“We come in with these ideas and expectations that we start imposing on communities. We think, I want it to look like this, right? And when we talk about ‘urban’ and ‘diversity,’ it’s so trendy right now. We’re bringing things to the conversation and essentially saying, ‘I want to impose what I think it should look like onto this community and judge everything by a standard not warranted in Scripture.'” — Kris Brosett
Date: October 17, 2018
Event: TGC 2018 West Coast Conference
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.
- When Church Planting Harms the City
- The Power of Patient Presence in Urban Ministry
- What We Miss When We Say We’re ‘For the City’
Find more audio and video from the 2018 West Coast Conference on the conference media page.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Speaker 1: I had a couple of texts, you guys. I just want to begin our time together. So if you have a Bible, I trust you guys brought that, you can meet me in Jeremiah 29. This is a session on thriving urban churches. I don’t know how you qualify or quantify thriving, but we can talk about that a little bit. God has been gracious to myself to be pastoring for 15 years now, in two different churches. That would be both considered urban churches in the Los Angeles area. So I’ll share a little bit about that in a moment or two, but I want to just start our time in God’s word.
So in Jeremiah 29, you all know the context here. It’s God and judging his people and taking them into exile into another city. And obviously, we know the context is the old covenant, so but there’s something here of the heart of God that I think would be helpful for us even as we think about ministry in the city. So I’m in Jeremiah 29, I’ll begin the reading in verse 4, I’ll just read down to verse 7. This is God’s word. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Build houses and live in them and plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands that they may bear sons and daughters and multiply there and do not decrease. Seek the welfare…” it could be translated peace. “Seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace, you will have peace.”
And then I just direct us to the new covenant to Matthew 28, you all are familiar with that as well. God sends some of his people into the city to seek the peace of the city, and then we know what our ultimate commission is from Jesus whether you’re in the city or you’re not in the city, we all have the same commission here, given to us by the risen Christ. Matthew 28, I’ll begin to read in verse 16. We know it very well, “But the 11 disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw him they worshiped him, but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them saying, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth, go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, and, lo, I am with you always even to the end of the ages.” Amen? Amen.
All right, I’m going to turn it over to pastor Bobby Scott, he’s going to come and share some thoughts and insights for us.
Bobby Scott: Well, good afternoon. Thanks for coming out, everybody. What I’m going to try to do is simple, I’m going to try to define urban, urban ministry, and from there I’m going to pass it off to my colleagues here and they’ll talk through just some of the particular issues that someone might face in an urban context and face them in a way biblically where your ministries can thrive. The idea of urban is, kind of, a simple idea, it’s not… it’s the urban… is the center part of the city, the older part of the city, as contrast that to suburbia, outer part, and even rural, even perhaps even further out.
And I’ve been serving in Los Angeles since 1993. The Lord called me after my seminary days, and so right where the LA riot started in ’93. And from there I think I was there five years and then I moved from there to serve in Watts for about 12 years. And so when I’m thinking urban, what I’m thinking about historically, is that part of the city where, when there was urban migration taking place, largely minorities coming to cities for working opportunities in Los Angeles, working around the center part of our city. There’s a train line that goes there, a lot of immigrants came, the minorities came to work there. And what it will look like? And you’re not going to be able to see this, I’m gonna apologize for this, I don’t have a projector, but I think you can see this a little bit on my computer here.
But the lighter parts is the ethnic makeup of Los Angeles, the lighter part will be white. That middle part there will be African-Americans and the other darker color is other, and if I slide from there and if I go down maybe from 1940 to 1950s it’s going to look almost the same, just a little bit more a growing African American community right in the middle of Los Angeles. And if I slide down a little bit more, it gets a little bit bigger. So this is the 60s. If I slide down just a little bit more like during the 1970s now, so there’s a growing Hispanic community in East LA, but the large African-American community right in the heart of LA. And if I keep going, what you’re going to see is that LA wasn’t so much a melting pot, much more of a mosaic and that’s largely because of our history. That we have a history of a very racialized country from the very founding of our country when indentured servants came over.
It wasn’t long after having indentured servants here in the United States that there was a differentiation between indentured servants and lifelong servants basing them on ethnicity. And those laws started getting passed as early as the 1640s. Some of the penalties for being a runaway indentured servant if you were black would mean that you’d become a lifelong slave, and then as the laws are passed to make the descendants of Africans permanent slaves, that you had laws being passed like the Dred Scott decision that the constitution wasn’t written for African-Americans. They’re not citizens, they don’t have the legal rights of an American citizen. So you had within America racialization of ethnic groups, and particularly for the African-American community.
