September 2022 | Jesus, the Door

Urban Mission in the Covid World
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Urban Mission in the Covid World

Dr. Laji Paul

Urban mission is about facilitating the people living in cities to enter into the redemptive plan of God. Cities are becoming magnets drawing large number of people from rural areas into the cities. God loves people, whether they live in the cities or in the villages, but the truth is that today due to sociological factors, cities are becoming a melting pot of ‘nations. This not only involves proclamation of the gospel and planting churches but also relevant socio-economic initiatives which will reveal the father heart of God to the people living in the cities. 

According to Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (www.lausanne.org) urban mission is the evangelization of the city. It is not just proclamation alone but seeing the Kingdom coming into every sphere and area of the society. It is the Church, the visible group of redeemed people who walk on earth that God accomplishes this plan.

Neil Cole has coined a simple definition of Church as “the presence of Jesus among His people called out as a spiritual family to pursue His mission on this planet.”

The Church here on earth has a ministry. In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul surveys the purpose of God in uniting Jew and Gentile in one body. His thrilled heart bursts forth with praise for God- “Unto him be the glory in the Church…” (Eph 3:21). It is in the Church that Gods finds most glory.

God’s call to participate in this work of renewal is the mission the Lord is calling us. As disciples of Christ we ensure that we are renewed and we participate in the work of renewal. We face disruptions, challenges and threats, not in a fatalistic way but with the glorious hope of the consummation of the Kingdom. 

We believe that challenges are opportunities to manifest the glory of God. Christ is the head of the Church (Colossians 1:18). His promise to bless the nations to Abraham continues to be fulfilled today by the Church (Genesis 12:1-3 cf Romans 4:16-25, Galatians 3:6-14)

The COVID 19 pandemic was one such challenge when Churches around the world had to be shut down. The challenge was especially acute for Churches in cities due to their density of population, widespread international connectivity and constricted spaces. 

Cities around the world have seen high rates of infection and staggering death rates.  Churches had to face a crisis which it had not seen before. Ministries and Churches in the Cities had to alter their approaches to face the unprecedented levels of vulnerability, marginality, and suffering. This disruption has forced us to depend on God to reimagine and realign the way we do mission.

As the pandemic rages and the world is battling it with vaccines and health protocols in place leading to paradoxical terms like the ‘new normal’, what will be some of the implications for the Urban Churches?

Focus on building people

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to remind ourselves that although buildings are closed,  the Church continues as the people of faith irrespective of the fact whether we gather in a building or not. While facilities and building are necessary, the importance should be on God’s holy people rather than holy buildings. This can take place only when the urban churches prioritize discipleship.

With buildings closed due to the lockdown, the reminder was that ministry and mission is about building people rather than on extravagant facilities. 

This season is a call to re-examine if a highly individualistic and corporate driven ministry is what is going to bless our Cities. The Urban Churches are not called to be consumer Churches. This can take place only when the urban churches prioritize discipleship.

The Church comprising of Christ’s disciples have a catalytic role to perform. According to Howard Clinebell, “The challenge confronting the Church in the next two decades is to become a place where the great waste of human life can be reduced drastically as people are awakened to more creative, celebrative and socially useful living. The effectiveness of the Churches can be judged by the degree to which people are helped to discover and develop life in all its fullness.”

Pastor Edmund Chan and Tan Lian Seng commenting on the present state of Churches in their book Discipleship Missions mention, 

“ … sadly for some Churches, serving their own needs involves resolving deep conflicts- the emotionally draining “fire-fighting” in the wake of strife and division. When that happens it is so easy to lose sight of the mission.”

Tim Keller the founding Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church talks about equipping Christians in urban Churches to function as salt in the world by integrating their faith with their work. According to him disciples are called to be an alternate city within every earthly city to reshape the world by the gospel. This will happen by believers who are discipled and bring the gospel to bear on all of life. According to him this includes equipping the saints with a robust theology of creation and good theology of work.

The Covid is a reminder of Peter’s exhortation to 'live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear' is written in the context of sanctification. Though we travel as strangers or temporary residents, the Lord wants us to fulfill our part of the Great Commission. This understanding should be the basis of our response to the needs of the stranger, alien and the migrant. 

The Apostle Paul encourages believers to demonstrate love for the stranger (Romans 12:13).Being a chosen race they were to embrace, their alien status in the world so that their lives could reflect the kingdom values. They were to loosely hold to power, status and possessions (I Peter 2:11-12). This will be possible if we disciple God’s people to be Kingdom focused and directed by the word of God.

The pandemic was a reminder that we need to be intentional in building community. City Churches are disciples committed to the Kingdom and to one another in a deep and long term way. The mark of such relationships should be open sharing, mutual support and accountability because God’s mission in Cities is more than simply the rescue of lost souls but seeking shalom of the city.

A call to bridge the digital divide

Dr. Jay Matenga, Executive Direc tor of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission, has commented that Covid-19 has resulted in technological advanc ements in the service of mission. 

With strict lockdown and standard operating procedures in place, Churches had to close down their facilities and find new ways of reaching out to congr egations. Gradually Churches had to bridge the digital divide by using the social media. 

Churches will have to continue to build a robust digital infras tructure that enables people to participate in services easily and from anywhere. This will mark the continuation of the ministry of the Church to share the love and hope of the Kingdom when death and despair is rampant. 

And this is where the millennials and generation Z can play a vital role. They are digitally wired and can create excellent platforms for evangelism and discipleship through the net and media. This can promote regular engagement with the members and can keep people connected. 

This pro active engagement with the digital space will help urban Churches promote fellowship with the congregants and also create a space to engage generation Z who live in the digital world. 

Apostle Paul and his team used the Roman highways to spread the gospel. Today Urban Churches are called to proactively use the “new cyber superhighways” in their mission in Cities. 

A call to develop a culture of generosity

Mental health, unemployment and the resultant brokenness, grief and despair as a result of the pandemic is a call to the Churches to develop a culture of generosity. These are issues which the Urban Churches are going to face in magnified proportions in the days to come. 

For India something that gripped the attention of the nation was the plight of the migrants whose vulnerability and pain was exposed due to the lockdown and lack of a regular income. 

Concern for the poor and the stranger is something God desires of his people. It is manifesting the love and justice of God and should be an integral aspect of the church’s ministry. It is only then that it can add credibility to the message it proclaims. This will be the right context to understand and minister to the migrants who come in large numbers to our cities. 

Scripture clearly evidences that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and the needy. The three Hebrew words used in connection with the poor are-ebyon- the one who is lacking something, dal-the weak one, the frail one and ani-the bent over one. All these imply the crushing, disadvantaged experience of the poor and the stranger especially in the context of the pandemic. 

Both in Leviticus and Deuteronomy laws are designed to promote a sense of responsibility to those beyond their own kinsmen. It was commanded that what remains in the fields after the harvest and the gathering of olives and grapes should not be collected; it is for the alien, the orphan, and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:19-21; Leviticus 19:9-10). 

Bryant Myers in his book, “Walking with the Poor”, states that the poor are people, found in families, communities and the corresponding social systems. The biblical narrative tells us that they are made in the image of God and have gifts, skills and the potential to become kingdom-like.  

However in the words of Dr. Christian Jeykumar, they are trapped inside a system of disempowerment made up of interacting social, spiritual, a cultural system that includes their world view. Hence, Jesus instructs that the objects of our hospitality should be the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, those who seem to bring little to the relationship (Luke 14:12-14).

The observation of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s Consultation on Reaching the Urban Poor is also on similar lines

“We believe the basic strategy for the evangelization of the urban poor is the creation or renewal of communities in which Christians live and share equally with others. These communities function as a holistic redemptive presence among the poor, operate under indigenous leadership, demonstrate God's love, and invite men, women and children to repentance, faith and participation in God's kingdom.”

