God of This City: Discovering God’s Heart for Our Cities

Do you wonder how Christians are supposed to respond to the city in all its glory and with all its problems?

Are you interested in seeing how our worship reflects our passion for the city?

Our church just began a three part series on God’s call to the city. The series is called “Lost and Found: Discovering the Mission of God in Our City.”

Lost and Found Bulletin Final

our current worship series

We are reflecting on how a church with 140 years of rich biblical teaching and cultural impact can continue to stay relevant to a changing city. The journey has left me with 3 questions all worshipers need to ask themselves:

  1. Do I understand God’s heart for the city?
  2. Does my heart and life reflect God’s heart for the city?
  3. If I/we have a heart for God and resonate with his heart for the city, how will this change my worship?

Understanding God’s Heart for the City

Simply put God loves the city. He made us to live in community. He placed Adam and Eve in a Garden, but Jesus is preparing us to live in His eternal City. God meets us in the city (he meets us in the suburbs and rural settings also, but this article is about the city).

This classic work by St. Augustine is an important read on our view of church, city and God

This classic work by St. Augustine is an important read on our view of church, city and God

In his classic book The City of God, St. Augustine makes the case that the Kingdom of God is at work in every human city. It’s in the city where God’s heart for the broken and downtrodden can be expressed most powerfully. In the city the church rises up against forces that bind individuals and families to proclaim forgiveness, freedom and justice.

In the city the contrast between light and dark are more profound and stark. Crime, poverty, injustice and oppression are most deeply experienced in the city. But also the ingenuity and creativity of man can be seen in architecture, cultural arts and enterprise—things only possible in large population centers. When the people of God live together in Gospel harmony and proclaim Gospel deliverance, cities are changed.

In the book of Jonah, God confronts Jonah’s jealousy and apathy toward Nineveh by saying, “Should I not have compassion on that great city?” Jesus looked upon Jerusalem and wept. He wept not only for the memories and symbolism of Zion as Israel’s hope, but also for the people. The apostle Paul’s ministry nearly always started in the center of the city.

Cities are strategic for reaching nations. Cities are where things happen AND where things don’t happen. Mankind continues to flock to the city because the city is the place of opportunity, progress and expansion. People are hopeful as they come to the city—but many find those hopes dashed.

Evangelists know that people are most open to the Gospel when going through a major transition (change of job, location or status) and it’s easy to become lost in the city. The city can open people’s hearts to God, but unfortunately the church’s involvement in the city can close their hearts to the church.

God made us to dwell in community – in relationship first with Himself, but also with mankind. The way Christians live together in the city reflects the heart and mission of God.

The band Bluetree, an Irish worship band born out of the troubles of Northern Ireland, was called to minister in Pattaya, Thailand—the world’s capital of sex trade. While ministering in the middle of a brothel, the band members were overcome with an understanding that God is God of This City. They wrote a song proclaiming these lyrics:

You’re the God of this city,
You’re the King of these people,
You’re the Lord of this nation, You are.
You’re the light of this darkness,
You’re the hope to the hopeless,
You’re the peace to the restless, You are.

If we understand the heart of God and the power of the Gospel to change lives, we can have a hope for our cities—no matter how dark and hopeless they might seem. God’s mission has always been a mission of restoration and redemption. He is redeeming lives, families and cultures. There is no city beyond the hope of this Gospel.

Hear Aaron Boyd tell the story behind this powerful song:

How Does My Life and Heart Reflect the Heart of God for the City?

In 1990 I spent three months in Calcutta, India. Among other things we went to pray for and encourage the church in their ministries. But that was tough work. Calcutta had 13 million people at the time and at least 1 million of them were living on the streets. People were literally everywhere you went. If you threw a piece of paper in the trash, it might be the wrapping for the roasted cashews you purchased the next day (this literally happened to me).

After about 4 weeks of living in the overwhelming stimuli of people, pollution and problems, I had a breakdown. I started to wonder if God could really do anything in this city. That’s when God started to show me the faces of people I had grown to like and love: people like Jahangir and several other friends. That’s when I realized God gives us a heart for the city by giving us a heart for people.

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A paradigm for diagnosing how we view the city

Harvie Conn was professor of urban ministry at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. (This site does some good thinking on Conn’s view of missions in the city). He reworked R. Richard Niebuhrs classic model of Christ and Culture for how Christians typically respond to the city. I think this taxonomy provides a helpful way to see how we respond to the opportunity and challenging of loving the city.

The four basic responses are: Christ against the City, Christ of the City, Christ above the City, and Christ transforming the City. 

