As Christians we care about the city because God loves the city. The Gospel we preach is first and foremost God's gift to the poorest of the poor, who, to a large degree, now abound in the cities of the world. Our commission is to reach them with the gospel of Jesus Christ while we are meeting their human needs in a way that empowers them. In this task, Jesus is both our message and our model

When Jesus rose from the dead, he said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you" {John 20,21}. We are not only to preach as He preached, but also to do for people the deeds of compassion He did. For us, that includes issues of health, housing, justice and any other areas that affect peoples' lives. So, we obey God's mandate to care for his creation and to open up the kingdom of God to as many as possible.

"As the Father" not only means focusing on the same issues and priorities as Jesus did, but also in the same style. The emptying, suffering servant that Jesus modeled goes against the grain of human nature. Too often we are tempted to deal with Jesus' priorities in one of the three ways in which Jesus was tempted in the wilderness: by magic, miracle, or power. The urban ministry graveyard is strewn with programs that fizzled because the delivery instruments took the shape of one of the three temptations. True power is the ability to achieve a purpose. The cross is the most demeaning form of death; but for Jesus it was the most powerful instrument. If we are to be effective in urban ministry, it must be ours as well.

We are here in the cities of the world because we have no choice but to be involved. It is part of our answer to the calling we received.


To understand God's agenda for the city we need to get a clear idea of what the Bible says about cities. Outside resources will help us in this process as will an understanding of contextualization and a mindset sensitized to urban issues.

Too often today urban ministry programs are determined less by God's agenda for the city than by history and by the exploitive economic systems of which we have all been a part.

Historically, in most parts of the Third World the city was established by foreign colonizers at the expense of local inhabitants. These invaders built impressive structures to promote their own safety, well being, and economic activities, but abandoned them when nationalism and other forces drove them back to their own borders.

Interestingly, we find in many inner cities throughout the West a similar pattern of initial development followed by desertion. At one time the best sections of town, these city centers were also abandoned and left to decay by those who originally built them. The continued development of these inner cities was no longer perceived to be in the best interests of the rich and powerful, even as fellow countrymen.

For us, this suggests that a substantial part of God's agenda for the city today, in the First as well as in the Third Worlds, will have a lot to do with the healing of historical as well as contemporary injustices.

As we look at the world today, we see that urbanization and urbanism are the two most widespread phenomena of the twentieth century.

Urbanization is the absolute growth of cities, both in numbers and size, as masses of people move into the urban centers of the world. Every nation on earth is undergoing urbanization.

Urbanism, the adoption of urban life-styles and urban values, is a product of urbanization, but is not necessarily related to living in a large city. Rural inhabitants viewing a satellite broadcast absorb the same cultural influences as city dwellers.

Urban ministry in our time is at the heart of the greatest transformation of human society in the history of the world.

Cities today are at once centers of riches and power, poverty and helplessness. As we try to understand more specifically how God would have us respond to the whole city, first to the poor and those who find themselves on the margins of society and then to those at the centers of power, we need to be able to understand what the Scriptures have to teach us about cities and urban ministry.



Most of us as urban ministers have a fairly strong background in biblical studies. We have studied the original languages, the history and culture of the Bible so we can use all these as tools to interpret what the Scriptures have to say about matters of faith.

While there is a wealth of detail on cities and urban ministry models in the Scripture (the word "city" occurs more than 1,250 times), we may not find it meaningful. Without formal training in urban studies it is difficult put what the Scriptures are saying about cities into some kind of cognitive framework.

It is important to realize that there are many outstanding information resources that will increase our ability to understand what the Scriptures are saying about cities. However, since many of these resources may be outside our normal field of seminary study, they may be presented in a form (statistics) or a professional language (sociology or psychology) that is unfamiliar to the urban minister. To educate ourselves, we may need to take advantage of professional seminars and other training opportunities.

It will also be useful to develop a personal library of books and articles on urban studies to stimulate our thinking on cities. This background will sharpen our ability to recognize such references in Scripture.

We need to realize that there are many resources on the city, put together by many individuals and groups with access to a much broader urban knowledge base than our own. Otherwise, we are forever reinventing the wheel. Our personal urban study must have at its heart an awareness of the language and symbols of the city through which we are able to interpret the contemporary moods and processes we seek to address through our ministry.


Another step as we try to discern God's agenda for the city is to be aware of how the process of contextualization influences (or should influence) our interpretation of the Scriptures. We will look at four areas: original context, personal context, ministry context and community context.