And as that history sprawls on after the Civil War, we had a short reconstruction period but was followed by what we all call Jim Crow laws, legalized segregation. And that included redlining where blacks could only live in certain communities. So in Los Angeles, blacks could not live on the west side, all the way up to the 1950s. I think Nat King Cole was the first African American to live on the west side. So you had, you know, from the founding of our country not a melting pot, a mosaic, and you had a separation of the people groups by law, by culture, by any way you can think of it. We just really racialized our country, by education, by employment, by just on and on and on, and the unthinkable happened that we did that in the church as well.
The Galatians 2 cry of Paul, Peter, what are you doing? Like, making the distinction between like the Gentiles and the Jews of these cultural things. That’s not the gospel, that flies in the face of the gospel. But our church did that, the American church really did that. And we were talking over lunch about how the Southern Baptist really split, the largest denomination in America split over ethnicity that blacks would not be included in membership within the Southern Baptist Church. They’ve since repented of that, praise the Lord, amen, hallelujah.
But nevertheless, we have hundreds of years of not just separation of people groups legally and acceptably culturally, where there’s demographics where you live, where you work, where you go to school, but the church did it as well. And because the church did that, we have in America a black church. Think about that. Jesus didn’t die for a divided church, but we have a black church and we have a… And then because we were racialized we have all kinds of ethnic churches in America as well too. There was a young lady from the Master’s College, who’s caused some of my daughter’s friends and she spent the week with us, we had a great time, she’s from Nebraska. And she was so excited to go to a black church. And so she came to our church, and our church is predominantly black. We were diverse but predominately black as a legacy of our country. But predominately black, but she was so excited to come to a black church, and I had to say, “Well, you know, actually we’re probably not like a real authentic black church.” But the reality… I’m going to let them clean that all up.
But if you can imagine, I mean if we define culture as just an array of different things. Whether it’s food or dress or music or speech or different… especially in the context of the church, preaching styles. And then if you’re isolated and separated in every one of those stratas I just mentioned, then you’re going to have different cultures. The black church has a different culture, and to whatever degree that you’re not having just this blending beautiful picture of Revelation 9, happening in the context of a country, then you’re going to have really different, you know, cultural context within the context of the church. And how can a church thrive? I think we do need to understand the culture, we need to understand the pressures and the differences and the problems that those different churches will face. And so they’re going to help walk through a lot of those differences.
But what I would say that when we think about an urban church we are thinking that there’s going to be a large degree of ethnic minorities making up those churches. It’s going to be geographically distinct, it won’t be in suburbia a lot of times in the center of the old part of a city. There’ll also be economic boundaries just because of the history of intentional legalized deprivation. And so you’ll have and disparities like that. So they’ll be educational differences.
I remember… this could have been 15 years ago. I think one of the largest public schools in Los Angeles County, Crenshaw High School lost its accreditation. Can you imagine that? That, you know, a school of thousands of students and they lost their accreditation and Board v. Brown they said from the start that separate really won’t be equal. And so there has been unequity even in the school systems. And so you have within the fruit of that the differences even economically. So when I’m thinking about an urban church, they’re going to be ethnic differences, as geographical differences, educational challenges and difficulties, economic challenges and difficulties. And the black community because they’ve always had to live within the set boundaries together, there’s a diversity within a black context. You’ve always had affluent African Americans, middle-class African Americans, I’ve grown up pretty middle class myself.
But then you’ve had also as well just some of the outworkings of the intentional deprivation of educational opportunities. And when a country transitions from a skill-based, and you can have low skills or menial skills, and you can get a job at a shipyard and you provide for your family. But once we changed to the information age and the technology age and the higher skill-based age, then you’re not going to be able to really take that minimum wage and get a house and provide for your family. Because so many African-Americans didn’t have educational opportunities, it actually led to certain economic deprivations. And so within a black context, it’s going to be a broad diverse range of folks within our church. We have doctors, we have lawyers, and we have folks who used to be prostitutes and homeless and on and on and on. We have folks with doctorate degrees. We have folks who it’s…adults in our church who are illiterate, who can’t read.
So this is diversity, and here the Lord has called us to serve everywhere. In Acts 1:8, we are to leave our Judea and, you know, Jerusalem and go to Samaria and to the outermost parts of the world, and we have to intentionally be able to cross cultural barriers, and we’ve gotta understand those cultural barriers. We’ve gotta understand them within our context of the United States of America. There are cultural barriers, there are differences in different cultural contexts that we as a church need to be armed and equipped to deal with if we’re going to have thriving churches in these places, and I’ll let them again talk through some of that.
