Tag Archives: youth

Why Should You Care about Cities? (2/3)

Where can you serve God most strategically? This is not always an easy question to answer. There are needs everywhere, and diligent laborers are in short supply all over.

One answer is to simply say that I am most needed right here, right wherever I am. This is certainly true on one level. If I’m not useful “here,” I’m unlikely to be useful “there.” Discipleship begins here and now, not there and later.

This is one popular application of Jesus’ final words to his apostles. He told them “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Therefore, we often hear, we should imitate the apostles by starting at home, in our “Jerusalem” hometown, then expanding outward to Samaria (nearby regions) and eventually to the end of the earth.

But Collier Berkshire of IGo (Institute for Global Opportunities) once corrected my thinking on this. He pointed out that Jerusalem was not the apostles’ hometown! Most of them were from Galilee, after all. Then why did Jesus instruct them to begin witnessing for him at Jerusalem? The answer is a strategic one—Pentecost was coming. Jesus wanted his apostles to be in Jerusalem during Pentecost, because he knew that this annual Jewish feast would attract “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). New disciples from among this pool of feast-goers would then return to “every nation under heaven” (slight biblical hyperbole there, but we’ll skip that valuable exegetical lesson), carrying the gospel with them.

So I ask you again: Where can you serve God most strategically? For some of you, I suggest, the answer will be “in a 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 second reason. Why should you care about cities?

The City Needs You!

Two facts: Cities are growing, and globally they are growing faster than their Christian populations. An article by Al Mohler summarizes the first fact well:

In 1800, only 3 percent of the human population lived in cities. By 1900, cities held 14 percent of the population. By 2000, fully half of all human beings lived in urban areas. We are fast becoming an urban species…

As Stewart Brand argues, we are becoming a “city planet.”… “At the current rate,” Brand writes, “humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade.” (bold added)

Are Christians keeping up? Timothy Keller (see his book Center Church) doesn’t think so:

The people of the world are now moving into the great cities of the world many times faster than the church is… The Christian church is not responding fast enough to keep up with the rapid population growth in cities.

There are five million new people moving into the cities of the developing world every month—roughly the size of the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia or San Francisco. Think of that—how many churches ought there to be in a city the size of Philadelphia? Even if there were one church for every five thousand people—which is five times fewer than the United States average—this means we should be planting a thousand urban churches in the world every month. (p. 158, bold added)

Let’s add some Anabaptist context here. Not only are Anabaptists moving into cities at a rate far below Christians of many other denominations. More importantly, we also have a long heritage that values and often prioritizes rural living. But the data above shouts what should already have been evident from the pages of Scripture: The idea that people should leave the city so that they can experience optimal spiritual growth in rural environments is simply unreasonable. There simply isn’t enough farm land available for all urban converts to come join rural Mennonites. Mennonites are even running out of farm land for their own children!

Unless Anabaptists learn how to be faithful disciples of Christ within cities, several trends will become increasingly true:

  • Children of Anabaptists who find their needed living space in towns and cities will tend to join other denominations.
  • Anabaptism will remain a primarily rural phenomenon, with little direct impact on most of humanity.

I think there are theological repercussions, too, but we’ll stick with those sociological ones for the moment.

So, the city needs you, because you have the gospel that the city needs. What kinds of people in the city need you and the gospel?

Keller identifies “four important groups of people who must be reached to fulfill the mission of the church”:

1. The younger generation… In the United States and Europe, the young disproportionately want to live in cities… If the church in the West remains, for the most part, in the suburbs of Middle America and neglects the great cities, it risks losing an entire generation of American society’s leaders…

2. The “cultural elites.” The second group is made up of those who have a disproportionate influence on how human life is lived in a society because they exert power in business, publishing, the media, the academy, and the arts… Since cities now influence the culture and values of the world more than ever, the single most effective way for Christians to influence the culture of a nation is to have large numbers of them stay in cities and simply “be the church” there…

3. Accessible “unreached” people groups… The currents of history are now sweeping many of these formerly unreachable people into cities as rural economies fail to sustain old ways of life. Millions of these newcomers in the burgeoning cities of the world are more open to the Christian faith than they were in their original context…

4. The poor… Some have estimated that one-third of the people representing the new growth in cities in the developing world will live in shantytowns… An urban church does not choose between ministry to the poor and ministry to the professional classes. We need the economic and cultural resources of the elites to help the poor, and our commitment to the poor is a testimony to the cultural elites, supporting the validity of our message. (p. 160-62)

Of these four groups, which have American Anabaptists been most comfortable and successful in reaching? I think most of us would point to the fourth group—the poor. Organizations like Christian Aid Ministries have helped Anabaptists provide rapid response services after natural disasters, including in urban centers. Additionally, my unscientific observation would be that many of our few long-term urban efforts have focused on poor neighborhoods.

