Missions in the Big Cities (1)

A friend of mine from Brazil, who is working to start a Reformed church in a large city, asked me a few weeks ago, “How do you do urban missions from a theonomic perspective?”

It’s a very important question. In fact, I can safely predict that this will be the most important question for the next generation of missionaries. And it is a huge question too; and it will require much more than one or two articles to be answered. But I will try to lay the foundation for the answer, at least.

There are several reasons I believe it is a very important question, if not the most important practical question about missions in our generation.

First, because Biblically, we should expect a movement from rural to urban, from the country side to the cities, and we should expect the Christendom to be centered in the cities, and be built from the cities to the country side. The Bible starts with a Garden and ends with a City. While I know that the meaning of the City is largely symbolic, the change is of the deepest significance. Those who expect to return to the idyllic Garden-style life in the coming age, may be disappointed. Its significance extends throughout history as well. The command to mankind to multiply and take dominion over the earth will necessarily lead to less land available to the individual families and therefore to the increasing importance of other, non-agricultural resources, skills, innovations, and production processes. Those innovation processes should, in their turn, increase the output from the land which will make it possible to feed the larger populations the cities.

Indeed, Cain’s first act after he got banished from God’s presence – to settle and build a city (Gen. 4:16-17) – was not strange, or unusual. Yes, it was an act of rebellion against God, but only in the fact that Cain wanted to build his own city, not God’s city. In the Old Testament, the saints were expecting the city built by God (Heb. 11:16).

Second, historically, God has increasingly worked for the advancement of His Kingdom through cities. True enough, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Patriarchs, and all of Israel until the time of entering the Promised Land under Joshua, were predominantly agricultural. But that was because they were still pilgrims. They hadn’t found the Promised Land yet. When the Israelites moved to the Promised Land, their life was organized around cities. The cities were the centers of their military defense. Living in cities that they didn’t build was part of the promise (Deut. 6:10). And even before they entered the land, the cities were declared to be the center of their judicial authority (the city elders, see Deuteronomy chapters 21-25). The Ark of the Covenant was the last inhabitant of the land to not settle behind the protective walls of a city, but God had planned and promised that there would eventually be a city of His name, where His name would dwell (1 Kings 8:16, Deut. 12:5, 11). As Pastor Joe Morecraft pointed out in a recent sermon, the wisdom described in Proverbs 8 speaks to a city man, in an urban setting. So while the land was the basis of their economy and was divided between the tribes, God made the cities be the foundation of the society of Israel. This was later acknowledged by Jesus when he based his evangelism strategy on the cities (Luke 10:10). And He declared curses on cities as communities (Luke 10:13, Matt. 23, Luke 13), pointing to their covenantal significance.

We can say, both the Law and the Gospel were centered around cities, and the cities were and are important in the administration of both.

Third, from an economic standpoint, it is the cities that make it possible to pool together economic resources and human creativity at the lowest cost (due to low transportation costs and the economies of scale) and thus produce more goods. The economic aspect of society is often ignored by pietistic Christians, and especially by missionaries, but it shouldn’t be. The Bible states many times the promise that the covenant-keepers will increase in numbers; the Dominion Mandate in Genesis 1:26-27 has never been cancelled, and it continues to be the foundation for historical blessings and cursings even after the Fall (see Deut. 28; also, Gen. 12:2-3). But if covenantal obedience leads to the blessing of demographic increase, then by default it must lead to economic blessings as well. Otherwise, increased population without increased economic output will only produce more misery and curse (as is happening with covenant-breakers around the world today).

Indeed, because cities tend to attract talent, we should expect to see a culture that values talent and innovation undergo an increased rate of urbanization compared to other cultures. For example, after the Reformation in Europe, the Reformed communities saw a significantly greater movement of population to the cities. While before the Reformation northern Italy and north-central France had the highest rate of urbanization in Europe, after the 1500s these regions were surpassed quickly by the Netherlands, England, Switzerland, and the Calvinist principalities in central Germany. By the early 1800’s the total urban population of the Netherlands was about 1.5 million, and the most part of that increase came from immigration to the cities from inside and outside of the Netherlands. And by 1815 London was the largest city in the world with 1.5 million souls, from 500,000 just one hundred years earlier.

If the cities are a natural nexus for resources and human labor and ingenuity, then they will tend to attract more people. The trend can not be stopped, for more people would want to participate in the growth – sometimes real, sometimes perceived – of the city, instead of settling for life in the countryside which was often perceived as stagnant and unrewarding. Indeed, for all the proclaimed evils of the Industrial Revolution in England, the average wage earned by a factory worker was between 6 and 10 times higher than the wage of a farm hand. Children employed in the factories made better money than experienced agricultural workers. That naturally tended to attract many people to the cities. And the trend continues today.