The urban Churches have to be intentional communities responding with integrity and the generous Father heart of God. This will be missional especially during crises when cities are disrupted and demoralized.

A call for increased partnership and collaboration

The Covid crisis has presented big challenges and complex situations for an individual Church to handle alone. It will require partnerships and collabo ration between urban churches so that innovative solutions and lasting transformation takes place. 

Rick Warren in his article on Wiping out HIV writes, “The Church is God’s chosen instrument of blessing. It is the greatest force on the face of the Earth. Local Churches large or small can do incredible things. Churches working together in networks can do even more. That’s why I believe tackling the world’s biggest problems such as spiritual lostness, poverty, disease and ignorance must be done by the Church. It is the Church’s task to make the invisible God visible. By opening our arms in acceptance, by being his hands and feet, we make him visible.”

Partnership and Collaboration between urban Churches reflects the very nature of the triune God. While partnership demonstrates Christian unity, collaboration points to God’s roadmap for his Church. The theme of unity is obviously prevalent in the Scriptures when Jesus himself prayed that his followers would ‘be one’ as he and the Father are one, ‘so that the world may believe’ (John 17:20-23). Collaboration reflects God’s intended design for his Body, and has always resulted in increased Kingdom impact. 

It will help accelerate achievement of goals, decrease costs and eliminate redundancy. Effective partnerships allow people or organizations to do what they do best, to maximize their contribution rather than spreading themselves too thin by doing many different things—often poorly. 

When we join hands with others, we discover different, often complementary, strengths. It will be a testimony of our authenticity as one body of Christ in the City and will demonstrate our commi tment to both the Great Command (Matt 22:36), and the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). 

The primary witnesses of the gospel in a City are the local worshipping commu nities of disciples.  In the recently held South Asia City Advance conference, Anand Mahadevan Business Journalist and Church Planter stressed the importance of collaboration on the basis of our identity in Christ rather than on our calling. This will be the catalyst which will help us work across Churches and see our cities being blessed by working together.

Conclusion

Those ministering in the cities need to primarily recognize that God has a redemptive purpose behind the cities and its challenges. 

 The pandemic does not provide us simplistic solutions but encourages us to continue to wait on God in our lament and prayer so as to receive new strategies to see Cities of the nations being blessed. 

The challenge and disruption brought about by the pandemic are opportunities to glorify God. Urban Churches have a golden opportunity to reimagine mission and realign the way we participate in mission with a posture of dependency on the Lord who has promised to build his Church.

The Urban Churches should prioritize on building urban disciples by emphasizing on spiritual formation and community life. The lessons on the presence, prayer, practice and proclamation of the church are scripture based and offer direction for God’s work in the cities. The city Church would then be able to fulfill its mission in the midst of the present crisis. 

Leveraging media in its task of pastoral care, evangelism and discipleship should not be neglected. This is particularly crucial in reaching generation Z who are digital natives.

The Covid crisis was a call to Urban Churches to be generous in the light of the brokenness and vulnerability of large sections of population. Rather than allocating huge budgets on buildings and facilities, there should be a willingness to come alongside those facing disruptions in their livelihoods. 

Importance need to be given to partnership and collaboration between Churches, Para Churches and mission organizations in the cities which is bound to leverage the power of the gospel.

In his article “Evangelizing World Class Cities” Ray Bakke has emphasized the need to have a prophetic perspective of the city. According to him, “For nearly two thousand years the church has possessed the mandate to disciple all the peoples or nations of the world. Now, in this generation, we are discovering where these peoples and nations are located: in the large cities of the world.”

The Covid is again a reminder that we cannot afford to ignore that the 21st century is the age of Urban Mission because Cities are socially and politically strategic and spiritually fertile place. It provides a context for ministry among diverse and marginalized groups.

 (The writer acknowledges the use of select bibliography to compile this article)


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