There are good reasons for this (we have a heritage of skilled manual service and material generosity). I suspect there are also sometimes bad reasons (scorn of the professional class, fear of education, inability to meet non-material kinds of needs). Consider the pointed questions raised by Allen Roth, in an article1 urging mission efforts in the materially-wealthy Canadian province of Quebec:

Might our neglect be due to a defect in us as a people… a lack of clarity about the Gospel itself and the need of all people for salvation, yes, even the prosperous ones who consider themselves superior to us? Are we unable and unwilling to share the Gospel unless we can hand some material benefits downward to those who “need us” and toward whom we feel superior? If… if indeed this might be the case, then God have mercy on us! (bold added)

I think we should continue our efforts to the poor, learning not only to hand out relief but also to live among the poor in long-term relationships. And I think we Anabaptists should also expand our vision to include the other three groups of urban dwellers that Keller identified.

One way to reach all three of these groups (youth, cultural leaders, unreached peoples) is to share the gospel with international college students. For example, consider a Foreign Policy article published earlier this month: “Leave China, Study in America, Find Jesus.” The article is part of a special series called China U. The description of China U. underscores the significance of Christian engagement with international students:

China U. is an FB series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

Indeed, how might a new generation, fluent in China and in America and newly won to Christ’s kingdom, shape the future of both China and America?

According to the article, the number of Chinese college and university students in America has multiplied more than four-fold in just the past 10 years. The article is full of fascinating personal stories of converts. Here are some excerpts with other data:

While firm statistics do not exist on the number of Chinese converts in the United States, it’s clear that a rapidly increasing number of Chinese students, including Cai, have come Stateside to pursue higher education; more than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China is the largest secular country in the world; young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have visited a Buddhist temple to pray for good luck before an exam, or celebrated traditional festivals with roots in Chinese folklore. Public preaching is forbidden there, and the Communist Party-state oversees all religious matters, often with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasizes patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview…

As a result, U.S. universities are the first places that hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely…

Some predict that the future of Christianity lies in China. After all, they argue, the popularity of the faith is declining in the United States, the largest Christian country in the world. Meanwhile, in China, even government figures acknowledge a growing number of followers, from 14 million in 1997 to 23 million in 2010. (This number is generally considered a low estimate.) (bold added)

Such reports are a reminder that we don’t always have to leave our nation to reach the world. Often “the world” can be found right here in the cities of North America. For example, consider this sample of statistics about where immigrant populations live:2

  • Los Angeles: 80,000 Thai
  • Minneapolis–Saint Paul: 25,000 Somalis
  • Chicago: 100,000 Indians and Pakistanis
  • Detroit: 130,000 Arabs
  • Indianapolis: 14,000 Burmese
  • Philadelphia: 60,000 Chinese
  • New York City: 100,000 Bangladeshis

You might be surprised at who lives in your nearest city. Iowa is reportedly the sixth-least diverse state in America. (In contrast, Georgia, where we plan to move, is the fourth least white.) Yet even here in Iowa you will find immigrants. For example, here is some data on my nearest city, Des Moines:

Total Population: 207,510
Foreign-born residents: 15,713 (7.9% of Des Moines’ total pop.)
Nations of birth: 71 different countries!

Here are the top fifteen nations of birth for Des Moines’ foreign-born population. To help you see some significance in this list, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

Mexico: 8,164
Vietnam: 1,865
Laos: 1,480
Bosnia and Herzegovina: 1,023
El Salvador: 934
Sudan: 934
Liberia: 735
Thailand: 711
Burma (Myanmar): 622
Guatemala: 527
Iraq: 462
India: 427
Korea: 313
Canada: 293
Germany: 281

(Yes, you could reach nearly 300 Canadians right here in Des Moines, without needing to head north to the border and the nearest dog sled!)

It’s hard for me to imagine, but apparently 32,658 Des Moines residents speak a language other than English at home. And 17,225 of those speak English “less than very well.” All that is right here in Des Moines, Iowa—in one of the least diverse states in the nation!

I say it’s time to make Des Moines a little more diverse. Maybe it’s time some Anabaptists move there and help love the world for Christ.

And what about Toronto? Here I’d like to challenge my Ontario Anabaptist friends. What would it look like for the conservative Anabaptists of Ontario to put aside some of their differences and band together with a vision for the Toronto harvest field?