From any perspective, theological, cultural, economic, we should expect to see the cities become the dominant culture in every society. And therefore expect to see an increased need for Christian missions in the big cities, not only in traditionally non-Christian lands, but in Europe and the United States too. In fact, if anything, it can be argued that some of the big cities in the West are as much in need of solid Christian missions as are the rainforest of the Amazon or the interior of Africa or China. A missionary, therefore, must know how to build a mission in the urban context, and a successful mission at that.

The main problem that a city forces on its inhabitants – and therefore on the missionary who is working in that context – is the complexity of social relationships, compared to the rural countryside. Of course, in the countryside, where relatively fewer people live within the same geographic area, within a day’s walk, the social contacts remain limited. Given the fact that in the rural context, extended families tend to remain living in the same place, most of that social contact is within the extended family. At the most, social contacts remain within a restricted range of those who live in the geographical vicinity. This doesn’t mean, of course, that different ethical rules apply to the city and to the country. The moral law remains the same. But the complex social interaction within the culture of the city makes the task before the missionary different than it would be in a more rural setting.

To deal successfully with that challenge of complex social relationships, a missionary must initially focus on three important issues, and resolve them in a Biblical way. These issues are church, family, and work.

The Synagogue Model

The prevailing model today used by missionaries to deal with the challenges in the big cities is the “church-planting” model. I say “church-planting” because that’s how the model is known among missionaries and mission organizations. The “church” in this case means specifically the formal church-gathering on Sunday morning for worship and preaching. Thus, this model is generally Sunday-centered, liturgy (“worship”)-centered, institutional church-centered. The objective is having a “church” – that is, a church building – where there are services every Sunday, and “converts” come to listen to sermons and participate in the “worship.” In fact, for most preachers and missionaries this is the sign of a “disciple”: one who regularly attends church services on Sunday morning.

Thus, by default, a “church” is centered on Sunday morning, on the institutional-sacramental aspect of the faith, and on the “ministry,” which often means the specific church activities like preaching, church administration, and worship. “Worship,” of course, means anything from having a music band on the stage for the more contemporary churches, to writing hymns and putting together the bulletin for the “worship order” for the liturgy-oriented ones. The meaning of the word “elder” is defined as a church administrator, or rather, as a member of the church “board,” one who makes decisions or participates in making decisions in the limited area of church business. In general, a successful mission is one which has a church building, regular services, and a group of regular attendees as an institutional core which is defined by little more than a simple profession of faith and regular presence on Sunday morning.

This is the vision of a mission most missionaries have, and therefore their whole work is geared toward that. Even when they start with some rather “unconventional” tactics, like Bible-study groups or street evangelism, or even organizing English courses for locals, the final goal is to get the converts to attend the service on Sunday morning, and hopefully make a profession of faith and “join” the church. “Joining the church” means regular attendance of services and participation in the different programs which the missionary would organize as part of the new religious undertaking, that is, the “church.” Such programs are in general strictly religious in character and are specifically limited to “church business,” like evangelism, prayer groups, children groups, or Christmas pageants.

I call this model the “Greek temple” model. It is a model that views the Christian faith as a strictly personal faith, limited in scope to personal religious convictions; and it views the church, respectively, as a religious institution limited in its scope and function. At the foundation of that model is the belief that the church is an outlet for satisfying a specific personal need: the need for salvation or, rather, the need for religious experience. The church is thus one of the outlets in the society offering its specific product. When a person needs groceries, he goes to the grocery store. When he needs his car repaired, he goes to the car-repair place. When he needs entertainment, he goes to the theater. In a similar manner, missions are set up to offer a solution to the religious need of personal salvation; just like a Greek temple in the antiquity would be built for the purpose to offer to the population the opportunity to implore a god or a goddess for specific personal needs, or for specific collective needs of the polis. The mission that is taking that approach is generally focused on taking its own “niche” in the market of services, without interfering with the other niches – groceries, car-repair, entertainment, etc. And it certainly doesn’t try to tell other niches how they should live and operate.