1. Original context. In Scripture, we need to understand the original context before we can apply Scripture to the present. If we do not understand the context within which Scripture was written we misinterpret Scripture. If we err in this way, we will err in the application of the perceived message. To understand original context, we need to spend a lot of time looking at sources other than the Bible itself. This means gaining access to good atlases and histories as well as biographies and other stories of that time. Studying parallel history within the Roman empire during the first three centuries of the church will help us understand how people of that time understood their world. In other words, rather than taking the Bible superficially, we should enter the world of the writers of the Bible to get the full meaning of their words.

2. Personal context. The context of our upbringing and personal experience always plays an important (though perhaps unconscious) role in our understanding and interpretation of Scripture, and indeed, of any situation in which we find ourselves.

For example, people who have never been in prison may find it more difficult to relate to some of Paul's prison writings. In the same way, many of us who have never been shepherds may not fully appreciate the Biblical parable of the lost sheep.

On the other hand, it is also possible that immersion in a context may cause us to loose sensitivity to it over time. Those who have grown up in large cities may overlook the suffering that has become an everyday occurrence. We need to carefully understand the things that have formed our world view and determine, for better or worse, our response to the world around us.

As we continue to understand how our historical context influences the way we perceive the Scripture and the world we live in, we will be able to discern more accurately what the Scriptures are saying. This is a very tedious but necessary exercise.

3. Ministry context. Our ministries can help us to understand Scripture and its relevance for the city by providing a group or communal approach to Scripture. One way to achieve this for ourselves and our ministry groups is through community Bible studies, where all can gain from the collective wisdom of the group and contribute to a better understanding of any passage of Scripture.

Often asking a simple question like..."What is God doing in your life?" leads a group of people to reveal the contemporary realities of their circumstances. This will direct you to particular sections of Scripture in a way that will help you immediately gain relevant knowledge.

4. Community context. Our understanding of Scripture, our personal history and our communal appreciation of ministry must also interact with the immediate physical setting and its attendant socioeconomic elements. In the context of our community we learn the history of its people, the struggles and issues that concern them, what resources are available for ministry and which larger trends are confronting the community. The activity of God is not isolated from concrete reality and our ministry is not isolated from people who live in a real place. Our interpretation of Scripture shapes not only the form our ministry takes, but is itself formed by our appreciation of the environment where people conduct their lives.

As a whole, disciplined contextualilzation makes it possible for any person coming from any background to interact with Scripture in a way that enhances his or her ability to work in urban environments. However, understanding the original context within which the Scriptures were written is key to producing urban ministries that synch with God's agenda for the city.


Our ability to understand Scripture is affected by the biases that we bring to it. Some of these biases are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but they can cloud our understanding of Scripture. For instance, if we come from a background where religion and politics do not mix, we will tend not to hear and understand those Scriptures dealing directly with structural evil in society.

This is especially pertinent when we consider the biblical teaching on cities. If we are convinced that God loves the cities, our ears will be opened so that we can hear what the Scriptures say about cities. We will also begin to actively read the Scriptures with the intent and expectation of learning more about cities.

Our appreciation for cities will be enhanced further by the realization that even though the Bible opens in a garden, it actually concludes in a city. In between, God's people are seen many times in cities, such as Nineveh, Jerusalem, Corinth, Rome, Ephesus, and the list goes on. It is also interesting to note that cities as they exist today are already beginning to reflect the holy city in Revelation where many nations will be gathered and praising God together.


In 1980, Glasgow built a new motorway right through the center of the city. It was a unique motorway in Europe because it had exits both to the left and the right. It was as if the motorway planners didn't know how to approach the city. Similar confusion is all too apparent within the Health Board, the Education Board and all the other agencies who also struggle to find a way to approach the city, not the least of which is the church.

\Finding the right approach to urban ministry is also not easy. To do so, we need resources to understand the city and its people; partnerships to support each other and to provide a more holistic response to complex urban issues; and a foundation of personal values, spiritual discipline and commitment, to sustain the long-term involvement that leads to the transformation of individuals and systems.


Gathering resources is a skilled task. Within the Christian community are people who have skills in gathering and analyzing information about the city (town planners, librarians, statisticians). So why try to do it alone? Use the available resources.

Written resources

As we come to look at our cities, it is important to remember that many other people and agencies have walked that way before. Search for current information from city planning authorities, librarians, development agencies, education departments, social and health care departments, etc. Keep in mind that all information is written from a particular perspective and sometimes for political reasons. Technical and planning information is helpful but so also is the work of historians, artists, photographers, authors and playwrights.

Gather as much information from as many sources as possible. This is hard work. Spend time sorting out what is useful from what is not before assembling the helpful information. Find, if possible, people who have skills in research and analysis to help.