The opportunities in Toronto are immense! Here’s the big picture, from a good little article called “Understanding Toronto”:

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth largest city, with a population of 2.8 million people (5.5 million in the Greater Toronto Area, commonly called the GTA). It’s a center for business, finance, and education. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in the world… It’s one of the largest cities in North America, and it’s one of the least churched. (bold added)

Just how multicultural is Toronto? Well, 47.9% of its population is foreign-born! Nearly half! And growing! In hard numbers, that’s about 2,642,910 immigrants in the GTA.

(By comparison, over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born—totaling 3.07 million immigrants, more than any other city in the world. On a national level, 20.6% of the Canadian population is foreign-born—the highest percentage among all G8 countries—as are 12.9% of those living in the United States.)

Here is an interactive map where you can learn more:

Where do these Toronto immigrants come from—and visit on return trips, carrying the ideas they’ve found in Canada? Here are the top birth nations (data from Statistics Canada). Again, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

India: 279,425
China
: 237,025
Philippines: 185,085
United Kingdom: 116,655
Italy: 116,240
Sri Lanka: 105,565
Pakistan: 99,295
Hong Kong: 99,285
Jamaica: 97,660
Portugal: 73,740
Guyana: 72,090
Poland: 64,095
Iran: 60,785
Vietnam: 60,555
United States: 55,630
South Korea: 48,785
Trinidad and Tobago: 46,915
Russian Federation: 35,200
Ukraine: 31,795
Greece: 31,185
Germany: 27,635
Bangladesh: 25,560
Romania: 24,515
Iraq: 22,145
Afghanistan: 21,185

All told, there are over half a million people living in Toronto who come from countries where you may have to risk extreme or severe persecution to reach their families overseas! And the religious needs are immense. For example, Toronto has Canada’s largest population of Muslims, at just over 424,900. Equally significantly, more than 1,165,000 Torontonians claim no religious affiliation at all. Ontario Anabaptists, will you rise to the challenge?

What about your own city? To find immigrant data for your nearest city, visit City-Data.com or Statistics Canada. And remember, behind every data point is a person who needs Christ.

The city needs you, so you should care about the city. And, who knows? Perhaps you will conclude that the city is the most strategic place for you to serve God!


Come back here soon for one more reason why you should care about the city. And, as always, I welcome your responses in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Allen Roth, “What About Neighbors Who Aren’t ‘Needy’?” The Alliance Newsletter (Vol. 16, No. 6), Nov./Dec. 2013, p. 1.
  2. Compiled by Destinations International, shared with me by Ian Miller.

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In the Presence of Older Theologians

On Monday and Tuesday this week I had the pleasure of sitting for hours on end discussing theology with men older and wiser than me. It wouldn’t be right to say that I felt like the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple. But I do admit that I identify with Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, singing about what he would do “if I were a rich man“:

If I were rich, I’d have the time that I lack
To sit in the synagogue and pray.
And maybe have a seat by the Eastern wall.
And I’d discuss the holy books with the learned men, several hours every day.
That would be the sweetest thing of all.

How did I achieve such sweetness? About a dozen of us were gathered for an annual event called the Forum for Doctrinal Studies. Each year one member of this group prepares a theological paper, which we then read and discuss for about a day and a half.

Faith Builders kindly hosts the event, but is unaffiliated. FDS is a basically autonomous child of the Fellowship of Concerned Mennonites, and there is some overlap in who is involved. At this point I’m tempted to honor the men who attended this year by naming them, but I know they are not seeking any such recognition. Instead, I’ll briefly describe them.

What are some things about these men that blessed me? Here are a few:

  • It was refreshing to hear these men interact respectfully. There are certainly differences of understanding among these men (and I add to the diversity). But I rejoice to report that the conversations were full of humility and grace.
  • It was also evident that these men have pastoral and worshipful hearts.  They care about hurting people. They are aware of the glory of God. Theology is no mere academic exercise for these men.
  • Yet they are also men who believe that ideas matter, and that it isn’t a waste of time to have lengthy discussion about matters like what does or doesn’t get imputed in justification or the spiritual state of children.
  • What Scripture says is important to these men. To be honest, the one who quoted Scripture most often and helpfully was possibly a man who was the only non-Anabaptist in the group. (He was there by special invitation of Milo Zehr, who was presenting this year.) So we will always have room for growth. But it was good to have Steven Brubaker (that is, not me!) be the one to note aloud when Scriptural reflection hit a slump at one point. And it was especially encouraging to see how Milo has been wrestling deeply and systematically with the text of Romans for years, wrestling and writing for the sake of the church.

