Urban Ministry Yesterday and Today
Urban Ministry Yesterday and Today: Lessons From The Church Fathers
The love of the world is incompatible with the love of the Father, John insists. Specifically, the desires of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life are signs of those who love the world (I John 2:15). These temptations, hallmarks of major cities, easily lure believers into sin. That is why some people think Christianity is purer and more devout the further away it is from metropolitan areas. But our Christian heritage challenges this perspective. In fact, early Christians targeted the largest cities of their time and became the first urban Christians.
The earliest record of church history is found in Acts. Its author, Luke, time and again emphasizes the urban focus of Paul’s mission. He preached the gospel in major cities like Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Phillipi, Athens and Rome. He followed that up by writing to many of these churches in metropolitan centers. Comprising a significant portion of the New Testament, these letters, rich in theology are also encouragement and instruction for Christians who were living and ministering in these cities. As Paul reminded believers in Rome, the power of the gospel sets us free from sin and transforms our hearts and minds away from a love of this world towards a love of God.
Acts ends with Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Yet he continued to preach the gospel, planting new seeds of faith in the heart of the Roman Empire. Subsequent generations of Christians followed in Paul’s footsteps, discovering cities as opportunities for the power of the gospel to radically influence and change the world. Ignatius of Antioch, a contemporary of Paul, wrote several letters to urban churches as he was led to Rome to face martyrdom. In one such letter to believers in Rome, Ignatius does not tell them to flee from the perils they faced in the city; rather, he encourages them to remain steadfast in their faith so that together they may not just “claim the name Christian” but also prove themselves to be Christians.
Paul and Ignatius typify the early Christian awareness of both the struggles and opportunities that come when the Christian faith intersects the secular world. It is remarkable that Christian martyrdom, intense intellectual opposition, slander, and social ridicule did not deter others from belief; nor did it cause fellow believers to retreat underground or move to rural quarters. In fact, just the opposite occurred. Christianity was emboldened and spread even more rapidly as believers and unbelievers alike witnessed a sincerity of faith in the midst of adversity.
What compelled believers to be faithful witnesses in hostile cities? In fact, it was simply their unshakeable belief in the faithful promises of God. As Hebrews 11 tells us, great men and women of faith hoped for a heavenly city that God has prepared for them. As Christians we anticipate the city that is to come (Hebrews 13:12), and we know that God promises restoration for the world in which we now live.
The growth of Christianity was certainly not because early believers feared the truth of the gospel to be too fragile for a hostile world. Rather, they embraced the opportunity for countercultural demonstration of their faith to others. They followed Jesus’ command to care for the poor, the widows and the orphans. In the midst of calamities like famine, war, and disease, Christians protected and supported those in need. Christian service, to the poor and destitute within cities, sets believers apart from a society that deemed such people unclean or worthless. These believers understood that the gospel could bring real, redemptive change to the broken world around them and it did.
What might we learn from these testimonies? Here at Knox, we emphasize the centrality of being Christ centered, gospel driven, and mission focused. Our purpose is the same today as it was then, and yet we should not forget the persevering witness of our Christian predecessors. They understood that a spirit of fear and separatism is incompatible with the transforming work of the gospel in cities and throughout the world. Just like them, we are not promised comfort and ease in our ministry; but thankfully we have excellent examples of believers who show us that the power of the gospel is strong enough to overcome our struggles and transform a broken and fallen world.
*This article was in the winter 2013 issue of Knox Now. See the full magazine here: