A tale of three cities

Sydney

It’s 7 am Thursday, and I am sitting in a café on York Street in the central busi­ness district of Sydney. This is my hometown. The coffee, in case you were wondering, is okay. The Suncorp building towers above me, Grosvenor Place tall behind me, and every bus coming off the Harbour Bridge stops outside this café.

Opposite is my church building, from which we hope to build, with the believers gathered and serving, a lasting gospel work for the risen Lord Jesus Christ here in the city.

Thousands pour out of the buses each day, coming into the city to work. And many more will rise up from Wynyard and Town Hall stations to run businesses, open restaurants, create art, visit museums, govern the state, wine and dine, perform in the Opera House and do other amazing things. They will bus in, train in, walk in, ferry in, drive in and ride in.

That is not to mention those who live here.

Sydney City is attracting residents in ways it hasn’t for decades. In 1909, a report was tabled in the NSW Legislative Assembly. In it were these words:

While we are of the opinion that as a general rule workmen should be encouraged to live in the suburbs, we recognise that an exception must be made in the case of waterside workers, who require to live within easy reach of the wharfs to which their work calls them at all hours of day and night.1

The pursuit of the suburbs away from the city itself was the model when I was a child, with people still fleeing the CBD in search of a backyard to call home. But now many people are rethinking their approach to the city.

Those who never moved are those who live in Department of Housing homes (originally built for the wharfies who needed to be available “at all hours of day and night”). Those who are now moving in, with new attitudes to the city, are young workers (wanting a lifestyle with no commute), retired people (giving up lawn mowing to visit the art precinct) and people from other nations and cultures who see the city as far less crowded compared to back home.

The homeless also live here.

It is easy to imagine Sydney looking more and more like London or New York City in the next 50 years, especially as Barangaroo is developed. (Barangaroo is an inner city suburb on the edge of the CBD and will become one of the largest developments in Sydney’s history—and is already one of the most controversial.)

Given the activities that take place in the city, the new attitudes to life there, and new building projects, reaching our cities is surely strategic. So I have been eager to learn from anyone who can help us to reach global cities (like Sydney) with the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Two global cities that come to mind are New York City and the City of London. I went to both cities hoping to learn about city ministry.

New York City

My wife and I caught the bug of city living while in New York City from 2006-2009. We were working with Christ Church New York City (an Anglican affiliate church of Redeemer Presbyterian Church).

I took to the city like a duck to water. I liked simply walking out of my apartment into busyness and business. Cities have a particular kind of energy that I love, so New York was perfect for us.

While there, I spent some time with the Redeemer Church Planting Center (now Redeemer City to City). While I found it hard to agree with their very tight theology of the city (that since cities have theological significance in the Bible, and since the future of God’s world is described as a city, we therefore need to prioritize cities), I was thoroughly convinced of the strategic nature of the city—that if we want to reach the whole of a nation, then we need to make sure our cities are served with the gospel of Jesus. It is worth noting that “the early church was urban”.2

There were seven things I learnt about urban ministry while in New York City, things that we could apply to another city such as Sydney.

1. Ask contextual questions

What do people in your city truly fear? What do they dream about? What are their hopes and aspirations? How do they gain their significance? What do you notice when you walk around the streets? What are their sexual ethics? How do they vote? What religious systems have they tried?

Redeemer developed specific and thought­ful profiles of the people they were trying to reach. The team that planted Redeemer examined the whole city to work out how the people there determined their significance. Here is a classic example of the kind of contextual observation they made:

The city’s highest tower, whether it was a castle, a minaret, a cathedral or an office skyscraper always indicates a city’s faith—what most of the people in the city are looking to for significance.3

It once was the World Trade Center, but now it is the Empire State Building. New Yorkers look to money, power and influence.

After thoughtfully asking these questions, Redeemer set about speaking to these issues, providing answers and apply­ing the gospel to them.

