MR #33: Imagining Christ’s Church in the City

The following cartoon appeared in the Easter Sunday edition of the Daily Nation, the major newspaper in Kenya, East Africa, soon after “The Passion of Christ” appeared in theatres.  The drawing contrasted the “Passion” and “Church” of Christ (Sunday Nation, April 11).

The message was readily apparent:  People, according to the cartoonist, are drawn to Christ but not the church.  Only a few aged people attend; the young feel estranged.


Recently Randy Harris of Abilene Christian University spoke at a Mission Aliveretreat for church planters about the spiritual gift of imagination.  Imagination is the spiritual gift whereby Christians reflect upon scripture and natural revelation within their life situations to envision what God wants.  It is “seeing things as God sees them, catching a dream as big as God is” (Harris 2004).   Christian leaders, using this gift, image alternative worlds.  For example, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech envisioned a world of equality, where black and white live in harmony, without discrimination.

This Monthly Missiological Reflection images six transformations that the church must undergo in order to be faithful to God within contemporary urban cultures.  The transformations generally deal with the incipient syncretism of Christian forms and beliefs with Modernity.  It seeks to answer the question, “What does the church look like if it truly reflects the nature and ‘passion’ of Christ?”

Imagining Christ’s Church in the City

From a Cognitive Cathedral to a Holy People Walking with God

Churches developed during the Modern era generally exist to dispense information.  Unbelievers become Christians by receiving new information and grow in Christ to become leaders through enhanced understandings.  The role of the preaching minister or pastor is that of teacher, dispensing information to the flock.  Churches thus became cognitive groups ascribing to a set of teachings and meeting for a few hours each week in a palace of bricks and mortar to receive additional teaching.

God, however, expects more.  He desires that his people not only know about him but that they also walk personally with him.

Envision churches full of people whose lives exist in relationship with God, where members passionately, whole-heartedly pursue full devotion to Christ.  As Christians look toward the glory of God, they are “being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).   Like the early Christian church, they devote “themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

From Attenders to Community

People “go to church” for many different reasons:  It is their duty.  It is a place to meet people of influence.  Their children receive moral instruction.  Attending church assuages guilt and declares to self and others that they are religious.  The church fulfills what Maslow calls “self-actualizaton needs.”  All is well because a responsibility has been discharged.

Turning to God, relating intimately with him in Christian community, discovering his will, and developing the discipline to implement a Christian lifestyle are frequently secondary motivations.  Church is considered “a place” to go rather than a people of God in community.

Imagine churches where Christians are not merely spectators but live in community.  Christians practice the “one-another” relationships descriptive of Christian fellowship in the Bible.  They are God’s holy people “clothed . . . with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”  They “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances [they] have against one another.  [They] forgive as the Lord has forgiven [them]” (Col. 3:13).  Love “binds them all together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).  The church is a community of God on a pilgrimage through life helping each other to continue as Christ's disciples and encouraging others to join them on the journey to reach heaven.

Consider, for example, Jim and Julie, who are struggling with their marriage, their children, and relationships in the workplace.  Jim is wrestling specifically with sins of pornography and pride and Julie with depression and the fear of not being an adequate mother.  Without the church their marriage will likely disintegrate.  But the church as a one-another fellowship of the kingdom of God enables them to overcome sins and provides direction in their relationships.  Their fellowship, typically a small group in a larger congregation or a house church, gives them the spiritual direction to live as God’s people.

From Members to Ministers

Frequently church is equated with a “place” to attend rather than a fellowship for equipping God’s servants for works of service.  Church strength is naively gauged by church attendance.  The result is that hundreds are mere spectators!  Many “Christians” have merely “placed membership” by publicly declaring their affiliation or following a few easy steps to become members.  Such understandings of membership have little to do with genuine Christian discipleship.