Having a church building and regular church-services and worship, of course, is a good and commendable goal. But even in the best scenario, this model works only when a Christian culture is already in place, and Christianity is accepted as the norm everywhere, and the church service Sunday morning is just one of the aspects of that Christian culture. In other words, for the “church-planting” model to work, we need a Christendom, a culture which is marked in every aspect by the centrality of the Christian faith, from personal lives to social conventions and economic and political rules. Even in the centuries of Christendom, though, when the whole population of the European cities was confessionally Christian, church buildings never could accommodate everyone. At best, church buildings in any particular European city could house only between a quarter and a third of the city population. Such was the case before the Reformation, and such was the case during the Reformation and after it, including in places like Scotland and Switzerland where the religious zeal of the population was quite high. Even in the small settlements in the North American colonies where in the first decades settlers moved specifically for religious reasons, the regular church attendees were estimated to be not more than 10% of the whole population. A church centered around the Sunday morning liturgy and collective worship is not a culture-changing church; to the contrary, it is itself the product of a thoroughly Christianized culture. Therefore, “church-planting,” as it is understood today by many missionaries and mission organizations, may bring in converts but won’t evangelize a culture.

So, then, what is the solution for a city whose culture is anything but Christian? And what should a missionary do in the large jungle of social relations which threatens to engulf and destroy his fledgling mission?

The solution is to challenge the culture of the city itself. Whether a missionary realizes it or not, or whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, a Christian mission is always a challenge to the prevailing culture, for culture is religion externalized, as Henry Van Til taught. A challenge to the religion of the city is a challenge to its culture, and unless a mission offers a comprehensive challenge to that culture, there can be no successful mission. This is much more obvious in a rural context, or in the context of backward tribes; missionaries in the big cities or in a predominantly urban civilization seldom think of their work as a cultural enterprise. But it is one nevertheless, and therefore a mission must be organized so as to challenge the very culture of the city. And culture is not challenged by capturing Sunday morning. It is challenged by capturing Monday morning, and every other week day. In order to challenge the culture of the big city, a missionary must envision pockets of “cultural resistance,” mini-cultures within the larger conglomerate of pagan cultures. These mini-cultures must be comprehensive in their claims on the life of the believer. And they must provide answers to a wide array of cultural issues, even if some of those issues are not directly a concern at the specific moment.

Do we have a Biblical example of such mini-cultures in the larger context of a city?

Yes, we do. The synagogues.

It will be helpful to remember that in the Roman Empire, the Jews of the Diaspora seldom settled in rural settings. Synagogues were to be found in the large cities of the Empire, and indeed, Paul was always looking for the synagogue when he entered a city. The Jews were everywhere. Of course, the largest single Jewish community was in Judea and Galilee, but estimates show that that community was only between one-third and one fourth of the total Jewish population of the Empire. Every city had a synagogue, and sometimes several synagogues. And a synagogue was started by families, not by a priest or a minister. (Jews didn’t have priests outside of Israel anyway.) Ten families were the minimum number to start a synagogue, and they could invite a rabbi to reside in their community and be paid to teach them. The synagogue was not just a place for worship, it was a community center, and it’s purpose was not to dispense religious experience but to “assume the function of a total society for its members.”1

Were they effective? Enormously.

Between the end of the civil war won by Octavian Augustus in 30 BC and Nero’s suicide in AD 68 which ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the population of the Empire grew from 45 million to about 55 million, at the very low rate of about one-fifth of a per cent annually. But the Jewish population grew at the astounding rate of almost one per cent a year, five times faster than the general population, from 4 million to about 10 million. By AD 65, the Jews were so numerous that they were about 20 per cent of the population of the Empire. Never before, and never after has the Jewish population comprised such a high portion of the world’s population. This growth, within a century before the destruction of Jerusalem, was due not only to natural birthrates; conversion played a large role, too. Proselytes are mentioned many times in the New Testament, and many Greeks and Romans came to worship in Jerusalem, acknowledging it to be the source of the one true religion (see, for example, John 12:20). Given the fact that the Jews were not specifically oriented toward world evangelism like the New Testament church is, such success is striking. It is paralleled only by the success of the early church as testified in the Book of Acts, and also in the missionary activities of some of the early missionaries among the pagan tribes on the borders of the Empire. The Jewish synagogue was a successful model for evangelism, even if the Jews themselves were not committed to evangelism at all. And its success was especially remarkable in the big cities of the Empire.

So what was the synagogue?

It wasn’t a religious institution devoted to “worship” on Saturday morning, like the modern church is. It wasn’t an outlet for catering to the need for religious experience among the masses. That was exactly the reason why the Jews – and later the early Christians – were often accused of atheism.2 The synagogue had no formal religious observances, no idols, images, or special clothes for the priests, no spectacular rituals and sacrifices and prayers. The only “formal” ritual was reading of the Law of God, and expounding on it, like Jesus did in Luke 4:16-30. In other words, it wasn’t a temple.

