Tag Archives: biblicism

Why Should You Care about Cities? (3/3)

Who you are depends largely on who you have been with. And most of what you know you have learned from other people. If these statements are true, then it must be vitally important to be intentional about our relationships.

A Christian’s most vital relationship is with Christ. If your relationship with him is all it should be, then he can help you survive even the worst set of human companions. The normal way that Christ strengthens and trains us, however, is through human relationships.

What kinds of relationships will help you grow? Diversity helps. Let me suggest a sample:

  • People who have known you well for a long time.
  • People who are wiser than you—mentors.
  • People who are eager to learn from you—disciples.
  • People who are like you, who help you feel at home.
  • People who are different from you, who make you feel not-at-home.
  • People who don’t know you well.

The last couple categories might be less obvious, or at least less comfortable. If you are surrounded only by people who don’t know you well, it can be hard to develop a secure or accurate self-identity. (See my poetic musings on that possibility.)

On the other hand, if you are surrounded only by people like youself, then your picture of yourself might be rather two-dimensional, lacking depth and perspective. Spending all your time with people just like you won’t teach you much about the rest of life, either. This is why youth need adults, men need women, and you need the city.

Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:

  1. God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

This post will discuss the third reason. Why should you care about cities?

You Need the City!

This might be the least expected reason why you should care about cities, but it might also be the most important. If you would be a wise and effective Christian, then you must first be a learner.  And Christians, including rural Anabaptists, have much to learn from the city.

Cities can help you learn about yourself. When I was in Thunder Bay, I was one of a team of five Mennonite adults surrounded by First Nations youth. When went to college, I was the only Mennonite in my city. When I taught school in the Bronx, I lived in a neighborhood that was about 80% Hispanic. When we lived in Queens, there were at least seven ethnic groups on our immediate block—Chinese, Puerto Rican, Guyanese, Sri Lankan, African American, and, including us, two white households.

Each of those contexts taught me things about myself. Now we plan to move to a neighborhood in Atlanta that is over 95% African American, also within reach of multi-ethnic college populations. I anticipate many new learning opportunities.

I think it would do most people good to live for at least a year as an ethnic or cultural minority. When you live as a minority, you learn that you are not normal—most people are not like you. You learn that your heritage has some unique strengths. You also learn that your culture has some besetting sins (perhaps selfishness with time and possessions, thanklessness, or impatience). And you probably even learn that you have some unexpected racist tendencies (I did).

Cities can remind us that we really don’t understand “the lost” as well as we think we do. Here I begin with a point I made in my last post—that too often conservative Anabaptists think of missions in terms of caring for the poor, tending to overlook other kinds of people. But a happily married (gay or otherwise) university professor or plastic surgeon with a six-figure income needs the gospel just as much as the whino on the curb.

A friend and I were recently discussing the idea of Anabaptists doing missions in Toronto. This friend has lived in Toronto for eight years and continues to work there. Here is some of what she had to say:

It irks me to no end to hear about “mission trips” to Toronto that consist simply of people standing on street corners handing out tracts—likely to tourists because that’s who hangs out around the Eaton’s Centre. How exactly is that addressing the needs of the hipster in Liberty Village, the professor in the Annex, the young family in Riverdale, the public servant at High Park, the gay couple on Church, the young graduates in the Beaches, the writer in the Junction. Those are my friends and colleagues. And they have spiritual lives and needs too…

I am puzzled by the notion that our life in in city is different than life in Elmira or Parry Sound or Newton or Harrisonburg or Shipshewana or Walnut Creek. Urban people do the same things—go grocery shopping, volunteer at school, walk their dog, visit the library, help out with neighbourhood events, go out to eat, see plays and hear concerts, enroll their kids in swimming lessons. If we as Anabaptists believe in lifestyle evangelists—just go. But check out the demographics of more than the poor and needy. If God is truly no respecter of person, then the urbane, literate, middle class professionals are in as much need of Christ’s love as anyone. But if you are going to live in their neighbourhoods (because let’s face it—the best way to get to know someone is through their kid or dog), you need to be able to afford it. This means having a profession that is transferable to a urban centre and being socially fluid.

We like to talk about how Jesus hung out to the poor and marginalized. But Matthew was a tax collector and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. Imagine being friends with the policy wonks, decision-makers, financial investors and cultural creators of our times!