But let me just say biblically speaking, do it. I mean, just if the Lord is given you a heart to thrive in an urban context, trust the Lord. When you look at Paul’s ministry, he’s serving in Antioch, that’s a cultural… that’s an urban cultural center in the early church, or he’s in Ephesus, like the capital of Asia minor. That we can’t forget our urban centers, that statistically… and I have old stuff so I’m not even going to read them, most Americans live within the urban context. And so suburbia is great, rural is great, but as we’ve been called in this Acts 1:8 mission to cross these boundaries, we have to do that intentionally. That’s what Jesus is doing in John 4, he had to go through Samaria. There had been a wall that was built between the Jews and Gentiles. And the punch of John 4 is that these Samaritans who got saved said that, we really know you are the Savior, of what? The world, even us. And so we need to intentionally go to places and show that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
Let me say this and sit down. I used to receive outreach teams from the Master’s College when I was in Watts, there was a missions week that they had, the kids could either take off from school that week or to go in a local mission trip to one of our local churches. And I had a team that came down with me, and I’m serving there in Watts and so we’re going out on door to door and I gave some specific instructions, you know. And so I’m at this park and this is not another nice neighborhood, their crime stat is a little higher too in an urban context and this is one. Their crime stats were pretty high where I was, it’s a pretty gang-infested area. And so I’m waiting for some of the students to come back to this park. That was our rendezvous place and I’m asking one of the students, “Where is the rest of the team?” “Oh, they to some houses down there.” Like, they what? I’m like will my insurance cover this? I might be in trouble.
Now, I had gone door-to-door to all these places and all of a sudden coming down the street with these Master’s College kids and all these gangs, these thugs, just follow them to the park. And I said, what? I’m trying to figure what happened. I’m asking, what happened? They just said, “Well, we were knocking on the door and we’re telling them that, hey we’re here to tell you about the love of Jesus Christ.” And I said, “What are y’all doing here? White people don’t come down to this part of town.” And they said, “We are on an outreach from our school.” “Okay, your school said you have to be here?” “No, no, we could have taken off the week. We wanted to come just to share with you all the love of Jesus Christ and how he saves sinners.” And they open up their home and came to the park, and one of the guys that had just got out of jail, I don’t want to go back and it was just amazing. And I think that’s the punch of John 4, Jesus is saying that here it is, you all went into the city and came back with food. That’ it. The Samaritan woman went to the city and brought back what? The whole town. And Jesus said the harvest is ripe all around you, you don’t even see it. It’s right there because I’m the savior of the whole world.
And in our urban centers, we can look at the news and we can see all that, or we can look at our New Testament, we can read Acts 1:8 and know that we’ve been sent on with the gospel of Jesus Christ and our king saves folks in the urban context. I am an example of that, born in Newark, New Jersey, carrying a knife as long as my cap, by the time I was 10 years old, getting in fights everywhere. And the Lord Jesus Christ saved me and changed me. And so if you’re in an urban context, I thank the Lord for your ministry, and these brothers are going to come and tell you how to thrive in those places. Amen.
Anthony Kidd: Yeah, my story. My name is Anthony, by the way, and for some of you they came in late, Bobby and I co-pastor together a church in Southgate. We’ve been together for about seven years. We got similar ministry training at the Master’s Seminary and have been friends for years and years, and so God has been blessing us with the fruit of the gospel in our church. I’m going to kind of pick it up with my own personal story. It’s interesting that for me, that the putting adjectives in front of churches is really weird, you know. I’m just being honest with you, urban church just is weird to me, I just think of church, right? I mean I got saved when I was 25. When I was raised in a Christian home I thought I was a Christian early on, I can’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t a part of a church, and it was just church. It wasn’t an urban church, it wasn’t a city church. It was just church. Right, so I grew up, you know, and so I don’t even know when I came about just urban church and rural church and suburbian churches, its just church, so that’s all I knew.
So when I got saved, I knew I wanted to go to seminary, I knew I wanted to get trained to do ministry. I wasn’t even thinking that I needed anything nuanced to do church where God had called me to do church. I just knew that my understanding of the Bible at that time. Is that okay? If you want to be a pastor, you need to know the Bible and you need to know to preach the Bible because that’s what you did in church. And so I went off to the Master’s Seminary with the thought of not necessarily being a part of an urban church, but just being a part of a church. So I went and got trained and I’ll leave it up to our congregation to comment on how well I got trained. But I got trained and I came back to where, you know, I was from. I never had any other thought of doing anything different. It was odd I just shared this, it’s not a slide on the guys, I love my seminary. I love the guys that I was able to go to seminary with, we have some bonds deep, it’s been almost 20 years since I graduated. I still keep in contact with a lot of guys.
It was interesting coming up into our senior year, my guys had started talking about, you know, where they’re going to go, where they’re going to minister, what their plans are and you know, just kind of guys talking about where they were, you know, candidate and things like that. And most of the guys it was typically in kind of suburban areas. And so, “Hey, Anthony, what are you going to do?” “I’m going home.” “Oh, dude, man, we’re going to be praying for you.” You know, it’s like, you’ll be praying for me any more than you’re praying for anybody else? You know that kind of a deal, it was just weird, the thought was like, poor you. You know, we’re going to go do ministry here, but you gotta go back down there. And it was interesting that you know, LA was down there. Which in fact, at least, it’s not actually down, it’s actually up from the valley. But that’s a whole nother conversation about it.