2. Love the city

Redeemer identified early on that Christians in the United States generally had one of two approaches to cities: either they hated them and fled to the suburbs, or they adored them and became one with their city (and therefore indistinguishable). Instead of taking an adversarial approach, Redeemer demonstrated a way to love a city without becoming one with it.

They encouraged people to work well and contribute to the prosperity of their city (using Jeremiah 29:4-14 as a model). They encouraged Christians to show hospitality and kindness in their neighbour­hoods, especially among the poor and marginalized. They wanted people to move into the city long-term, perhaps to raise a family there, and show that they were not just ‘using the city’ for significance or the maki­ng of money, but ‘loving the city’ for its own welfare to the glory of God.

3. Use non-adversarial apologetics

Taking their cues from Acts 17, Redeemer would paint their opponents in the best light, trying to understand their position, while still applying and confronting them with the gospel. They thoughtfully considered what it would be like to stand in the shoes of their opponent, alongside the apologetic cut and thrust of evangelism.

One method of this kind of apologetics is regularly addressed in what are called ‘defeater beliefs’.4

Every culture hostile to Christianity holds to a set of ‘common-sense’ consensus beliefs that automatically make Christianity seem implausible to people. These are what philosophers call “defeater beliefs”. A defeater belief is Belief-A that, if true, means Belief-B can’t be true.

And after considering what the city’s defeater beliefs are:

The leading defeaters must be dealt with clearly and quickly but convincingly. Defeaters are dealt with when the person feels you have presented the objection to Christianity in a clearer and stronger way than they could have done it.

Then comes the time to speak “at greater length about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration”. In other words, to preach the Gospel.

4. Endorse and empower workers

The city is where people come to work. That’s what unifies the majority of the city. So Christians need to apply the gospel to their working life in particular. Knowing that many workers were not going to go into ‘professional ministry’, Redeemer asks the question: what does it mean to go to work each day, and follow Jesus Christ while amongst our colleagues?

In answering this question, they addressed issues such as the motivation for work, dealing with praise and criticism, seeking the common good, and evangelism at work. They gathered Christians together in industry groups so that they could encourage each other in the faith, and they provided guidance for employers and support when people lost jobs.

5. Engage in mercy ministries

Redeemer empowered many of their members to engage in what they called ‘mercy ministries’ while still maintaining a gospel focus. This is basically required in an urban context in particular, where many of the marginalized gather and live. Anyone who works or lives in the city can see that those on the margins feel safer here in the city, where ‘odd’ is more acceptable, so Christians have a great opportunity to demonstrate Jesus’ care for the socially lost. Redeemer’s Senior Pastor, Timothy Keller says:

The dominant majorities often dislike cities, but the weak and the powerless need them. They cannot survive in the suburbs and small towns.5

Members of Christ Church NYC and Redeemer usually volunteered with an existing ministry to the poor and marginalized about once a month, out of love for Jesus.

6. Help people change

As most city dwellers are older than 25, many are asking not only “What is true?”, but also “How will this affect my life?”. They are interested in eternal living, not just eternal life. They are asking questions of personal growth, and wondering how to live properly. Redeemer worked hard to answer these questions by looking at such texts as Roman 6 and Colossians 3, passages that outline new living.

Instead of merely calling for and then expecting repentance, the question of why we don’t repent was asked. People were encouraged to think deeply about how lasting change may come about under the word of God’s gospel and in the power of God’s Spirit.

7. Prepare to plant churches

Redeemer built into the DNA of their church three ideas: that the gospel changes everything, that the city is the most strategic place for gospel ministry and that they wanted to build a church planting movement. They never wanted to be one church, but rather a movement of churches. They “focus on church planting for the renewal of global cities… for leaders who want to bring the power of the gospel to every part of life”. They “seek to catalyze and serve a global movement of leaders who create new churches, new ventures, and new expressions of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the common good”.6

While many onlookers to the Redeemer movement may find some of the arguments used to arrive at these conclusions overstated, I found these seven things especially valuable in planning to reach an urban centre. Compelling, even.