Then, in a final reply to the idea that the poor are often more open to the gospel (which I would argue is almost certainly true, on average), she added this:

…People who are not in desperate socio-economic straits are not open to the gospel? Using that logic, most of Mennonite-land should be impervious.

Ouch. And probably truer than we like to think.

Street-corner evangelism certainly has its place. Many have come to Christ through such efforts. But I would suggest that most are unlikely to respond to Christ unless they experience a meaningful, ongoing sharing of life with Christian friends. Why should we limit our city mission efforts to “hit-and-run” approaches?

And most of us are somewhat poorly prepared to win people to Christ. We may understand the gospel well enough (see my next point, however). But to be an effective “gospel-er” we also need to understand our audience. Consider how Paul adjusted his message to his audiences.

I still do not consider myself an effective evangelist. But I do know that I have a better grasp today than I did in my youth of how a secular, post-Christian mind can tend to think. How did I grow in understanding? By spending time around secular minds. When I was in university (or college, as they say here in the U.S.), it took me about three years before I felt that I understood my classmates and professors well enough to start writing a Christian opinion column in the student paper.

Some are faster learners than me. And even after three years I’m not sure how effective I was. But my basic point remains: Growth in my understanding took time—long, daily time spent with unbelievers.  (Ask any cross-cultural missionary.) And if I had never moved to the city for school, I would never have debated Freud, traced Islamic history, analyzed Milton, read Genesis, tiptoed through feminist assumptions, debated homosexuality, and laughed in the hall with my new postmodern friends.

Such educational cross-cultural relationships can be formed almost anywhere, if you try hard enough. But they are almost unavoidable in most cities. What an opportunity!

Cities can help you understand the gospel better and experience it more fully. Nothing makes you appreciate a homegrown tomato like eating the cardboard imitation found in your local supermarket! Similarly, meeting people from other world religions can help you see the unique vitality of the Christian gospel. Wrestling with heresy helped the early church identify orthodox belief more precisely. Engaging thoughtful non-Christians today can help us do the same.

Being surrounded by undeniable, unavoidable needs can help you focus on the core message of the gospel, with its power to save. Well-manicured hands are nice, but when a patient arrives with a heart attack, you aren’t going to reach for your nail clippers. And when you are helping youth escape the sensual tentacles of mass youth media, you might not worry too much about whether they become skilled at singing four-part choral music.

Both Christians and unbelievers from other cultures can push us to do a better job of distinguishing between our cultural traditions and gospel traditions. (“I don’t see that in the Bible!”) Diversity within the church can give us a sense of proportion about the little things that sometimes divide us. (Fact: Most Christians have never given a moment’s thought to questions about how big your beard should be or whether you should wear covering strings.) As we ponder together how we can best meet the needs of our communities, the differences that otherwise might divide are sometimes revealed to be assets, turning the local church into a veritable Swiss Army knife of multifaceted strengths.

Diversity in the church gives all sorts of opportunity for growth in character. For example, some Caribbean cultures might think Germanic Mennonites are too quiet. Why don’t we show more zeal in worship? How can they tell what we are really thinking about them and their ideas when we hide our disagreement behind so much polite silence? And they might find us disrespectful. Why don’t we wear ties to their funerals? Why do we walk right past our elders at church without greeting them (even if they are in the middle of a conversation)?

So, who is right—Germanic Mennonites or Dominican Christians? Both! Or neither! But seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is informative, and learning to love each other is a challenge that can cause us to lean harder on the gospel. And if you lean hard enough, your shame of the gospel will evaporate when you discover, like Paul, that the gospel has the power to bring people of all cultures together as one in Christ (Rom. 1:16-17; Eph. 2-3).

Consider the counsel of Christena Cleveland, from her book Disunity in Christ:

Culturally homogenous churches [churches where everyone shares the same culture] are adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and creating a strong group identity. However, attendees at such churches are at a higher risk for creating the overly simplistic and divisive Right Christian and Wrong Christian labels that dangerously lead to inaccurate perceptions of other Christians as well as hostility and conflict. What often begins as an effective and culturally specific way to reach people for Christ ends up stifling their growth as disciples. Perhaps this is because we often fail to make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.