But it was just this mindset, you guys, of just somehow almost like if you go there, I mean, that’s real hardcore ministry. But it just was ministry in church. And I say that just to encourage us not to have all of these kinds of preconceived notions about this really, really bad place in space where you got to be a super Christian or a super pastor to go. You just gotta be a Christian with a heart for the gospel and a heart for souls and believing in, you know, God’s calling.
And so what I want to do is just shares just three things, you guys. And I think these three things get lost when we have this conversation. None of this you guys is insightful. These are just three things that are just normal to ministry that I hope will help you guys as you think about whether you’re in urban ministry or not, or you’re thinking about going into urban ministry. I want this to be an encouragement to you to let you know that, you know, God is the God over all churches, that He is sovereign over that and He has given us tools. We all have the same tools that are effective no matter where you do ministry. Whether it’s in, you know, urban Los Angeles, suburban, where are we, Fullerton or rural Hemet. Wherever you might be or some combination of the three that God has helped us and we can thrive. And so the first thing you guys know this, I don’t want to give you a Bible study, but and it’s just we understand the sinfulness of man, yes? That’s the first thing, right? That’s really insightful. Right? But we do understand the sinfulness of man, right? All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
We have the tendency to sometimes think that people who live in a particular demographic are more sinful than other people, right? And some of you are shaking your head, right? We have the thought and maybe we never say that, but the thought is… all cultures are sinful because they’re made up of sinful people. Now different cultures, their sinfulness may manifest itself differently, right? But the fundamental problem is the sin of the human heart. And that doesn’t change predicated upon what demographic you’re in, what ethnicity you are, what part of the city, or what part of rural suburbia you live in. They’re sinners and sinners need the grace of God. Amen?
And so you don’t have to have some kind of super insight on that, right? And yeah, there are some difficulties and Kris is going to talk about some of these things. I mean you got educational issues, you got fractured home issues, you got, you know, these communities are underserved, they are under source, you got all kind of things to deal with. But even when you get in that context you realize that sin is sin is sin, right? What’s going on in those contexts is that people’s hearts are in rebellion to God. And it’s going to be in a different package, yes. But it’s the same thing when you unpack it all, when you get past all of the junk of urban living, it’s the same issue.
We have a dear friend who ministers in Compton, he always says it, he says that circumstances don’t change the heart, circumstances just reveal what’s in the heart. Right? And so city life doesn’t change the heart, doesn’t impact the heart, it reveals what’s already in the heart. And what’s in the heart apart from the sovereign grace of God, is sin and rebellion against God. And so you go into whatever kind of ministry that you go into understanding that. And that leads us to the second thing, and it is what? It is the power of the gospel, the power of the gospel. Romans 1:16, we’re not ashamed of the gospel for it is what? It is the power of God unto salvation. Right? To the Jew first and then to the Gentile, right? For what? For in it, right, God is revealing a righteousness for all who would believe and put their faith and hope and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And I’m here to tell you and these brothers will tell you as well too, the gospel is not hindered by being in an urban context, brothers and sisters. The gospel is powerful, it saves, it sanctifies.
And so, you know, I was just stupid enough to go and get trained to try and try to have an understanding of what the gospel is and come back into the context of which God called me to and just preach the gospel and expect to see people get saved. And guess what, they got saved, praise the Lord. No new strategies, you guys. Just open up the book and tell people and just preach law-gospel. Just preach law-gospel, right? Trusting the Holy Spirit to convict people through the preaching of the law and then bring the sweetness of the gospel that they might turn in sovereign grace in repentance and faith and hope and trust and God builds the church. And He begins to sanctify and process from there.
Again yes, nuances to all of the difficulties and the challenges of urban life, as Bobby mentioned and brother Kris will come and talk about, but at the end of the day we serve our people and give them the same thing that other people in another context do namely the finest of wheat, which is Jesus Christ himself. And so when you come and you’re thinking about, if you are thinking about doing ministry, you don’t ever want to come doubting the sufficiency in the authority and the power of the gospel. It’s what you need, it’s what saves.
And then the third thing is, just a sufficiency of scripture, right? Pastor Bob is going to lead us in and is talking in our 6:30 session tonight, just on the sufficiency of scripture that the Bible is inspired. You all know this, the Bible is inspired so that, I take that as purpose, so that the man of God, I take man of God as a technical term attaching Timothy along with all of the men of God of the old testament. So that the man of God is thoroughly equipped for every good work. Every good work that God has called the man of God to do comes from Scripture, which is inspired of God. So, Timothy, abide in it, stay in it. Don’t give up on it. Don’t let anybody convince you that because of the harshness and the difficulties of the circumstances in which you are pastoring in, you need something in addition to the word of God. God has equipped us. God has equipped us. We’ve seen this over and over.
