That Great City

As a Pastor of a Church in the South Loop of Chicago I am familiar with transience. Over the last six years of pastoring here our Church family has said hello and goodbye to countless incredible saints in the faith. Like a stop on Chicago’s L trains, many see life in the city as a temporary holding spot on the road to a different destination. While I have learned to love sending off and exporting beloved saints to other places around the country and globe, I have also learned what Ray Bakke calls, “the kaleidoscope-complexity of the city.” A complexity that causes so many to grow weary, to burn out, and to move away. Everything is amplified in the city, and sometimes that’s a lot to carry. Robert Linthicum in his book City of God, City of Satan describes it this way:

“The principalities will always choose to attack us at our most vulnerable point. That most vulnerable point for most urban Christians is our capacity to sustain ourselves in ministry. To remain optimistic, hopeful, and full of humor is the most difficult task in urban ministry.”

Robert Linthicum. City of God, City of Satan. Page 278.

The reality is that if we disconnect our life in the city from our mission towards the city, or even worse if we disconnect our mission towards the city from God’s eschatological vision (where this is ultimately all headed) for the city, we will always end up exhausted. Maintaining Biblical optimism and hope in the midst of a city like Chicago, requires Biblical meditation and Spirit filled purpose.

We could turn to so many pages in Scripture to develop this theme. But in this simple post I want turn to the last verse of the book of Jonah. Of course many know Jonah’s story; the prophet who ran from God but could not get too far before he was swallowed by a great fish, spit out on dry land, and called a second time to preach to city of Nineveh. Jonah reluctantly preached a sub-par sermon before marching out of the city in disgust. “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! (Jonah 3:4)” It was a simple sermon clearly devoid of any actual concern or compassion for its hearers. If the Ninevites failed to repent of their sin and bow before the Holy God of Israel, God would bring justice crashing down upon them. The great surprise of chapter 3 is that these pagan Ninevites, famous for their debauchery and wicked deeds, repented and trusted in God’s salvation. A great revival took place among these Ninevites, a whole city saved! You would think Jonah would be ecstatic at such a turn of events. But in chapter 4 we find Jonah sulking and disappointed that God would spare such sinners. The book ends with one final word from God to Jonah confronting Jonah’s stubborn heart towards Nineveh. God says:

And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

Jonah 4:11 (ESV)

There are two important points about urban ministry that are clear from this verse. First, God brings attention to the reality that in the city of Nineveh there were 120,000 people all living in close proximity to one another. One of the unique qualities about a city is the reality that there are so many image bearers of God jammed so tightly together. As Tim Keller says, “Cities have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on Earth (Center Church, 141).” The question that is posed to us as Christians as we look at cities and consider what it means to live on mission in the city, is whether we have compassion for the great number of image bearers in the city like God does. God asks Jonah whether or not He should “pity” Nineveh which simply means to look with compassion. If our life is primarily marked by a desire to keep life simple and fun, then the city will fit that agenda for a while. But if our life is primarily marked by a desire to glorify God and share the love of God with as many people as possible, the city becomes an endless landscape of opportunity and hope. Jonah’s sulking demonstrated that he was very little concerned with the fate of God’s image bearers in Nineveh.

Secondly, God tells Jonah that those 120,000 image bearers, “do not know their right hand from their left.” Early interpretations of this verse believed that the author was referring to infants and toddlers who were unable to yet distinguish directions. But that interpretation misses the point of the verse. God is concerned with the Ninevite’s spiritual condition. God knew that the pains of Nineveh were rooted in the reality that they were spiritually naïve and ignorant of the one true God who could meet every need and could truly restore that which was lost through the Fall. Until the Ninevites came into a real relationship with the God of all grace, both they and their city were doomed for destruction. This is the Christian’s heart fueled by a Biblical narrative. Unless God brings revival to people themselves, the city and the people are doomed for destruction. Only Christ, in all of His majesty and grace, can save so many from such a fate.

The Christian believes that God’s Kingdom is growing. Matthew 13:31-32 reminds us that God’s Kingdom started as just a small mustard seed but will grow to be a large tree. When God’s Kingdom grows, people come to faith in Jesus Christ and as a result systems are changed, policies are changed, practices are changed, education plans are changed. The Christian faith is designed to exert the Lordship of Jesus over every aspect of life. And this is where Urban ministry is so challenging and in need of creativity and gospel explosiveness. As Tim Keller says, “Cities are the center of cultural intensity (Center Church, 138).” In the city everything is magnified. The systems are more complex and interconnected. What cities need are holistic gospel renewal that impacts every nook and cranny of a city’s underbelly.

In their book, The Kingdom, the City of the People of God, Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz describe the complex array of growing actual needs cities face around the globe today and then ask a vital question.

Will our vision for urban ministry be holistic enough to meet these new perceptions of the city? Will the theology of mission we develop be merely a theology of mission in the city or a theology of mission for the city?

Harvie Conn & Manuel Ortiz. Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City the People of God. Page 25.

The question is subtle, but it if we allow it, it accurately pinpoints where and why so many Urban Christians experience burnout and grow weary in the city. If we settle for a theology of mission in the city, then our strategies and aims will simply be about how we can go about being a Church that happens to be located in a city. The city becomes a setting whereby we do Church, join Small Groups, serve peoples needs. All of that is wonderful and good, but ultimately short of the Biblical call. We must develop a theology of mission for the city. We want to win souls and build God’s kingdom by remaking systems that were built on sinful foundations. We must orient our lives around God’s mission and God’s revealed end point where all systems will be renewed and heaven will merge with Earth. We get the joy of participating in building that reality today!

I’ll close with a word of caution. I do believe that Christians are called to every corner of the Earth. We need Christians in rural Illinois just as much as we need Christians in Chicago. Urban ministry is not more important or more holy work than any other work. But there are unique challenges and opportunities that large cities offer Christians seeking to make much of Jesus. I pray that we would grow in God’s heart for the city.

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