People resources

Cities are much more than locations and systems, ultimately they are about people. Take time to speak to as many different people groups as possible within the city or at least the major players. Find out when different ethnic groups came to the city and why. Asking people about their history can bring many insights.

Personal resources Two feet. There is perhaps no better way to get to know a city than to get around it, walk its streets, travel on its buses and trains, visit its offices, factories, theaters and galleries, courts and government buildings, sports centers, etc. Other peoples' understanding of the city and its people are helpful, but we need to make sure we take time to get our own view. No survey will be complete without it!

Experience shows that if we take an interest in visiting local businesses many managers will be delighted to show off their companies and explain why and what they are doing.


Mapping is the process whereby information about city systems (transport, schools, police stations, poverty clusters etc.) are drawn out and illustrated on a chart. Mapping a city's people, resources and systems can help us see how our cities work, or don't work. Mapping will identify interrelationships, gaps, clusters.

Demography It is essential to look at the development of the demography of our cities as well as the current situation.

For example, in the Govan area of Glasgow, there are large numbers of unemployed manual laborers. This was a major shipbuilding site which is no longer a viable industry. By looking at the demography of the city in 1970, 1980, and 1990 it is possible to see the history of what is happening now--causes as well as facts. Another example would be to look at the growth of the Asian community (approx. 20,000) in Glasgow. The increasing ghettoization of the Asian community raised issues such as the consequences of white fear, and white flight and increased racial tensions.

Systems Thinking

Cities are not static; they are complex interrelated systems in perpetual motion. To understand a city is to see it in motion--transport flows, communications systems, etc. For instance, in Glasgow, a study of the flow of traffic from the suburbs to the city demonstrated that people use the city for work and entertainment, but live outside the city. The poor, through taxes, pay for parasitic suburban communities.

Power structures

Exploring the power centers in a city can bring surprising results. They are often not where we assume them to be. Look at international corporations, media personalities, sports clubs, universities, colleges and schools. Remember that power and influence do not always equate to size, money or wealth.

Understanding the Spiritual Dimensions of the City

Having mapped the city, its physical structures, systems and peoples, we need also to consider the spiritual realm of principalities and powers.

The Bible teaches us that Christian mission is essentially a spiritual struggle to overcome the forces of evil, seen and unseen. This calls those involved in urban ministry to an awareness of how evil works within and through city systems.

From the founding of the first city by Cain, the city has been seen by writers like Jacques Ellul as being anti-God. The city through the centuries has been a place of religious ritual and meaning. As such, both good and evil are seen in the systems of the city and in the effects these systems have on the lives of its citizens.

Church and Community

The model of church which we have inherited, may in some cases have had a fragmenting influence on our urban communities. Community or parish churches which once had their roots in city neighborhoods have deserted the city to become commuter churches which draw people and energy out of neighborhoods. The local church has thus become in some respects a disconnected adversary of the community. A part of the task of an urban ministry is to reverse this situation.


Within any city there are potential ministry partners in the form of other churches, lay relief programs, etc. The purpose of a collaborative approach is to pool resources (leadership, funding, models) and create mutual support. The fundamental tool of collaboration is relationship development and the result is a climate of partnership and a sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Urban ministry leaders need to bear in mind the fact that we are not called to be lone rangers in the work of transforming the city. Moreover, giving people the opportunity to help others has the potential to lead all involved to spiritual renewal

Laity and partnerships

Urban ministry will always be enhanced by effective involvement of laity. This means an aggressive involvement of lay leaders at both the decision making and operational levels. In involving others we not only following biblical teaching but adding a tremendous skills base to our ministry. {Ephesians 4}


The word "laity" comes from the Greek work "laos" which simply means people. Therefore, in a truly Biblical sense, laity are all the people of God. But as the history of the church unfolded, laity came to means the non-ordained Christians. Thus developed a non-biblical clergy/laity distinction. A scriptural renewal of the church would recover the truth that all Christians are called to minister.

Personal foundations of urban ministry:
Character, Values, Personality Traits.

All of us involved in urban work bring our own identity, character, values and personality traits to our work. Urban Strategy Institute planners surveyed IUA Associates and others involved in urban ministry to determine which traits seemed to be the most helpful and beneficial to our work and to growth. Flexibility, openness, patience, willingness to experience adventure, tenacity, servant-leadership, and integrity seem to characterize the successful urban worker. As urban ministers we will be servants to others and open to learning. We must be tenacious--patient in terms of absorbing small failures and injustices and seeking the long-term health of the city and its people. Finally, we must show integrity in our actions and teachings, sharing in the experiences of our communities as fully as possible.