We got a call, this is what? Two months ago. And it’s a call from… It’s a Friday night, I’m at home, it’s a call, one of the sisters of our church and leads our praise teams calls and her brother is dead. So that’s all we hear, that her brother died. So I’m texting back. Oh, we’re really sorry to hear that. And then somebody calls me from the congregation says, “Have you seen the news?” I haven’t seen the news, turn on the news and then they’re talking about this young man who’s 29-years-old that got gunned down in broad daylight on the 91 freeway. And then I’m like, oh that’s this sister’s brother. Right? And so I called the husband. He’s at home, he’s trying to get to the hospital, UCI Irvine Medical Center. Call one of my elders, pick him up, we head down to the hospital, right?
And so there’s no seminary class, you guys, to train for that one. No pastoral ministry class that will give me that one. So I’m walking in, right? And you can imagine the families there. He’s their youngest brother. He’s the youngest of eight. The mother and father have already lost two children, two sons. This is the youngest son, right? Gunned down broad daylight, you guys. Just driving on the 91 freeway, the very freeway some of you guys maybe drove to get to the church today. So I’m walking in, right now thinking like, you know, how do you minister to these folks? Right? And I’m talking about hysteria, guys. I mean, this is something out of a Hollywood movie, right? Cops are there, detectives are there, right? The medical staff there. He actually made it to the hospital and he died on the table. So the parents are there, they see I come there and they say, “Hey, pastor, could you come into the room?” Because they have the family in a little room.
I come into the room and as you can imagine, I mean, it’s just, you know, it’s pandemonium. And so, the father turns to me and says, “Pastor Kidd, could you give us a word?” I just…I want to be real with you guys, right? I got caught up short, right? What do you do then? I mean, what do you pull out at that point? Yeah, I mean there he is, and my dear sister, she’s lying down and she’s in shock. I’m just rubbing her head, I’m crying. And the father is, give us a word Pastor Kidd, and the whole family just stops and turns and look at you. So what do you do? You give them a word, you give them the Word. I got no platitudes, right? I got no poems. What am I to do, right? I was able to muster up a little bit of Psalm 34, right? And I gave them God’s Word. And I encouraged them to believe and stand upon what they know of God to be true, that he’s sovereign, that he’s good and that he loves them. And I prayed and I walked out. And it felt like an abject failure, as a pastor. I did, right? But my elder patted me on the back and said, “You gave them what they needed, God’s Word.” Right?
And so, yes, we face all kinds of difficulties in the urban context, like you do in other contexts, but sometimes it could be very acute, we see things and again from brokenness and all kind of issues. We could tell you story after story after story after story, people come in, we get a call, somebody is amped up on methamphetamine and they want to come to church, and so we got to alert, you know, our elders and our safety team that, hey, this brother may come, he’s on the methamphetamines and he’s had an argument with somebody, so he said, he wanted to come to church and we don’t know. So church has to carry on. We, you know, that’s just where we are. It doesn’t happen too often, but it happens at times.
So we do have all of that but even in that context, it’s the Word of God. And so there are no strategies per se, that are unique to the urban context that you need to have in order to manufacture a thriving church. Same things that God has ordained that every church needs, right? The gospel in the sufficiency of scripture and pastors who love on people is what urban churches and every church needs. And so I just want to encourage you all that if you’re part of an urban church, thinking about being a part of an urban church just to remember that, that God has equipped us to do ministry His way for His glory and He honors His word. Amen. Amen.
All right, let me have brother Kris come and just share some unique dynamics and then hopefully we’ll have a little time for some Q&A after brother Kris gets done.
Kris Brossett: Amen, it’s good to be with you guys today. I’ll share a little bit more about my story, kind of, at the end of my little section here of this talk. But I just want to start out and think as we consider the topic of thriving churches in urban context, right? Like that’s a broad… I don’t think even the people who maybe even gave that definition knew what they were looking for. Right? Thriving churches in urban context. And I even have more information to my understanding. I want to close by looking at the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in light of really the two essential truths that have been shared by both Bobby and Anthony.
And so the first truth that Pastor Bobby shared was, that really by design there are different types of communities and churches. So by design, there are different types of communities and churches. That’s our systems have created that, and I think there’s an element of God’s design that have created that too, as I’ll talk through in a minute. And the second truth is really that, essentially, humanity is fallen and every community has the same fundamental need. So there’s the truth that there’s different kinds of communities and different kinds of churches, and then there’s the fundamental truth that really we all have the same need. Right? We all have the same need. We all need the same gospel. And what that means then is really that the good of culture is good. Like there is good aspects and elements of every culture that have been created by God.