The Kipsigis of Kenya have a proverb that says, “Magisiche logok si kebagach” (“We do not have children and then leave them.”).  While we understand this concept with physical children, the concept has not been applied to “baby Christians.”  The focus continues to be placed upon initial conversion with less emphasis placed on nurturing new Christians to walk with God and equipping them as participating ministers in the kingdom of God.  The sad result is that less than 20 percent of the Christians in a typical church do more than 80 percent of the ministry.

Imagine churches where all members have a place of ministry within the body, where leaders focus on training Christians for works of service as the church reaches into the world.   Ephesians 4 says that Christ is the prime mover of leadership development since he has provided, by his grace and power, specific gifts to the body (vv. 7-9, 10).  He gifted some to be apostles, others to be prophets, and still others to be evangelists and pastors/teachers.  These leaders are to “to prepare God’s people for works of service.”  No task is more important for these leaders.  Note the progress in the text:  The small initial body planted in a locality must be “built up” until it reaches “unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” so that it becomes  “mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (vs. 13).  The church, then, is no longer composed of “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their scheming” (vs. 14).   “Instead, speaking the truth in love” enables the church to “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (vs. 15).  The result is a body “joined and held together by every supporting ligament” whichgrows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (vs. 16).   Ephesians 4:16 thus describes a mature body, equipped by its leadership for ministry.  Doug Murren reports that churches that grow 25% or more each year always have 60% of their attending adults serving in some form of ministry (Murren 2002).

Christians must be nurtured to become Christ-focused, Spirit-led participants in the kingdom of God.

From the Strong to the Weak

In Western culture where they are voluntary associations of individuals, churches strive to gain the loyalty of searchers and to maintain the loyalty of members.  Evangelical churches typically opt into this market-driven culture by becoming “vendors of religious goods and services” (Guder 1998, 84).  Generally, the focus is on the rich and powerful who have the ability to create and maintain expensive church structures.  The church, consequently, looks and sounds more like a business enterprise.  Christian leaders begin to view themselves, despite disclaimers, as jars of gold, silver, or bronze rather than simple clay jars, or clay lamps through whom the light of the gospel shines to demonstrate the “all-surpassing power of God” (2 Cor. 4:7).

Imagine churches whose theme is authenticity, where all confess their weaknesses and acknowledge God’s sovereign leading.  Envision churches reflecting God’s nature by caring for the weak, i.e., the children and the poor, those with no means to survive on their own.

Imagine children of unbelievers feeling excitement about God and Jesus, an excitement that then ripples into the family leading to the conversion of mother, father, and other relatives.  Children’s ministry, consequently, serves as a catalyst for evangelism, an entry point into the church.  Barna records that 85 percent of those who come to Christ do so before the age of 15, and that human spiritual foundations are largely formed by age 9 (Barna 2003).   Lisa Jones of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Philadelphia says that parents have a natural inclination to be involved in their children’s activities.  These parents are invited to help with the children’s ministry and willingly “do it for the kids.”  Searchers are then incorporated as helpers in the youth program because, “The best way to learn something is to teach it.”  An evangelistic children’s ministry thus provides the relationships that serve to incorporate these searchers into small groups on their journey to know God (Jones 2004).

Envision churches with Jesus’ compassion for the poor.  At the inception of his ministry, Jesus quoted Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  Acts of kindness done for the poor are in actuality done to Jesus because he lives among the poor (Matt. 25:31-46).

Although the nature of ministry to the poor may vary, it is not optional.  Mission Arlington models an identificational approach to planting multiple apartment churches among the poor while simultaneously ministering to their needs.  They believe in “taking church to the people” (  Victory Outreach evangelizes and disciples hurting people through a confrontational, charismatic approach in the prisons, streets, and projects of urban cities (; cf. Mathison 1997).  No church, even in suburbia, should isolate itself from issues of poverty and injustice.  All churches must embody Christ’s concern for the poor and disenfranchised.  For example, the Adventure Christian Church in Roseville, California, has grown to 6,000 members in the suburbs of Sacramento in ten years while actively supporting and ministering in the inner-city (

Paradoxically, much growth comes from the margins of society because of the church’s concern for the weak.