In particular, I believe that if the gospel of Jesus is central to God’s purposes, then it must be proclaimed from central places. My experiences in New York City drove me in many ways to accept the ministry position of a city church in Sydney.

However, Redeemer was not helpful in one simple way. Let me explain.

In America (and in New York City in particular), the ‘city’ is a large area that is basically urbanized (rather than suburbanized). The city is, according to Dr Keller, “any place of density, diversity and cultural energy”.7

In New York, if you or your neighbours have a detached home with a backyard, you probably live in the suburbs. If you don’t, you live in the city. So there is something like 8 million people in the ‘City of New York’, but many of them live in residential areas across five boroughs. Christ Church NYC and Redeemer Presbyterian were on the Upper East Side and West Side of Manhattan (whilst I was serving there), which are primarily residential areas. Wall Street and Midtown, by contrast, are known as financial districts.

Having observed this, I wonder, “What is the ‘city’ in Sydney?” I take it that there are three options when Sydneysiders think of ‘city’:

  • They could mean the whole of Sydney (mountains to ocean, Hawkesbury to Royal National Park). So one flies into the airport of the greater city of Sydney.
  • They could mean the ‘City of Sydney’, the local government area. So some pay taxes to Lord Mayor Clover Moore’s ‘City of Sydney’.
  • They could mean the central business district, Broadway to Circular Quay, Darling Harbour to the Domain, the area filled with the urban energy associated with cities.

So you could live in ‘Sydney’, pay taxes to the ‘City of Sydney’, but take a train to ‘the City’, meaning the CBD.

Our church, St Philip’s York Street, is located in that central business district. I go to bed each night knowing how many people are still at work in the Suncorp building. There are offices and cubicles all around us. There are many residents (and more will come as the apartments are built), but it still feels like business and commerce. It is more Wall Street than the Upper East Side.

We quickly realized that there are not many evangelical, growing, vital and innovative churches in financial districts. Not even in New York. There are certainly some (and Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral is one church in particular with a plan to reach a city), but there are not many.

However, another church I knew of was in the same position as St Philip’s: St Helen’s Bishopsgate. St Helen’s is located in the City of London, close to the Lloyd’s building and the ‘Gherkin’. And yet they have a thriving, evangelistic, ministry-minded church right where virtually no one lives!

As it would happen, I met the rector of St Helen’s, William Taylor, at the Engage Conference in Australia in August 2009. I had coffee with him, speaking about our excitement of being in the city, our passion to reach both workers and residents in the city, and of the enormous potential of growing a church in a central space.

Naturally, he invited us to visit London in his classic English way: “Do come”.

London

I discovered four wonderful principles at St Helen’s.

Teach the Bible

St Helen’s was one of the most focused churches I have ever seen. I heard the same message from everyone I met, from the rector to the ministry apprentices to the secretarial staff, from the Bible study leader to the laymen: “We teach the Bible”.

We went to speak to the young man in charge of the Sunday School, Sam Osborne, to ask about the process, manage­ment and organization of a city children’s ministry. Sam said that his practice was to read the Bible with the Sunday School teachers. After all, if they aren’t growing in Christ while reading the Bible, then what are they teaching the kids?

The temptation when starting in a new place, like the city, is to look for specific things that would aid the reaching of the lost in that place. Novelty, in other words, is a temptation. It was refreshing to see that St Helen’s had kept the main thing the main thing.

And there is a long history and heritage keeping that focus alive. I’m told that when a young rector, Dick Lucas, first came to the city to begin his work in the early 1960s, he had some very faithful and committed people who persuaded him to step up and do the work. They were evangelists. They were givers. And they were bringers of friends, and they supported Dick in his ministry. One man, a colonel from World War II (now departed), came up to Dick one day and said to him, “Dick, you are the Bible teacher. I am the soldier. You teach the Bible. I’ll fight the battles.”