But it also means that the good of culture is only partly good. That the good of culture is only partly good. That the good that we bring is not the fullness of that which is good. Right? It is partly good. And really the bad parts of culture are in need of redemption. And so every culture brings a portion of beauty to it and every culture also has elements that need redemption. And I don’t remember who said it, but to sum up what they were saying is really then our posture in engaging communities and taking the gospel, is really, we should have an indigenizing principle and also a pilgrimage principle. There’s an indigenizing principle, where we could understand that really we’re coming into a culture and it has these unique elements, but also that we’re not staying there, that we’re headed in a direction, right? And so without understanding this, without this understanding, we’ll really have no grounding as we traverse and navigate the differences and distinctions of communities, right? If we don’t have that understanding that communities are different, but essentially we all have the same fundamental need, we really won’t know, we won’t be grounded, right? We’ll be swayed by each community trying to address different needs of each community, right?
There this great word, contextualization, that we talk about all the time, and I think that word has become perverted. And what that word has come to mean, is really is we accommodate the gospel to a culture. But I don’t think that’s really what biblical contextualization is. I think biblical contextualization is, we focus on one part of the gospel to get to the whole gospel. Right? And so what that means is we’re going into a community and they have areas in each community that needs to be redeemed, and we need to focus specifically on those areas, but to point them to the whole gospel. Right? And without doing so we’ll develop a skewed view of biblical community, and then we’ll place expectations on our community or on others, that scripture doesn’t warrant. If we don’t recognize this, we’ll come in and we’ll begin to place expectations on communities that really are unwarranted. We see this all the time, like why isn’t your church like this? Or your church doesn’t look like my church, so it must not be a true church, right?
In his book “Life Together” Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes this. He says, “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. And he who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” Like really we come in and we have these ideas and these expectations that we start imposing on communities thinking, I want it to look like this, right? And when we talk about urban and diversity, it’s like so trendy right now, we’re bringing things to the conversation, that are saying, hey, I want to impose what I think it should look like on to this community and judge everything by the standard that somehow is a wish dream that is not warranted in scripture. Right? There are good things that we bring into community and there are bad things from community. And the truth of the matter is, while we can have this indigenizing principle we’re on a pilgrimage, and we’re not going to experience the fullness and blessings of what we hope for until God comes, right? That’s true.
So in light of this… in light of those two essential truths, really there’s one more fundamental truth that, really, I believe we must understand if we’re going to thrive, and that is the meta-narrative and telos of Scripture. We need to understand the big story. We have to understand the big picture and where we’re going really if we’re going to thrive as churches anywhere, right? We need to know who we are, we need to know where we are, we need to know how we got here, and we need to know where we’re going. If we don’t understand the purpose of our existence, if we don’t know why we exist. So many times we have these Christian terminologies, and I’m saved, and all these different things, and we’re like we’re ignorant to the fact of, what has God been doing throughout all of history. We don’t even know what it means to actually be faithful to God, because we don’t know what he’s doing. We start up at the end of… it’s like getting a letter or walking into the movie at the end of the movie, and we missed vital information. And so we don’t know what we’re doing, and we make these assumptions about the world and about God that aren’t really accurate, because we don’t know the meta-narrative and telos of Scripture, right?
So, if we don’t understand the purpose of our existence, if we don’t understand the fall, if we don’t understand God’s purpose for His people, and God’s plan to redeem the world to himself, we’ll make tragic mistakes in every community. In every community, we’ll make tragic mistakes, specifically in the urban community.
So, the question then becomes, what is God’s purpose and why is this vital in urban environments? Okay. So since we’re at the Gospel Coalition Conference, right? We’re at the Gospel Coalition Conference, I don’t really think that I have to do a lot of work to convince you that God created humans to glorify Himself. Like I believe that God created humans to glorify himself. Here’s the problem, many of us don’t even know what that means. We don’t even know what that means. We have no idea, we hear glory, we hear community, we hear church, biblical, and we have no idea what this means. And this creates problems in biblical community and churches. It creates problems. So you have some communities, I think like glorifying God it all becomes about personal piety. Right? And this is in like justification heavy circles, right, where everything is about this idea of God saving me from hell, and everything’s about my personal piety, right? And then we have this other end of the spectrum, that’s like everything glorifying God is about making changes in the world. And we think if I just change everything it’s going to get better, not realizing that man, there’s a fallen aspect of this world that is not complete in redemption. So we have this idea of glorify God that really… it really comes with all these different connotations based on the backgrounds and cultures and where we grew up, right? It creates problems.