In this ministry Christian leaders must posture themselves as fragile jars of clay (literally, clay lamps) through whom the light of the Gospel shines.  Never should they portray themselves as prestigious, powerhouses, jars of gold, silver, or bronze.

From Cultural Accommodators to Kingdom Participants

Many churches, significantly influenced by Enlightenment thinking, have been molded to think in rational, propositional categories and have neglected to spiritually form followers of Christ to think of themselves as participants of God’s mission and instruments of his kingdom.  A syncretism, a blending of Christian beliefs and practices with those of the dominant culture, occurred so that Christianity spoke with a voice reflective of its culture.  The church began to lose it moorings and was swept here and there by the ebb and flow of cultural currents.  This process continues today with devastating results.

Many Christians are practicing Deists.  They diligently study the Bible without expecting God to act in the same way he did in Scripture.  They pray for the sick, yet expect God to work only through doctors' hands.  God--who created the world, selected Israel to become his chosen people, and gave resurrection power to his Son—is viewed as a clockmaker:  "God wound up the clock of the world once and for all at the beginning, so that it now proceeds as world history without the need for his further involvement" (MacDonald 1984, 304-305).   In these churches God’s “truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common” (Wells 1994, 30).  Thus, Christians who seek to be faithful to the God of the Bible must break from their Enlightenment heritage to believe that God is "majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders" (Ex. 15:11).

Church Growth practitioners also absorb this Modern stance.  Assuming that they can chart their way to success by their ingenuity and creativity, they focus on what humans do in missions rather than on what God is doing.  Although they advocate faithfulness to God, decisions are based upon anthropological analysis and pragmatic strategies.    Theological frameworks are not intentionally developed and formative to practical ministry.  They assume the gospel rather than intentionally allow gospel to shape their identities and methodologies.

Thus their illustrations and video clips frequently affirm the connection of the Gospel to popular culture by emphasizing similarity rather than diversity.  Hesselgrave writes, “A method of communication that is over dependent on the discovery and utilization of similarities is open to question.  In the long run, thedissimilarities between beliefs and practices may be more important and utilitarian. . . .  If one’s objective is to convert and disciple, the number and importance of these differences will far outweigh the number and importance of supposed similarities” (Hesselgrave 2004, 147, 149).

Because of the church’s propensity to accommodate to the prevailing worldviews of popular culture, the church must consistently define itself in itself biblical terms.  The church, although contextualized for the contemporary situation, must seek to restore God’s intentions for the church in every era.

Imagine churches who perceive themselves as part of the mission and kingdom of God.  Church leaders base their identities upon scripture and then move from these theologies to practice.  Their terminologies change.  They do not “set the DNA” of churches, “build” the church, or “establish” the kingdom.  Rather, they “enter into” the mission of God; they “serve” as participants in the kingdom of God.

Their understanding of the church also changes.  The church is depicted in theological rather than human terms.  The purpose of the church is to reflect the glory of God rather than to provide “religious goods and services.”  The church is understood to be “a unique community in the world created by God through the Spirit as both holy and human” (Love 2003) and as “a distinctive community formed by the calling and sending of God and reflecting the redemptive reign of God in Christ” (Guder 1998, 77-109).  The church is composed of living stones built around the chief cornerstone to become “a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

In Ephesians 2:19-22 Paul uses multiple metaphors to describe the nature of the church.  The church is a new nation:  Newly converted Christians are "no longer foreigners and aliens" but "fellow citizens" in a community of faith (2:19).  The church is a family, or "God's household" (2:19).  The church is a holy temple, well constructed with each part joined together and built around Jesus Christ, the chief cornerstone.  This fellowship comes into existence through conversion:  Those dead in sin (2:1-3) are made alive with Christ (2:4-7) by God's grace (2:8-10).   Paul stacks metaphors one on another to illustrate a redeemed fellowship "brought together under . . . Christ" (1:3-11) and existing "for the praise of his glory" (1:12).   These perspectives form an inspired picture of God's divine community.

