Thursday, March 15, 2007

DISCERNING THE SOUL OF OUR CITY

ATHENS IN FOCUS. Just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’m convinced Paul felt something similar for Athens, Greece. Acts 17:16-34 tells of his time in that great ancient city — the birthplace of democracy, harbinger of great ideas and philosophies, and home to some of the world’s greatest architecture. But as he engages and discerns the soul of Athens, what leaves the biggest impression on Paul is the city’s idolatry. Overcoming idolatry, he declares, would be critical to Athens’ and its citizens’ souls and future.

A BLUEPRINT FOR ASSESSING URBAN ISSUES. What Paul does and says in Athens can be a blueprint for engaging the contemporary metropolis. We may not reach the same conclusion as Paul, but the process and pattern is valid and transferable. Here are the three stages of Paul’s discernment and ministry in Athens. I’ve encouraged our congregation to consider these steps carefully as we assess and speak to the soul of our city today.

1. DISCERN THE SOUL OF THE CITY. Get to know the soul of the community. Who lives here and what do they believe? For what do they--we--live? Spend some time contemplating the range of people and patterns, habits and customs, priorities and commitments, values and traditions within our metropolitan area. In what directions are we moving? What are we avoiding? What are we embracing? What is most important to us? What do we think will help us become a great city? Who’s included, excluded, lauded, blamed? How are problems addressed? What brings people together?

2. HOW DOES THE GOOD NEWS CONNECT? Let the soul of the city challenge our grasp of the Gospel. How does Jesus desire to convey his truth and love in this place, in this urban setting? The Good News doesn’t change. But it will connect uniquely with different kinds of people and challenges in different situations. Paul’s Acts 17 address before the Areopagus in Athens reflects his thoughtful effort connect place and Gospel, city and salvation, urban issues and transcendent possibilities. In light of the vibrant, multi-dimensional way the Good News addresses individuals, relationships, and community, let your imagination soar in this connection. How do you think it connects here and now? What shape does Good News take here? What form does a prophetic witness take?

3. SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE. Speak the truth in love to the heart of the city. Paul did not speak from the periphery or to peripheral issues. He spoke from the heart of the city to the soul of the city. This should shape our ministry, our service, our witness, our priorities, our engagement with the city at every level. How will Jesus’ saving, reconciling grace be expressed through us to the core of the urban arena in which we live? What are we to be? What are we to do in this city that is central to its soul? Whatever answer we give for the hope we have is to be offered with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

DON’T SHRINK BACK. Doing justice and living compassionately amid entrenched patterns of fallen organizations and ungodly social norms is the arena of spiritual warfare. Urban Christians understand the difficulty of this struggle. Still, we must not shrink back or write off the world or withdraw to illusory subcultures. In the face of spiritual strongholds and structural injustice, Jesus taught his disciples to pray -- and live as the answer with their lives – “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

SEND YOUR WORD OUT WITH A SONG. This prayer, from Seek God for the City 2007, reflects my desire: “O God, May the good news be told with such winsome clarity that all the peoples of our city, our nation and the earth will hear of Your salvation. You have brought people from many nations to the cities of our land, but they are still far from You without the Gospel. Send Your people to convey the message with persuasive beauty and disarming kindness. Send Your Word out with a song, so that the ravishing sweetness of Your love seeps into the souls of those who hear. May Your love be told as an unfolding epic story so that people are amazed at the beauty of what You’ve done for them. Don’t let a day pass without telling it all again, until every people group on earth has heard. Amen.”

3 comments:

  1. Dear John,

    Your prayer as I read it included the idea "You have brought people from many nations to the cities of our land, but they are still far from You without the Gospel." Maybe this is so. But I wonder if a one of the biggest weaknesses of what passes for urban ministry in this country is the idea that there are people "without the Gospel." That, to me, is a theological impossibility. I worry in my work as the pastor of Broadway, whether I will have the wisdom to help us bear witness to the presence and the power of the Gospel in the life of the city and its people. But what I don't worry about is that the Gospel is present and alive in the people. The problem is more on my side to recognize it.

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  2. You articulate an important aspect of urban witness, Mike. I appreciate your posts and proddings, as well as your lived expressions of Good News in the city.

    Here's a bit of my thought on this: If the approach is "crusade," as much of urban evangelism has been in the past, the Waymakers' prayer and methodology misses the mark.

    On the other hand, if our witness is primarily or solely to help people recognize that God/grace is at work in and among those who dwell in the city--as crucial as this is--it is only partial. Recognizing that Good News is present, that God's future is indeed being enacted here and there, is a signaling aspect. It signals the invitation and call to personal and corporate discipleship. Does not our very recognition of gifts and actions and community care as God's grace at work in people and places call for a declaration of them as such and an invitation for these to be dedicated to Jesus and a focused following of him and his way? Is it not the very action and will of Jesus to bring us all--lost, wandering, dulled, satiated, abused, hesitant, resistant, fearful, disbelieving, cynical, troubled, depressed, presumptive, prideful, etc. as we are--into a communion triggered and fueled and constantly being renewed and transformed by faith in Jesus? Does not recognition of the Gospel at work--and our wtiness to it--call for a response of faith and discipleship?

    The thing that fascinated me in the prayer above is the desire/call for winsomeness--"send it forth with a song." I take that to mean: let it sing through me, through us--through those who have been graced to recognize Good News, who have dedicated ourselves to Jesus' and his way, and are whole-heartedly trying to cooperate as grace further forms, informs, involves, and implicates us; let hard edges be softened, judgmentalism wilt, excluvisism evaporate, separations be spanned, and common ground be found; let Good News be evidenced in and through us not by winning arguments but by winsome love; not by strident disposition but by sacrificial service...

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  3. Dear John,

    You wrote so well the following:
    "On the other hand, if our witness is primarily or solely to help people recognize that God/grace is at work in and among those who dwell in the city--as crucial as this is--it is only partial. Recognizing that Good News is present, that God's future is indeed being enacted here and there, is a signaling aspect. It signals the invitation and call to personal and corporate discipleship. Does not our very recognition of gifts and actions and community care as God's grace at work in people and places call for a declaration of them as such and an invitation for these to be dedicated to Jesus and a focused following of him and his way? Is it not the very action and will of Jesus to bring us all--lost, wandering, dulled, satiated, abused, hesitant, resistant, fearful, disbelieving, cynical, troubled, depressed, presumptive, prideful, etc. as we are--into a communion triggered and fueled and constantly being renewed and transformed by faith in Jesus? Does not recognition of the Gospel at work--and our wtiness to it--call for a response of faith and discipleship?"

    I certainly agree with what you have so beautifully sung. It does call on this from us. All I want to say is that it is an extremely rare thing. It is much more the call in the prayer that you quoted that began my comments though, that seems to reflect the liturgy and theology and practice of Christendom. So -- yes, yes, yes -- the Gospel does indeed sing in the life of the world around us. Sometimes, though all too rarely, through me. But my gosh I'm blessed to see it all around me.

    I'd just leave with this -- I'm interested to see and hear your examples of where this is happening. My heart could use such a song right now. (and Lord knows the church could too!)

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