And so since glorifying God has different associations for different people. I want to offer really a three-fold description given by Kyle Strobel. So, Kyle Strobel, I think he’s even teaching a workshop right now here, but he gave a three-fold description in his book. I think it’s called “Formed for the Glory of God” and he refers to glory as this, A, he refers to glory as the intimate eternal love relationship between the between the Trinity. That the first part of glory is God’s intimate love relationship between the Trinity, that for all of history, throughout all of time, for eternity there has been this intimate love relationship between the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s the first part.
The second part is the pouring out of this love upon the world. That God poured out His love upon the world. And the third part is the act of His people pouring forth God’s love to him in return. Right? And so it’s this idea that God, He shared himself with us, that the eternal God who has been glorifying himself throughout all of eternity has shared some of that love relationship with us, and He has called us to then bring that back to him.
Okay, and so by this definition, we see that glorifying God entails loving him and loving others. Glorifying God entails loving Him and loving others. We also know in scripture that when God created humans, he did so in his image. God created humans in his image, right? And he commissioned them to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth and subdue it. Most people understand this as the cultural mandate, right? This means that God created culture as an expression of Him. Like culture is an expression of God, meaning each culture is an expression of God’s image. Each culture then is an expression of God’s image. God created culture, right? He has this cultural mandate and He’s infused culture with himself. Meaning each culture has a portion of this Imago Dei, meaning that God created male and female, right? God created black and white, Asian, South African, expressive, reflective, creative, stoic, methodical, right?
Anything that you can see, any characteristic that humans have God created. Here’s what that also means. It means that no culture contains the fullness of God’s character. No culture contains the fullness of God’s character. And what it also means is that other cultures and people only help us to see God more clear. That really there’s this idea that each culture brings with it a portion of the Imago Dei, and they help us to see God clear. In his book, in his biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas shares the following story. He says, “Bonhoeffer searched New York record shops to find recordings of the negro spirituals that had so moved him on those Sundays in Harlem. The joyous power of this music…here we go, ready? Convinced him of the importance of music in worship of God. He would later take these recordings back to Germany and play them for his students in Berlin.” So what happened? You have this German dude leaving Germany, coming right to Harlem and seeing these Negro spirituals, and recognizing like, oh, I guess we do need this thing, right? There was something about him that shifted as he experienced the culture of other people. Friends, we see through foggy glasses. We see through foggy glasses, and although God says and stays the same, He is the same. He has been the same throughout all of history, He is unchanging, every person in every culture helps to wipe away the fog and helps us to see God with a more clear perspective.
Here’s what this means. This means that mission is not even one dimensional. Mission is not just us going and really paternalizing the gospel and bringing it to other people and saying, you need this, but I don’t need you. You see there’s an element of mission. Our motivation for mission should not be just to save somebody but that this person represents, this person is created in the image of God, and they actually bring something to me. That there is something that shifts inside of me when they are added to my perspective in life, right? If this is the case, then urban churches are a worshipful magnificence. Urban churches are a worshipful magnificence.
Now while we hear about that, while there’s so much of like division and all these segregations and all these things, man, urban churches really have this ability to overlap on one another and we have to get to know one another, right? Urban churches are becoming more diversified with things like gentrification, you’re having to deal with all of these different things, right? And so urban churches require the coming together of many churches, and peoples, and cultures, right? Whether that’s in a diverse church or in partner churches, right? If we actually care about the gospel, then I don’t know about you, like we don’t get to just think about our church. If the church next door is preaching heresy we should care, right?
Like so there’s this requirement of partnership in the gospel because there is a Biblical community that already exists. We are in community with the other churches already, through it for all of eternity. God created it that way. Which means what they’re doing over there matters to us. Which means in an urban context, where there’s all these churches coming together, we should either partner or we’re going to have to implant in diverse churches, right? This also produces problems we know from the big picture story that we’re all jacked up. We’re jacked up. The fall has messed us up. We love people who are like us and we’re like frogs in boiling water. Do you know that illustration? That if you put a frog in boiling water it’ll jump out, but if you put it in cold water and then turn on the heat, it’ll just die there. Why? Because we’re so immersed in culture, right? We don’t understand how much of it’s actually killing us. We don’t understand how much of it’s killing us, we don’t.
So what do we do? How do we tap into the potential so that churches can thrive? First, I believe that we, as believers first, not just as we’re not like superheroes, right? Like the one thing like I just planted a church after six years we just landed the plane. Like, I got worked, like church planting worked me, right? Like, I’m not a superhero, like there’s nothing I can bring to the table like, I don’t got nothing, I don’t know how to change a soul, it don’t even matter, right? It’s crazy, right? First, we must possess a robust relationship with King Jesus on behalf of the gospel. We have to be Christians and we have to possess a robust relationship with King Jesus on behalf of his gospel. And we must foster a culture where the gospel permeates and penetrates.
