation of Christ. To be clear, city engagement can never be an end unto itself. We are called as God’s people to love our neighbor, but that love must always point others to the one who first loved us.
At The Austin Stone Community Church we have sought throughout the years to be a church that does more than gather on Sundays to worship. As important as the Sunday gathering is to the life of the church and the spiritual health of the body, my desire has been to constantly remind our people of our calling to love our neighbors.
One amazing example where I have seen this happening in and through our church occurred a couple of years ago in an under-resourced locale called the St. John neighborhood. An apartment complex full of refugees from other countries caught fire and began to burn. Within minutes, we got the word out to our church, and folks from all over the city began to pour into the neighborhood to do what we could to alleviate the suffering. At the end of the night, a Fox News reporter was on the scene and said to her live audience on the 9 p.m. news, “If you want to find out how to help the people of the St. John apartment fire, don’t call the Red Cross, call The Austin Stone Community Church.” As I heard her say those words to people sitting on their couches all over the city of Austin, tears welled up in my eyes. I knew we were becoming a church for our city.
To be a church for the city is not a new concept that Tim Keller or The Austin Stone invented. Christ himself said, “Let your light shine before men, so they see our good works and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). With his words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that our witness for him is spoken with our mouths and demonstrated with our hands, and a church full of people for their city does exactly that.