For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. Regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural when one considers the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, political orientation and so on. Further, every church should fully utilize the multifaceted cultural diversity within itself, express the diversity of its local community, expertly welcome the other, embrace all who are members of the body of Christ and intentionally collaborate with different churches or organizations in order to impact the kingdom. And churches situated in multiethnic communities… should absolutely be ethnically diverse. (pp. 21-22, bold added)

Let me share an hypothesis: I suggest that conservative Anabaptists risk becoming increasingly ingrown, divisive, and ineffective in missions unless more of us experience the sort of cross-cultural challenges that urban living offers.

In closing, let me repeat some advice to myself: When you do move to an urban setting, bear the gospel, yes, but go as a listener and a humble learner. 

Let’s face it: All this rightfully-urgent talk about urban missions can be perverted by our pride. Among some of us, urban ministry has given us not only a sense of urgency but also a sense of superiority. For many who have cut their rural umbilical cords, urban ministry is cool (substitute the latest relevant slang). We may forget that rural and small-town living are also honorable.

We may also overestimate our preparedness for urban living and ministry. For some hard-hitting warnings to white wanna-be urban missionaries, read Christena Cleveland’s article “Urban Church Planting Plantations.” Here is the burden of her words:

So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations… I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job… This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped.

Ouch. Read her whole article. Be humbled. But don’t give up on the city. Just go with a renewed determination to be a learner—a disciple-maker who is first a disciple.

I know I will have a lot to learn when we move to Atlanta. One thing I hope to learn is how Anabaptists can better participate in Christ-centered racial reconciliation. Though our heritage has unique gifts to bring to this work, most of us are either pretty ignorant or pretty ineffective. Too many of us are still happily colorblind, which is a problem, as my friend Lowell Herschberger explains. We have much to learn.

I need the city, so do other conservative Anabaptists, and so do you.


This is the end of my series called “Why Should You Care about Cities?” Much more could—and should—be said. And I’m aware that some of what I said could be misunderstood. I have spoken strongly, and I have made some generalizations. But what will it take to engage God’s people to respond to one of the greatest challenges of our time—the rise of global cities with their multi-ethnic, multi-need populations?

Rest assured: If you don’t go to the city, the city will come to you. It is already coming. It is coming in the form of your news media, the designs of your consumer products, your college-trained bankers and doctors, the teachers and curricula in your local public school, your construction products, your farm commodity prices, government regulations, the election of your next president, your Amazon orders, your cell phone apps, your Internet signal, and, hopefully soon, Dwight Gingrich Online.

Will we run to meet this Goliath? Or will we merely try to dodge his spear? Better, will we see the city as not only a giant to be slaughtered, but also a fertile field? Will we take a proactive approach to global urbanization? Or will we retreat behind ever-less-effective geographical and cultural walls?

It was in the world’s third-largest city (population c. 500,000) that Christ’s followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). And it was to the largest city in the world (population c. 1,000,000) that Christ specifically sent his apostle to the Gentiles: “Take courage… you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). The big city just might be the most ideal habitat one could possibly imagine for a Christian.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations in your nearest city!


Do you agree that more Anabaptists could benefit from urban living? What do you think we need to learn from the city? What should we learn about ourselves, our neighbors, and the gospel itself? Share your observations in the comments below. And thanks for reading!


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The Church of Christ — Ferguson (1): Introduction

One of my primary goals on this blog is to help us think biblically about church. As I seek to grow in my own understanding, I find it helpful to read authors who wrestle directly with Scripture, form conclusions, and send me back to Scripture myself to weigh their conclusions.

Recently I’ve finally begun one such book, one that has been calling my name for several years: The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, by Everett Ferguson.

ChurchofChristFerguson

Ferguson is best known as an historian of the early church, having written books such as the seminary standard Backgrounds of Early Christianity and, more recently, a massive book on Baptism in the Early Church. I recommend both.

But in this book Ferguson aims to speak as a biblical student, not as an historian. Here is how he explains things in his Preface:

Recent scholarship has emphasized the diversity of theologies within the New Testament… I have chosen to pay more attention in this study to the melody than to the individual instruments.

Although the synthetic approach adopted in this book may be out of fashion, the recognition of the authority of a canon of scripture… justifies the effort to bring together the teaching of the various New Testament documents… This kind of reading does not serve the purposes of historians well, but it is a necessary task for theologians.