I could reflect more, but since it isn’t the aim of this group to make a big public splash, I’ll stop. May more such groups and discussions multiply within our Anabaptist churches. May older men and women take time to examine Scripture and discuss theology together, and may they invite those younger to join them!

A Little Exercise for Young Theologians [LITTLE EXERCISE FOR YOUNG THEO] Buy on Amazon Speaking of those younger, my friend Kendall Myers loaned me a fine old book last week: A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, by Helmut Thielicke. Here are some quotes that resonate with me as I reflect on the experience I described above. First, some thoughts about “the study of dogmatics [systematic theology] with prayer”:

The man who studies theology, and especially he who studies dogmatics, might watch carefully whether he increasingly does not think in the third rather than in the second person. You know what I mean by that. This transition from one to the other level of thought, from a personal relationship with God to a merely technical reference, usually is exactly synchronized with the moment that I can no longer read the word of Holy Scripture as a word to me, but only as the object of exegetical endeavors.

…A theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God.

Essentially, theological method is characterized by the fact that it takes into account that God has spoken, and that now what God has spoken is to be understood and answered. But it can only be understood when I

   (1) recognize that what has been said is directed to me, and

   (2) become involved in formulating a reply. Only out of this dialogue is the theological method comprehensible (Galatians 4:9). Consider that the first time someone spoke of God in the third person and therefore no longer with God but about God was that very moment when the question resounded, “Did God really say?” (cf. Genesis 3:1). This fact ought to make us think.

In contrast with this, the crucified Jesus, out of the uttermost darkness of abandonment by God, does not speak to men, does not complain about this God who has abandoned him. He speaks to Him at this very moment—in the second person. He addresses Him as My God and even expresses His complaint in a word of God, so that as it were the circuit between Him and the Father is complete. This observation, too, should make us think. (pp. 33-35)

Indeed. And here is another passage that made me think, given my youthful age (aka 40, aka too-old-to-be-trusted-by-teenagers and too-young-to-be-trusted-by-seniors):

It is far from my purpose simply to accuse the theological student or to caricature him…

We are dealing with the quite natural phenomena of growth…

A twenty-year-old is taught, say, to think about the problems of the Trinity. Over these, down through the centuries, the most bitter battles have been fought with life at stake. To these problems the great leaders have bent mighty spiritual energies and behind them lie quite definite spiritual experiences. You can see that the young theologian has by no means yet grown up to these doctrines in his own spiritual development, even if he understands intellectually rather well the logic of the system—that is, its crust of what once was spiritual, and the legitimate and logical course, so to speak, of its developments in the history of doctrine.

Therefore it is evident how and where, given such a state of affairs, serious crises must arise. There is a hiatus between the arena of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena. So to speak, he has been fitted, like a country boy, with breeches that are too big, into which he must still grow up in the same way that one who is to be confirmed must also still grow into the long trousers of the Catechism. Meanwhile, they hang loosely around his body, and this ludicrous sight of course is not beautiful…

In his book on Goethe, Gundolf speaks, in reference to such cases, of a merely conceptual experience. Some truth or other has not been “passed through” as a primary experience, but has been replaced by “perception” of the literary or intellectual deposit of what another’s primary experience, say Luther’s, has discovered. Thus one lives at second hand.

But because this kind of perception of another’s religiosity or spirituality can be extremely lively and even passionate, it is easy to lapse into auto-suggestion, as if a person had experienced and passed through all that himself. He lapses into an illegitimate identification with the other. It is possible to be thoroughly bewitched by the mighty thoughts of the young Luther and then to lapse into the illusion that what is “understood” in this way and makes such an impression is genuine faith. In reality, it is only a case of perception and of being victimized by the seduction of conceptual experience. In his own life, in his own faith, the young man is not that far along! Young theologians manifest certain trumped-up intellectual efforts which actually amount to nothing.

Speaking figuratively, the study of theology often produces overgrown youths whose internal organs have not correspondingly developed. This is characteristic of adolescence. There is actually something like theological puberty…

It is a mistake for anyone who is just in this stage to appear before a church as a teacher. He has outgrown the naivété with which in young people’s work he might by all means have taken this part. he has not yet come to that maturity which would permit him to absorb into his own life and reproduce out of the freshness of his own personal faith the things which he imagines intellectually and which are accessible to him through reflection. We must have patience here and be able to wait. For the reasons I have mentioned I do not tolerate sermons by first-semester young theological students swaddled in their gowns. One ought to be able to keep still. During the period when the voice is changing we do not sing, and during this formative period in the life of the theological student he does not preach. (pp. 9-12)

These observations, too, should make us think.