From Monocultural to Multicultural

Despite the foundational Christian belief that “God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who hear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35), 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning continues as perhaps the most segregated hour of the week in North America.  The social distances, the alienation, and interracial suspicion in popular culture are also in the church.   Christ, however, is “our peace” who brings together the nations, destroying the walls that divide them (Eph. 2:14).

Imagine fellowships where there is no “Jew or Gentile, bond or free.”   All are accepted in their rich cultural diversity within the church.  Envision churches which borrow aspects of many cultures and incorporate them in unique ways.  These churches draw from a collage of cultural metaphors, motifs, and parables from various world cultures to creatively draw and illustrate a Christian worldview.   The diversity of God’s kingdom is also reflected in the multicultural nature of lay and full-time Christian leaders.   George Yancey’s One Body, One Spirit:  Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches is a practical guide to help churches sensitively enter other cultures within a city and intentionally become God’s community of nations in urban, multicultural contexts.

To facilitate this transition, Christian leaders must view themselves as missionaries to the nations in urban North America.

Missional Transition

Churches rooted in modernity will continue to stagnate and dwindle.  Most are in the maintenance mode.  They look inward, taking care of their own immediate needs.  They seldom perceive themselves as God’s people on the journey through life helping fellow travelers to be God’s disciples and encouraging others to join them on this God-directed and Jesus-inspired journey.

God, however, is working through both church renewal and church planting.  This article defines some of the major transitions that the church must undergo to faithfully reflect the kingdom of God in this generation.  Churches must focus on  . . . .

  • spiritual formation

  • community

  • equipping members for ministry

  • caring for the weak

  • their missional, kingdom identity

  • multicultural ministry

. . . .  to restore God’s intention for his church.

Works Cited

Barna, George.  2003.  “Research Shows that Spiritual Maturity Process Should Start at a Young Age,” Barna Update, November 17.

________. 2003.  Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions:  Why Children Should be Your Church’s #1 Priority. Ventura, CA:  Regal Books.

Guder.  Darrell L.  Ed.  1998.  The Missional Church:  A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Harris, Randy.  Imagination.  Speech at Mission Alive’s Church Planters’ Retreat, June 11, 2004.

Hesselgrave, David.  2004.  Traditional Religons, New Religions, and the Communication of the Christian Faith.  In Encountering New Religious Movements:  A Holistic Evangelical Approach. Eds. Irving Hexham, Stephen Rost, and John W. Morehead II.  Grand Rapids:  Kregal.

Hexham, Irving, Stephen Rost, and John W. Morehead II.  2004.  Encountering New Religious Movements:  A Holistic Evangelical Approach. Grand Rapids:  Kregal.

Jones, Lisa.  2004.  Children’s Ministry:  The Best Thing You Can Do to Build a Healthy New Church.  Stadia Workshop, April.

Love, Mark.  2003.  Lectures in BMIS 640 The Church and Its Mission.  Spring.

MacDonald, Michael.  1984.  Deism.  In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed.  Walter A Elwell.  Grand Rapids, Baker.

Mathison, Dirk.  Gunning for God? – Reform efforts of Victory Outreach church among Los Angeles gangs.  Los Angeles Magazine.  Accessed at on August 6, 2004.

Murren, Doug.  2002.  Churches that Heal. West Monroe, LA:  Howard Publishing Co.

Van Rheenen, Gailyn.  1997.  Modern and Postmodern Syncretism in Theology and Missions.  In The Holy Spirit and Mission Dynamics, ed. C. Douglas McConnell.  Pasadena:  Wm. Carey.

Wells, David.  1994.  God in the Wasteland:  The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.
Yancey, George A.  2003.  One Body, One Spirit:  Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches. Downers Grove, IL: IVP.