What is the greatest need of your city?
What gives you hope for your city?
When Tim Keller studied the opportunity of planting a church in the heart of New York City, he wanted to understand the greatest pain point of people living in Manhattan. He found that investment bankers, prostitutes, homeless and lawyers all had one common problem: they were seeking freedom. People unwittingly find themselves enslaved to career, addictions, fame, relationships or something else.
Keller found the most compelling aspect of the Gospel to someone enslaved is to know Jesus as Redeemer–a savior who purchases and delivers them from slavery. Thus the purposeful name of the now large church: Redeemer Presbyterian Church. There are now literally thousands who have found freedom and hope in a Redeemer who purchased them from their former slavery.
Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, but his ministry looks different in every city and neighborhood. It might appear nuanced, but understanding the heartbeat of your city can make a significant difference in the responsiveness of those you seek to reach.
When starting a church in downtown San Diego, Dick Kaufmann saw people looking for a safe place, a refuge from the storms of life. Many people move to San Diego to get away from the stress of Los Angeles and to enjoy a naturally beautiful location. But living in a city can be dangerous and people were looking for a harbor where they could escape the storms and feel secure. Thus the name Harbor Presbyterian Church.
As a worship leader I find its important to select and write songs that connect with the core heart desires of the people I lead. Certainly our song list reflects a rich theological palate with a variety of styles. But over time these songs should resonate with truths about Jesus and the gospel that reveal and affirm the very things people in our city seek.
While ministering to people who feel harried by career, parenting and external pressures, I found songs like The Desert Song (by Brooke Fraser) connected to this pain:
As I seek to understand these things about my city (Wichita, KS), I’d like to share some insights I’ve learned having thought about this in several other cities.
How do you diagnose the needs of your city?
Understanding the needs of your city requires careful thought, study and prayer. Urban planners, development officers and many others spend whole careers thinking about these issues.
Churches seeking to meaningfully engage their city with the gospel can learn much from missionaries. When a missionary moves to a new city he spends a couple years learning the language, the culture and getting to know the key leaders and cultural influences so he can develop a strategy that will meaningfully communicate the gospel. You can’t read a book and figure it out in a weekend planning session. This takes time, patience and lots of prayerful conversations.
In his book Center Church Tim Keller unpacks some of the way he has used good missiological methods to diagnose New York City and develop theological perspectives on how to minister meaningfully to the people in their sphere. In this video he describes an overview: https://vimeo.com/43417432#
While in Calcutta twenty years ago, I joined a team of ten people seeking to understand the heartbeat of that city. Our learnings helped churches and leaders seeking to design ministries that would effectively reach people. From that experience and more, here are:
5 Guides to Understanding Your City
1. Prayer – There is no replacement for divine insight. Nehemiah prayerfully walked around Jerusalem before making plans. Jesus spent sleepless nights praying before selecting the disciples and embarking on his ultimate ministry. Understanding the needs of our city comes through spiritual insight before anything else.
I’ve referenced this book before, but Steve Hawthorne and Graham Kendrick wrote a helpful resource on prayer walking. You may not share their theological perspective, but the basic premise of praying with your eyes open (another great book by Richard Pratt) as you reflect on scripture and the needs of the people you see will shape your heart.
2. Build relationships – A city is made up of people. That sounds silly to say, but some of us can be prone to think about the institutions and infrastructures that comprise a city and forget that fundamentally cities are the dwelling place of thousands, if not millions, of people.
To effectively understand the needs and heartbeat of your city requires us to intentionally build relationships with people who are different than we are. Don’t just be a consumer in your city, get to know the business owners, the homeless, the artists and patrons. Be a student of local news so you can talk to people and understand them. But beware of the journalistic danger of using people to gain insight and then ditching them. Build real relationships. God might use you to reach these very people even as you learn to see the city through their eyes.
While I was in Kenya a missionary taught be a valuable way to learn Swahili and get to know the people quickly. I don’t recall the name of his methodology, but it involved visiting 50 people every day or two and practicing one or two new phrases each time. Eventually the interactions move from greetings to small conversations to actual dialogue to some eventual friendships. While you may not need to learn a new language in your city, you are trying to research your city. Find creative ways to build lots of new relationships. And avoid the evangelistic temptation to “share the gospel” at the first opportunity. Ask God to open those doors. Focus on getting to know the person and how you can be a friend to them.
3. Understand the bigger picture – The beauty of cities can be seen in how businesses, artists, politicians, police, educators and others work together to create systems and infrastructures to help people live well together. To see how this works, here are some ideas: Go to city council meetings. Visit the chamber of commerce. Study the writings of sociologists about your city. Discover the needs, strengths and weaknesses. Talk to historians about the past. Join conversations about the future. If it’s not already, your church plays a role in shaping the culture of your city. Try to understand the needs and direction others are going. Prayerfully develop a theological perspective on your role.
4. Get to know key leaders – Just like in many parts of life, it’s not what you know but who you know. Every city has people who get things done and everyone else benefits from their efforts. Find out who those people are and try to get to know some of them. If your city is too large for that to be practical, watch and observe these people. Maybe you can get to know some of their team members. What is the vision and direction these people are going? How can you and your church support them? Finding common goals and solving problems can produce invaluable opportunities for future ministry.
5. Start with the end in mind – Revelation 21:23 promises that one day we will live in a perfect city–a city without problems. If that is our destiny and we know today’s reality is far from it, we can derive hope from a gospel that changes people, cities and nations. Our hope doesn’t rest in our abilities to change the institutions and infrastructures of our city. Our hope rests in Jesus.
This fall there is a history-making movement happening in the U.S. It’s called My Hope with Billy Graham. Unlike his typical stadium events, this is home-based. Like the apostle Matthew when he first came to faith, Jesus asked Matthew to invite his friends over for a meal and Jesus shared the good news. This outreach asks people to host a meal with 8-10 friends with whom they have prayed for the chance to share the good news. It’s easy, non-threatening and a good way to share hope.
Sovereign Grace Music just released a new album (review coming soon) called Grace Has Come. I already like several songs from this project, but one that resonates as I think about the hope of any city is this one: Our Hope is Alive.
I also love the missionary heartbeat that shines through Britt Nicole’s song The Lost Get Found:
How do you gain hope for your city?