This note is on my list of Important Questions to Answer.
What is meant by "reaching a city"?
The term reach has a broad definition in Christian mission and ministry today. At the maximalist end is the aspiration to "redeem culture" and transform social and cultural norms, affecting a lasting and holistic change on the city that presses it closer to the kingdom of God. At the other end of the spectrum, a common minimalist definition is the distribution of gospel literature on someone's doorknob.For an example of the maximalist definition, see To Transform a City by Eric Swanson. For a minimalist definition see Saturate USA.
Instead, Luke provides for us a better understanding of reaching a city or region in the book of Acts. Throughout his account, Luke provides summary statements which are intended to demonstrate the progress of the Christian mission and its geographic explansion across the Mediterranean region. A pattern soon emerges in Luke's record, as his constant refrain is, "The Word of the Lord increased and multiplied." At least four different times, spaced out throughout his narrative, Luke reminds his reader of the growth of the gospel (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 13:49, 19:20), eventually saying that it increased and prevailed mightily. Luke's concern is the growth of the gospel, that every man woman and child would hear the message of Christ and his kingdom. Luke writes, "This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 19:20). Luke's concern aligns with the words of the prophet Habakkuk who longed for the knowledge of His glory to cover the earth as the waters covered the seas (Habakkuk 2:14). In short, the goal should be gospel saturation in this sense of the term.
North American cities today make gospel saturation a challenging goal. North American urban centers are in the midst of rapid social and cultural change. An advancing secularism is gaining momentum in some quarters.See Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Dreher, Live Not by Lies. In addition to an alread tumultous cultural climate, record immigration is producing radical diversity that requires a multitude of different contextual approaches to mission. North American cities are now some of the most culturally challenging contexts for gospel ministry in the world. However, for gospel saturation to occur in these locations, two things must take place. First, the goal must be culturally contextualized manifestations of the gospel in every sizeable group in an urban center. This goal is acheived through discple-making and church planting that results in churches which fellowship, worship, and ministry within a particular cultural frame that is understandible to a group or groups within a city. The second goal is as crucial as the fist. In order for true gospel saturation to occur, not only do diverse manifestations of the gospel have to exist, they must cooperate and fellowship across their cultural lines in order to produce a unified witness within the city.
Move Past the Rhetoric of Multiplication.
Gospel saturation at the level of diversity presented by North American urban centers requires real multiplication that bridges across cultural barriers. Multiplication and sending are popular words in the North American missions lexicon. Organizations like Exponential, the Send Institute, and the Send Network all claim it as their goal. A quick search of books on the topic of "sending church" on Amazon reveals dozens of related popular-level resources that call for multiplication. Unfortunately talk of multiplication is merely rhetoric unless the underlying systems are adjusted to provide for real change. In 2018, the Send Institute, a North American Missions think tank, executed an extensive research project into denominational and network sending processes in North America. Their findings revealed that langauge of sending and multiplication may be an at all time high, but that real changes in methods and processes were rare.Send Institute Study, 2018.
A paradigm shift must occur at the local church level that allows for gospel saturation to occur. At current, most churches and denominational agencies exist in a recruitment paradigm for church planting and missions. A recuitment paradigm for sending says the resources to fulfill the Great Commmission are out there. Recruitment fundamentally operates on a scarcity mindset that says sending needs to occur by finding pontential sent ones outside the local church. They may come from a seminary, a state convention, or perhaps another church. Recruitment in sending, however, is zero sum. In order to recruit a sent one from somewhere else to plant a church, a church removes them from their initially intended location.
Instead of a recruitment paradigm, local churches must adopt a development paradigm. A development paradigm for sending says the resources to fulfill the Great Commission are in here. This church sees its mission concerning gospel saturation as equipping those they already have for the missionary task and deploying them by releasing them from their own congregation to serve in the work of disciple-making and church planting elsewhere. A true development paradihm operates out of an abundance mindset and is not zero sum. By adopting a development understanding of sending, churches can creates culture and processes necessary to develop and deploy in an ongoing fashion, become a wellspring of sent out ones. Adopting this understanding of the local church's responsibility in city reaching is the first step in local churches equipping missionaries for reaching North American cities.
Develop within and Deploy out to the ends of the earth.
There are three phases in operating from a development paradigm:
- Create a culture of healthy discipleship rich with a sense of sending from within for the Great Commission.
- Develop intentional processes that create pathways toward sending for their own members.
- Work together with other churches to accomplish the missionary task.
Create a culture of healthy discipleship rich with a sense of sending from within for the Great Commission.
For congregations to equip potential missionaries well, it requires nothing less than a culture shift within the congregation. The culture within any congregation serves as the soil in which equipping must occur. If the church claims it celebrates sending and equipping, yet the culture of the church is actually antagonistic toward it, then any efforts through programming will be overwhelmed by the implicit cultural bias against healthy missionary development and deployment.
Pastors who want to make a shift toward healthy sending are often tempted to try and change the culture purely through their preaching. While preaching is a central aspect of church culture, preaching alone is most likely an insufficient approach to shifting the culture in the congregation. Changing church culture requires more than merely changing what is said from the pulpit. It is certainly possible for a congregation to hear the right message repeatedly and walk away unchanged (James 1:22-25).
According to Marhsall and Payne in their book, The Vine Project, it is possible for the message preached to be correct and the systems and practices of the church to regular undermine these words. What is done, they argue, shapes and reinforces the culture of a church more than what is said.Marhsall and Payne, The Vine Project, ?? For a church to make lasting changes to culture, leadership must consider both its message and its practices on multiple levels of congregational life. At least three levels exist within most churches: a macro-level of interaction that addresses everyone in the congregation through the website, pulpit an other means; a meso-level that relates at a small group or Sundal school level; and a micro-level that of interpersonal relationships within the church and is most clearly seen in the conversations before and after a weekly service. The messages and practices of all three levels must be congruent and intentional for culture change to occur.
Concerning a culture of equipping and sending, these messages and practices must embody certain key traits. First, a rich biblical vision for mission and a weighty sense of urgency are crucial for a culture that raises up sent ones. Second, messages and practices must create an atmosphere that actively challenges everyone in the congregation to consider being sent. One practical resource to aid churches in creating this kind of culture is J.D. Greear's Gaining by Losing.