And with that sobering thought I’ll make a rather untimely turn to a final announcement: I have been invited to share my long-promised essay on ordinances to the Forum for Doctrinal Studies. This may happen in either 2016 or 2017.

But—cheers for those who have been patiently waiting—I have the blessing of the FDS men to post it here before that time. So my tentative plans are to post the majority of the essay here much as it now is. Soon. But with the understanding that further revisions are in order and—crucially—minus the difficult final section where I attempt to answer the “so what?” questions about my historical and biblical findings. That is the section where Thielicke’s warnings above are most relevant, and where maturity on the part of this writer is most needed. (And where perhaps my readers here can help shape my thoughts before that FDS meeting?)

I invite you to join me in the study, dialogue, and experience of theology. I also invite your comments below. Thanks for reading!


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“Christian Atheists” – Guest Post by Frank Reed

Hopefully some of you have already read this. Several days ago Frank Reed wrote this piece on his blog, Biblical Brethren Fellowship. I asked him if I could re-post it here, since it connects so well with several of my recent posts, including yesterday’s, which prompted my busiest-yet day on this blog.

Who is Frank Reed? Here’s how he described himself just yesterday on his blog (in another post well worth your time):

I am a committed Anabaptist. I have sought and obtained training in Bible and church history so as to better serve my people and have neglected personal life and business to serve the community. I have served as teacher and administrator in various areas of Mennonite and Brethren education.

I know Frank from his involvement as a teacher at Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute and from listening to several talks he gave at Anabaptist Identity Conferences. We’ve only met briefly a time or two, but Frank has my respect and the respect of others I respect. I know that he loves the Lord and that he loves people (what better reputation could one want?), including the youth he has taught for many years. He also deeply loves the church of Christ—deeply enough to take risks for her good, as you will soon see.

One more thing before I share Frank’s post: I encourage you to subscribe to his blog. You will find Frank a worshipful, insightful, and seasoned voice. Frank has been blogging there since 2012, and I think he just might be entering his best blogging season. This winter his life was nearly taken in an auto accident, and now Frank is speaking with new urgency. Listen, pray, and act.


Christian Atheists
(by Frank Reed)

What is Anabaptism when it is not cloaked in Mennonite or Amish or Hutterite or Brethren cultural dress? In other Words, What if we could separate our current cultures from the earliest Biblical/Anabaptist concepts? What would our churches look like then? Would there be enough Biblical content in our cultures to continue to exist as churches?

That is a legitimate and important question. That is the question that many people (especially youth) are asking. That is the question that most church groups are not answering.

Most church groups are insisting on their view of Anabaptism or Pietism while ignoring their Biblical heritage – ignoring it to the extent of marginalizing those who deviate from their specific definitions.

So, whether it is the church rules or the minute book or the denomination or anything else, groups are insisting on their specifics and labeling others as disrespectful of authority. This is essentially idolatry. We have come so far from our Biblical heritage that we now have adopted our own version of culture as god.

This has resulted in a long-term selection process. Compliants are retained while leaders are eliminated. Group maintenance is the primary objective. The group has become god and when you challenge god you are an atheist.

Christians in Rome were called Atheists. Atheists? How could Christians be atheists? All you have to do to become an atheist is to deny god. The Christians denied the god(s) of the Romans and so Rome would not tolerate the Christians.

If you do not do obeisance to the denominational gods of today, you will not be tolerated. I know.

The only choice we have is to change our gods. There is only one God and He will not tolerate rivals.

For the sake of the next generations, I beg of you, we are running out of time to change our gods…

The Bible says:
I am the LORD,
That is My name;
And My glory I will not give to another,
Nor My praise to graven images.
Isaiah 42:8

What about you? Is your heart right with God or are you dependent on a cultural system? It is possible to worship idols with a clear conscience. Many people in this world do exactly that.

Examine the Word of God and hear what He says to you through the Holy Spirit. Only then can you be sure that you are a Christian who rejects the gods of this world for the one true God who will tolerate no rivals – not even good cultural rivals.


Frank doesn’t have a comments section on his blog, but you can find his email there if you want to message him privately. He might enjoy hearing from you, but I think he’d be most honored if you simply stop right now and open your heart honestly to the Lord about whatever you’re thinking after reading Frank’s words.

Ask for renewal in your heart and mine. Ask for a deeper work of the Spirit of Christ within our churches.

Also feel free to comment here if you wish. Thanks for reading!

For Christ and his Church,
Dwight


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