It was community government.

J. H. Bavinck, in his great study on the science of missions, points to the fact that by becoming a convert to Judaism in the Roman Empire, a person became part of a comprehensive, self-governing, judicially and economically-oriented civic community.

A Jew enjoyed many civic advantages. The Jews who lived in the cities had a sort of government of their own and were states within the state. To a certain extent they even had their own administration of justice, so that to belong to such a community was desirable for many. Since the common people, the unthinking masses, could not think of a religion without idols they might indeed say that the Jews were atheists. But those who came into a deeper understanding of Jewish worship were in one way or another influenced by it.3

Indeed, they were influenced. The nearly explosive growth of the Jewish population in the century right before the fall of Jerusalem is an adequate proof.

The “government of their own” and the “states within the state” J.H. Bavinck was talking about were the synagogues. There was no other Jewish institution that could be the locus of that government. It was in the synagogue where the Jews would go for their community decisions, for their justice, for their economic discussions and help, and for organizing their welfare services. The synagogue was meant to be an institution for dominion, a cultural beachhead in the pagan world, based on a different faith, and therefore on a different worldview, and therefore on a different cultural foundation, and therefore on different law structure and administration of justice. Under the principle in Deuteronomy 4:5-8, it couldn’t remain unnoticed by the pagans; is was destined to become a “force of attraction.” And it did. Pagans flocked to it, and either became Jews by circumcision, or adopted the Jews’ ethical system for their own personal lives, their households, and their social activities (Acts 10:1-2).

This also meant a different standard for the position of an elder in the church than what we have today in our churches. Obviously, if the church is simply an outlet for religious experience on Sunday morning, then an elder would be expected to be rather similar to a temple priest who is responsible mainly for the religious and ritualistic aspect of the life of the church; which, of course, is the case in our modern churches. Since the synagogue was designed to be a culture separate from the surrounding world, which was to “assume the function of a total society for its members,” the elders were supposed to be much more than priests in a temple, or simply religious leaders. Just like the elders in the Israel of Moses and David, they were to be the enforcers of civil law, and the mainstay of the covenant society. They were judges, economic leaders, teachers in the Law and in productive trades, tutors, family and business counselors, as well as community organizers. A typical member of the synagogue did not have his Sabbath day controlled by the elders and his weekdays controlled by another authority or another system of principles or laws. Whether he was a merchant, or a hired hand who worked for either Jews or pagans, or a government employee, his life was completely, seven days a week, subject to the civil authority of the synagogue, and the Law of God as administered by the elders. There he found justice, economic and family counselling, protection against injustice, economic help in hard times, and insurance against the unknowns of life.

Of course, it is important to note that his life and property belonged to him, and the elders had no ultimate authority to deprive him of either. But as long as the elders of the synagogue kept the Law of God and taught and counseled from the Law of God, their counsel was wise and relevant. Leaving the protection of the synagogue brought no formal sanctions on any person; the lack of such protection was a penalty harsh enough. So those who were in, stayed; and others who weren’t, converted in order to gain access to the culture which provided such protection. The “power of attraction” was in the culture created by the Law, not in the visible splendor of the Jewish religion, and not in any ceremonies or liturgies. Jews left those to the pagan religions.

The Jews were set to conquer the ancient world through cultural conquest, through the mini-cultures of the synagogues in the big cities.

And the early church was modeled after the synagogue. It was a cultural beachhead, not just another temple of another religion. It had its own system of community organization, its own system of laws and administration of justice, and its own rules for helping the poor and educating its members, and especially the children.

No wonder that the early church had such a tremendous success in the few decades after Pentecost. It simply copied the same cultural principle; in fact, the early church had no other examples to follow but the synagogue. The pressure of persecution added to the consolidation of the church as a community and an alternative culture. From the earliest years it set up its own courts. (In 1 Cor. 6:1-6, Paul is speaking as if the Corinthians should have known about the practice of setting their own courts by persons who can judge; he is not giving them a new and unknown-before idea.) It had its own system of poor relief and economic protection for its members. (Contrary to the modern claims about the “communism” of the early Christians, the economic experiment in Jerusalem actually had all the characteristics of a modern capitalistic enterprise, a hybrid of a cooperative, a corporation, and a mutual insurance fund.) It had its own system of economic relationships between masters and slaves. It had its own system of family counseling (Titus 2). It developed its own schools and a system of education, both academic and vocational. It trained its own “rabbis.” Very important, it also taught from the Law of God on issues which won’t be current in the first several centuries, namely, civil government and administration of criminal justice (Romans 13; 1 Tim. 1:8-11).

Just like the synagogue, the church was assuming the character of a comprehensive society for its members, just like the Jewish synagogue. It was the beachhead for a new civilization, a new culture, the Kingdom of God. It wasn’t another temple preaching another limited doctrine on personal salvation or religious experience.

This view of the church as a comprehensive culture was continued later in the practice and the experience of the Reformation. In places like Switzerland, The Netherlands, Scotland, Hungary, the Reformed churches were more than simply institutions for administering religious observances. In Geneva, Calvin was invited not as a church minister – his preaching in the church was a “side job” – but as an expert, a technical adviser to the City Council in governing the community and building a social order according to Biblical principles. In New England the elders of the church were the same as the elders of the city (as it was in Old Testament Israel), and therefore the church was the community where the problems of the community were solved. In his Systematic Theology, R.J. Rushdoony quotes Charles Tilly on the function of the elders and the legal powers of the assembly:

They determined the sales, purchases, exchanges, and rentals of the commons; the repair of the church, the presbytery, the public buildings, the roads, the bridges; in addition to their syndics, they named their schoolmaster, their herdsman, their sergeant, their hayward, the tithe collectors, the assessors and the collectors of the taille. Sometimes they fixed the conditions of the wine-harvest; in certain circumstances they even set the rate of pay for day laborers and the prices of certain products.4

While it can be argued how much of this should be decided by the elders and how much should be left to the individuals and to the operation of the free market, it is clear that the early Reformed Christians did not look at their churches as religious institutions only, but as comprehensive communities with their own culture and law structures. In another place I have argued that the work of a missionary is nothing less than building covenant communities. It is especially relevant in the cities where the church must establish an example of a new culture, hostile to every other culture in the city. And this can be done only by establishing institutions and practices that parallel those of the pagan world, and give a Biblical example of how a culture should operate. A church as a temple focused on itself and on its liturgy is a worthless enterprise in challenging the culture; only a synagogue can do the job.

Continues here

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  1. R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1, p. 741, http://bit.ly/RJRInst1. []
  2. J. H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Early Missions (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1960), p. 29. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 1994), Vol. 2, p. 659. []

About Bojidar Marinov

A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website: http://www.bulgarianreformation.com/

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7 Responses to Missions in the Big Cities (1)

  1. Joel Saint December 11, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    Great article tackling a subject I have thought about a lot, as it seems like most city churches do one of two things. Either 1) Remain in the city, never challenging the godless culture, and therefore become irrelevant; or 2) “Get out of Dodge”, that is, move the entire congregation to the suburbs where it’s much safer.

    Thanks, Bo; can’t wait for the rest of the series.

    • Bojidar Marinov December 11, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

      The second part is uploaded too, Joel. It was one article but it became too long so I split it.

      • Ellsworth McIntyre January 15, 2013 at 11:41 am #

        I read with interest your current article in Faith for All of Life “Rhetoric, Ethics, & The Missionary’s Job.” Please give me details on your suggested project of a paper publishing of The Institutes of Biblical Law. I just finished this article about the church. I have established 10 Christian schools from one family church (currently 7 families). We have more than 1200 students nearly all preschool who are the outreach of our ministry over a 3 county area. We have also helped to establish other institutions using this model. It has been my experience that it is nearly impossible to build genuinely Reformed churches in the USA. Why? Adults in America are essentially humanists, even when they claim to be Reformed. If the preacher strays too far from Billy Graham, these pseudo Reformed people vomit up the doctrine. As a consequence, we have come to concentrate on teaching the Law to preschool children. There is a vast market for day care. Parents are willing to pay missionaries like my family to teach their children the Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, 23rd Psalm, basic Bible stories and of course phonic reading. We have an intensive phonic program that turns young children into fluent readers long before they are old enough to attend public school. Our plan of salvation to the children is that unless they are growing in the power to govern themselves by the 10 Commandments, they are not saved. We have parents who never object to this doctrine when taught to their children, but would never allow it to be taught to themselves. Experience has shown me, therefore, that the preschool is a wide door which no man can shut. If you would like to observe this model, perhaps you can make some adaptation to your thinking about how to change a society. Please let me hear from you about your paper project and the above. May God continue His obvious blessing upon you, Your friend, Pastor McIntyre


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