The book is written by one whose academic training is primarily that of a historian, but a historian interested in theology who has used history as a way of understanding theological questions. I have set my hand in this work to a book that is completely theological and systematic…

The “Today” in the subtitle does not mean a tailoring of biblical ecclesiology to the interests of the present but is meant to emphasize that biblical ecclesiology is viable today… (pp. xiv-xv)

So far I am only about 136 pages into Ferguson’s 443-page book. But I’m starting to like it enough that I’ve decided I’d like to share a series of posts quoting and interacting with this book.

Ferguson arranges his book in a way that is unexpected but exactly right: around Jesus. After the Preface and Introduction, the book consists of six long chapters, each building on some aspect of Jesus’ identity and work:

  1. The People and the Messiah: History and Eschatology
  2. The Church and Her Lord: The Nature of the Church
  3. The Church and Her Savior: Salvation and Church Membership
  4. The Church and Her High Priest: Worship and Assembly
  5. The Church and Her Bishop: The Continuing Ministry
  6. The Church and Her Teacher: The New Way of Life

Don’t let these titles overwhelm you. They repay close reading. For example, note that Jesus is identified by six titles: Messiah, Lord, Savior, High Priest, Bishop, and Teacher. Ferguson uses these titles of Jesus to understand the church. Thus (in chapter three), if Jesus is “Savior,” how should this shape our understanding of church membership? Or (in chapter five), if Jesus is “Bishop,” how should this shape our understanding of human leaders and servants within the church?

This means that all the “practical” topics you may be curious about are probably found in one of those chapters. For example, subheadings address things such as this:

  • The Body of Christ
  • The Family of God
  • The Meaning of Ekklesia
  • Attitudes toward Worship
  • Activities in the Assembly
  • Shepherds, Preachers, and Servants
  • Discipline
  • Unity

I’m thinking I’ll share about seven posts on this book—this one plus one for each chapter. If I am bursting with extra thoughts and time, one more concluding post may appear.

To wrap up this first post, here are some highlights I enjoyed from the book’s Introduction:

God gave a person, then a proclamation, and then a people. This is the historical and theological order.

God gave first a person, Jesus Christ…

The proclamation centers in the person…

The proclaimed word calls and gathers a people… This book studies the people, the church. As such it is concerned with what is derivative and in third position… I seek to relate every aspect of the doctrine about the church to Christ…

The oral message about Jesus Christ gathered a people and so created a church. That word was put in written form… In a historical sense, one may say that “the church gave us the Bible.”… Although the church was historically prior to the Bible as a given collection of books, the word contained in the Bible was theologically prior to the church. The recognition of a canon of scripture was an acknowledgment by the church that it was not its own authority and was an act of submission to the authority of  apostolic preaching inscripturated in the apostolic writings…

The witness of the first generations of Christians about what was authoritative for them is an irreversible decision and remains determinative of what the essence of Christianity is… The historical circumstances of the first century are not normative for Christians in later centuries, but the apostolic teaching given in those historical circumstances is normative…

The effort to find an authoritative word in scriptures on the matters discussed does not mean adopting the kind of “proof-text” approach that often takes verses out of context. The effort has been made to show the interconnectedness of themes…

There is such an interconnectedness of themes that this book could almost be considered a New Testament theology organized with reference to ecclesiology. It is not that; there are too many aspects of New Testament theology that are not included…

The person of Jesus is more attractive than those who claim to follow him are. But… one cannot have Jesus without the church. We hope to show that Christ or the church is a false alternative… To emphasize Christ is to make his church important.

Sometimes people, finding the heart of the gospel, want to treat the rest of biblical teaching as irrelevant. It may be secondary, but it is not irrelevant. The proper procedure is to work out from the center of the gospel to other things and apply the gospel to other aspects of doctrine. On our topic, that means working from Christ to the nature of the church and its activities…

Perhaps the problem for many has been in taking the church too much in an institutional sense and not sufficiently in terms of a people, a redeemed community… The church may often have been presented in such a way as to obscure Christ…

The first three chapters of this book develop the theological axiom that Christology and soteriology determine ecclesiology. The last three chapters then apply this insight to the ministry, worship, and life of the church. We want to take seriously that this study concerns the church of Christ. He gives existence, meaning, and purpose to the church. Christology is the norm for ecclesiology, and that is what justifies the title of the book. (pp. xvii-xx, bold added)

I won’t add much to that except to say that typing those excerpts renews my excitement about Ferguson’s focus as he examines ecclesiology. Whatever points of disagreement we may discover with him along the way, he has certainly started his study very well indeed!