Honour the past, while building for the future

St Philip’s York Street is old. It is (alongside Parramatta) the oldest parish in Australia (1802). It has links to the First Fleet. Its congregation has been given watch over an old and grand building. The colours, the light and the symmetry are stunning. I like the space, and I love the history. And so do many others.

Of course, this kind of building can very quickly become a liability if people think more about the age and nature of the building than of Jesus and his kingdom. People can easily give up the best for the good. We want the building to be an asset, not a liability. Not simply neutral, but used for the glory of God.

Now, the parish of St Philip’s is 209 years old. But guess how old St Helen’s is? It was established in the year of our Lord 1210.

It is 801 years old. The building escaped the Great Fire of London, and two IRA bombs in the 1990s. Shakespeare may have worshipped there. There is much history in the parish and in the building. And yet their building is wonderfully used for the gospel, as it ought to be!

Two mistakes can be made in a city parish with a strong history: one would be to glorify our place and our history, and the other would be to ignore it. But as people spend more time and energy examining their roots and discovering the value of historical stories, I believe that the gospel can only go forward from a space like ours by honouring our past, while looking to and preparing for the future.

Build ministry partnerships with city workers

In 1961 Dick Lucas was preaching to the business community (mostly men) who worked in London. St Helen’s was viewed as a (mostly empty) 13th century church near the Bank of England. It had only a tiny community on Sundays (I was told “a few people and two cats”). Apparently, the main income of the church was from brass rubbings!

But there were keen partnerships in place that allowed both the lunchtime ministry and the church to grow. From these partnerships, the Sunday ministry grew.

The church has staff dedicated to reaching the worker community. Mark O’Donoghue leads the ministry there, and I was able to visit with Chris Fishlock and his team at the Fleet Street Talks. The ministries there are about prayer and teaching the Bible. But workers are also forming partnerships to reach their colleagues as the prayers are given and the Bible taught. These partnerships are deliberately formed, with prayer and evangelism as their focus.

Follow the seams of friendships

To be fair, I picked this one up simply by living in New York City. But I saw it happening in London: people making new friendships by following seams of friendships. Like a miner following a seam of precious metal to find more of the same precious metal, Christians need to keep finding the seams of friendships and relationships where Gospel opportunities arise. This requires some wisdom and insight, and some basic networking skills. But mostly it requires a mission-minded heart and love for the lost.

If you live in a suburb, then the backyard and the local market are great places to meet and continue friendships for Christ’s sake. But it is harder in high-density housing. The only way to do it is to follow the seams of friendships: Who is friends with whom in your building? Where do workers gather and develop relationships? Who is hosting the rooftop BBQ? These are all the questions of a person seeking to find the seams of new friendship for Christ.

Fill the city with the gospel

In Acts 5, starting at verse 17, the apostles are arrested for preaching the words of life—Christ died, risen and exalted—and for preaching repentance and forgive­ness of sins. The high priest observes them doing something we long to see happen­ing in our day:

“We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching…” (v. 28, emphasis mine)

May it be so for these three cities, and many more.

Endnotes

1. NSW Legislative Assembly, Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City of Sydney and Its Suburbs, 1909.

2. Timothy J Keller and J Allen Thompson, Redeemer Church Planting Manual, Redeemer Church Planing Center, New York City, 2002, p. 46.

3. Timothy Keller, The Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything DVD, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2010, Session 1: City.

4. The following three quotes are from Timothy Keller’s ‘Deconstructing Defeater Beliefs’ article, online at http://www.redeemer.com.

5. Keller and Thompson, Redeemer Church Planting Manual, p. 45.

6. ‘About Us’, Redeemer City to City, http://redeemercitytocity.com/page.jsp?navigation=1.

7. Keller, Gospel in Life DVD, Session 1: City.