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 6.18.20 AM

This graphic first appeared in an article summarizing Conn’s 4 views of the city at resurgence.com

Christ against the city reflects an attitude that the city is evil and Christians need to protect themselves from the city. This results in a fortress mentality and a pessimistic outlook on the results of our ministry. We can provide handouts and rescue a few, but the city is on a downward slide toward hell and there is little we can do about it. This results in an antagonistic church.

Christ of the city, on the other hand, reduces the Kingdom of God to just one of many ways to release the oppressed in the city. The city is basically good and good Christians, in this view, should embrace and reflect the ethos of their cities—uncritically accepting the moral environment. This view ignores the clear contrast between the City of God and the City of Man – the eternal fight between good and evil that is clearly manifest in our cities. This results in an accommodating church.

Christ above the city sees the city as basically good, but doesn’t see a need to engage the brokenness of the city—largely ignoring the problems and becoming consumers of the city’s goods and services. These churches might do evangelism and have some charity volunteer work, but these Christians are not equipped to confront the systemic effects of sin—seeing faith as a personal, private matter. This results in a consumeristic church—a Christian ghetto.

Christ transforming the city sees the ultimate goal of history as a redeemed City of God. The Gospel brings healing to individuals and societies. Transformational Christians and churches seek to engage the city on every level (spiritually, socially and economically) for individuals, neighborhoods and communities. The power of the Gospel at work in believers becomes the hope for not only the church, but also the city. This produces a transformational church.

If I/we have a heart for God and resonate with his heart for the city, how will this change my/our worship?

This is where the rubber meets the road. Our view of the city (and the lost in general) effects how we plan worship and engage in our worship services.

If we have a Christ against the city mentality, our worship will be militaristic. We won’t care about the world around us, so our songs and liturgy will be increasingly irrelevant and largely meaningless to the lost. These believers don’t even think about the unbeliever in their midst because they don’t expect him to come.

If we have a Christ of the city approach we will embrace unwittingly the music and art of our culture, but there will be little understanding of the Lordship of Christ or the need for redemption. We will minimize the need to rehearse and proclaim the Gospel in our worship since we are merely mirrors of the city around us. These churches don’t see a difference between the believer and unbeliever, so their worship focuses on things we can all agree upon.

In a Christ above the city mindset our worship creates meaningful worship experiences for believers. We rehearse the gospel and acknowledge the sovereignty of God. We might dabble with taking our worship bands on the street because we know “they” need what we have, but we largely don’t know how to translate biblical truth to our culture. We enjoy going to the theater and art galleries, but see them as entertaining and having no place in worship. Our worship reinforces our Christian culture and values and is increasingly irrelevant to the very culture we enjoy. Very often this mindset produces an attractional ministry model where we expect the world to come to us and become like us.

Only in a Christ transforming the city worldview do we find worship that fully engages us in glorifying God while also embracing the needs of the city. This approach embraces the good and beautiful as gifts from God no matter the source. The distinction between secular and sacred is seen as a false dichotomy, while not minimizing the difference between the holy and profane.

Bluetree’s song is a powerful reminder of God’s authority and love for the city and our call to participate. Here it is:

What does this really look like?

Its not where a church is located that makes it a church for or against the city. The songs we sing and the instruments we use don’t necessarily indicate our heartbeat. Even our word choice and cultural awareness don’t necessarily reflect our missional approach.

Every Christian, church and city needs to wrestle to understand God’s heart, their own heart tendencies and pray for a heart that embraces and loves their city with the Gospel.

Ed Stetzer's book is helpful in understanding how to do ministry to a new generation

Ed Stetzer’s book is helpful in understanding how to do ministry to a new generation

A book that is helpful in thinking this through is Ed Stetzer’s Lost and FoundPastor Tim Keller has also written a number of articles that are helpful on this subject.

There is not a cookie-cutter approach to being a church for God and the city, but this is the heartbeat of God. May our lives and churches reflect his love for our cities.

Your turn to chime in. How do you see the church struggling to worship in light of God’s heart for the city?

About Phil Mershon

Phil is an ordained Presbyterian pastor, experienced worship leader, former missionary, and director of events for Social Media Examiner (see LinkedIn profile). He holds degrees in theology, counseling, music and economics. His passion is helping the church follow her calling in worship that is thoughtful, passionate and excellent, and leading churches toward cultural engagement. Follow his tweets: @called_2worship and @phil_mershon
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2 Responses to God of This City: Discovering God’s Heart for Our Cities

  1. Matt Johnson says:

    Good thoughts! Massaging the tension of the muscle that distinguishes “in the world” from “of the world”. I’d also recommend Andy Crouch’s Culture Making for some great ‘creating’ and ‘cultivating’ insights and ideas.

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