Listen to this final quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The existence of any Christian life together depends on whether it succeeds at the right time in bringing out the ability to distinguish between a human ideal and God’s reality, between spiritual and human community.” We have to become keen at discerning what are we calling gospel and what is just really a reflection of our cultural desires? You see if I’m honest, this is where we fail. We have a difficult time distinguishing our cultural comfort and often parade it as gospel principle. There’s things we say, this is what it’s like to raise your family. This is what it’s like to be a healthy father, and all we’re doing is pushing forth some culture that is not necessarily gospel. Like what is the gospel? Like really we are fallen, wicked sinners who are in need of a Savior and God is redeeming the world back to Himself and one day we’re going to exist in eternity in a reconciled world serving God alongside one another. That’s what God’s doing by grace alone through Christ alone, right?
So, what does that mean for me? Like if you’re looking at me like, we create cultures where someone confesses sin and we’re like, brother do you believe the gospel? Like are we presenting a version of ourselves? Like do people know that you’re a sinner and in need of grace? You see if we’re not broken by this goodness of God on behalf of the Gospel what we will do is we will prop up our cultural whatevers that give us a platform to stand on and that will be a superiority that will hold down on others, and it will say, we’re untouchable. But the truth is nothing… like we didn’t get where we’re at because somehow we were smart enough or we worked hard enough, or we did anything… it doesn’t. Like churches don’t… like if God doesn’t do it it’s not going to happen. And it’s by God’s grace alone that we have anything to stand on. Now if we don’t create that kind of culture, the gospel will never thrive. We will never be able to have a culture where all things will thrive. You know why? Because I got to be like, you know what, I don’t like when you clap. I think your food sucks. You know, that the way you guys smell, it’s nasty, right?
Like it’s just different like these are the things that go through our head but we’re like, can we say it? Right? What we’re not going to ever bring these things, we can’t bring about reconciliation if we don’t have the conversation. We can’t even…. like its okay the one thing I’ve learned in marriage, okay? I’ve learned this in marriage, is that me and my wife don’t have to like the same things. Like she eats…she’s savvy, so she is like Platano Frito with Frijoles and sour cream like and I’m like that’s disgusting. You know what I mean? But it’s okay, she could have this disgusting food and I can say you can love it, right? But the truth is if I need you to like what I like and I have to like what you like, the gospel is not going to pin that… we’re not going to have a thriving… all we’re going to do is prop up a cultural appropriation of the gospel and possibly present a different gospel altogether, altogether.
When you bring people together, diverse or partner, it’s hard and without the gospel it’s impossible, but all things are possible if they are of Christ. And so if we’re to thrive in urban ministry, Christ has to be at the center. He has to be at the center, he has to and there’s tons of problems. You have to possess a robust gospel to deal with the challenges of urban ministry, education, poverty, power, gentrification, lack of leaders, lack of money, the ability to even develop people, people beefing over things like food, right? Like someone saying something stupid, right? Like people say weird stuff and do really weird stuff, right? The gospel has to be at the center.
And finally look, if you are called in an urban ministry and you’re thinking about it, urban ministry needs leaders who are founded in the gospel enough to know when it’s not time, and to know when they’re not the one, and to know when they’re not the one. You got to count the cost. It is hard, right? People say like there’s an element like I agree that it’s not different fundamentally but there is a different level of like, if I’m traveling somewhere in a bucket or in like a brand new Camry, you know what I mean? Like it’s just harder, right, 90 to 200-degree you know 150 degrees outside and you ain’t got no air conditioner. It’s a different ride than driving in like a brand new car when that AC is just fired, right? Like that is just different, right? And so there are elements and you need to be founded in the gospel to know like you ain’t saving the hood, like you’re not saving the urban, like you’re not God’s gift to humanity right?
Like God is going to do what he’s going to do and you need to know when it’s now time. If it’s not time, it’s not time, and you need to know when to lay it down, right? There’s no… like ministry is not glamorous, right? If God has called you to ministry it’s because he has called you to glorify Himself, take the attention off of you and put it on Him. And in urban ministry, there’s a beautiful opportunity to do that when the gospel is at the center.
Speaker 3: Father we thank you for our time together. And just pray out of all of these words that have been shared that you would seal to our hearts only that which is true to your Word. Lord, because we want to be as men and women faithful to the calling to make disciples of all of the nations.
So thank you for every believer here. Thank you for every church that’s represented here that is faithful to the gospel, and we just pray that we would continue to grow, in our understanding, how to be effective tools in your hand, and stay the course, Lord God, that we might endure in faithfulness by the grace, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ in whose mighty name we pray. Amen. Amen.
God bless you, guys. Thanks so much for coming, guys.