What stands out to you from these introductory thoughts from Ferguson? What do you want to say Amen to? Is there anything you’d balance differently? What do you hope he addresses (and I review) in his book? Share your insights below.


Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the links above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!


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By Every Word [Poem by Mom]

When Mom “submits” a poem to me for publication, a dialogue begins. Since every word in a poem is important, we evaluate what Mom has written. What exactly does she mean by line X? How does the use of word Y shape the message of the poem? What would happen if we changed a semi-colon here, an image there, or a few punctuation marks? Does the title prepare the reader for the poem or capture something of its essence?

We don’t have any checklist for proofreading. Rather, I simply act as another set of eyes and ears, telling Mom my experience of reading her words and raising questions for her to consider. Sometimes she has her own questions about her writing efforts, wondering how she might best communicate her thoughts, or if her thoughts need improvement. Mom welcomes and values this interchange, because she knows that every word is important. And because every word is important, it is not uncommon for a few words to change before we publish Mom’s poem.

Not so with God’s words. Because every word of God is important, yes, we ask tough questions about these words and, yes, we dialogue with the Author. But when all is read and done, not a word is changed.

So here is Mom’s poem for June, with her own reflections. And here are the rest of the poems in this monthly series. Blessings as you read!


While preparing this poem post I received a newsletter from the Canadian branch of Christian Aid Ministries. Their article on the need for Bibles in Liberia put a new face on the message of this poem. In Liberia not even all pastors have Bibles, so some preach only what they have been told, opening the door to serious error in their teaching. The humid climate causes books to tear easily so it is not unusual for Bibles to have pages or even entire books missing.

After a teaching workshop, pastors were distressed to learn that they had been living immoral lives, unknowingly disobedient to God’s Word. What a vivid illustration of the need to feed on and live out all of God’s Word! It is also a call for us to do what we can to make the whole Bible available to the whole of humanity.


BY EVERY WORD

By every word your Heavenly Father spoke—
By every word—your soul is made alive,
And by each word alone shall it survive:
The words of law that by your deeds you broke,
Those words that to a sense of guilt awoke;
The words of grace that in your heart revive
A hope of pardon; doctrine to derive
A base for faith; exhortings that provoke
To deeds of charity and righteousness.
By every word–just as by every star
The vaulted sky in darkness can be known.
Just as the varied foods God gave to bless
And nourish bodies, so all God’s words are.
Man was not meant to live by bread alone.

—Elaine Gingrich, November 2, 1999


“Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt. 4:4). It was this line that was the poetic impulse for the poem. I am a mother with menu planning on my list. Is that why I read a double meaning into those words?

Jesus continues his quote from Deuteronomy: “but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (italics added).

In Deuteronomy 8:1-3 God teaches us that we are not kept alive only by the bread we bake. The Israelites were living inside an object lesson that taught them that their very existence depended on the words God spoke to keep them alive. But they were also being reminded that we humans are more than physical beings.

Israel lived in the wilderness on manna, angels’ food, bread from heaven, uncultivated by man, something foreign to them and difficult to label. So they called it manna–“What is it? a whatness.” It was not a diet of their own choosing. By God’s word it was given and according to His commandment it was gathered.

Was God not saying to them: “By my word I have fed your bodies from heaven, and even so I will keep your spirits alive as you eat my spiritual food. And not just the food that you choose to eat. When you obey all my commandments you will learn that your souls, too, live ‘by every word of God.’”? “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do…” (Deut. 8:1).

In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul wrote to Timothy that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable…” We need “all Scripture” if we want to be competently equipped for serving God. Not just our favourite passages or pet topics or preferred doctrines.

God humbles us with manna, unfamilar food that is difficult for us to comprehend, in order to test us and prove our faith and our willingness to believe and obey all that God has spoken. We don’t have the luxury of being picky eaters, of being children that refuse to eat our vegetables, or never progress from milk to meat (I Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:11-14). Our Heavenly Father knows what we need. Man does not live by bread and milk alone.


Did you enjoy this sonnet? What words do you have to add to this discussion? Leave a comment here for Mom, or send her an email at MomsEmailAddressImage.php.  Thanks!


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