We as urban workers should also be very sensitive to the diverse cultures in the city and compassionate to the brokenness in the individuals we meet. A spirit of community and desire to work with others marks an individual as one who realizes he does not have all the answers and will help in developing a support network and community. Flexibility will keep us receptive to new and better ideas.

Many of us do not bring all of these character traits with us to the city. Instead we are involved in the process of watching ourselves grow in character. Cultivation of these character traits requires intentionality and we have found that being in contact with others and wrestling with ideas in community is crucial for growth to take place. Being in community and encountering others is critical for our personal growth and educates us on the skills needed to continue our ministry work.

Spiritual Disciplines

The incessant demands of urban ministry have the potential to distract us from our original purpose and disconnect us from the source of our power. Crowded calendars, past successes and other ministry team members may all interfere with our relationship to God and our ability to focus on our primary ministry objectives.

Christ teaches and models for us throughout His ministry the essential need to practice personal spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, meditation, solitude, etc. Spiritual disciplines help us reach our goals and stay on track. They give us courage, and the confidence that we are following Him.

There are also corporate spiritual disciplines such as service to the community and group prayer. The discipline of service (such as community work, child care, teaching Sunday School) builds perspective of our common humanity. Group prayer is a discipline that enables the group to collectively hear the voice of God. It reminds us that we are "one church" and that it takes a "city-wide church to fight a city-wide war."


Fundamental to effectiveness in urban ministry is a long-term commitment to a city and to a community within that city. There is no substitute for continuity. A long obedience in the same direction is needed, and it has to be related to a particular place, a particular group of people and a particular purpose. Moreover, given the harsh reality of the environment in which urban ministry is carried out, longevity is often the only measure of success.

The Old Testament gives us some clear examples of what it means to take a long-term view of God's ministry: Abraham bought a piece of land in Caanan to symbolize that this land belonged to God for Abraham's descendants. Jeremiah also bought a parcel of land in the midst of an urban crisis. So today we also work in urban areas to symbolize that this is God's land, and we rebuild looking forward to the day that God's Kingdom on earth is here in its fullness.

It is necessary not to set our expectations too high at the beginning, so that we will not get discouraged when quick results are not forthcoming. Make sure the commitment is visible to the community, in order to keep their trust.

As urban ministry professionals, we should be prepared to involve ourselves completely, totally in the task; it cannot be treated as an aside. The ministry will affect every aspect of our lives. Experience shows that one of the most convincing ways to show this commitment is by living in the ministry community.

Transformation of Individuals and Systems

Without long term commitment there will be no in-depth transformation, only cosmetic change.

Urban mission in Christ's spirit and example is dedicated to delivering people from their personal bondage to sin and guilt. At the same time it also stimulates processes that lead to liberation and transformation from unjust and oppressive public structures. Any attempt to limit the gospel's scope and effectiveness, to limit its urban significance, by reducing it to a matter of personal piety or to perpetual service programs that keep people powerless and dependent is to be resisted.

Transformation calls the city into partnerships through which the powerful are called to work alongside the vulnerable. The empowerment of individuals is central. Help is only given until people are ready to take over themselves and continue the work on their own. They should also have the ability to recruit new disciples and perpetuate the presence of the ministry. Empowerment takes time and is hard work but it is the necessary outcome of the Gospel. Experience shows that it will actually amplify the results and exponentially expand the influence of the mission work.


According to Ray Bakke, one of the realities of Christianity today is that 85% of the barriers to creative and effective urban ministry are within the church itself. Experience shows that we cannot just give the church sufficient urban information or resources and expect them to respond to the needs of the city. In today's world, accelerating change constantly presents us with countless opportunities to implement new visions for urban ministry. Unfortunately, resistance to new methods and unwillingness to give up control, to cooperate, rather than compete with other ministry visions and groups, greatly inhibits our ability to minister to the city. The city is a dynamic complex of inter-related systems in which it is impossible to isolate any particular problem from the whole. We need many visions to approach the city, some of which will undoubtedly challenge the established thinking about how we should do ministry and with whom it should be done. According to Ray Bakke, the seven last words of the church are "We've never done it that way before." Wherever Christians struggle for control, the poor and the city lose. Keeping an open heart and mind in a spirit of love will overcome this most deeply defended of all barriers.

In thinking about the basic foundations of urban ministry we have suggested that there are various levels of understanding: understanding God's agenda for the city, understanding the city and its peoples, understanding the personal and communal foundations of ministry, and understanding the barriers to ministry.

In Chapters 3-8 we will look at some of the many influences that, for better or worse, shape our vision and methods of urban ministry.

Chapter 3: Experiences That Shape Ministry