By Brian Kruckenberg
“Do you own this gallery?” (As a pastor of a local church, it wasn’t a question I had ever expected to be asked.)
“Well, sort of. Yes.” (Not the most eloquent answer, perhaps, but an honest one.)
Over the past two and one-half years, I have been asked that question, and similar ones, time and time again in a place we call the New City Studio, one of New City Church’s venues.
New City Studio is the place we intersect the message of the gospel with the world of art. I am pastor of this church, started in January 2011 with the simple goal of reaching our urban Phoenix, Arizona, neighborhood with the message of Christ. Our neighborhood is filled with artists, young professionals, students and professors, and the under-resourced population, similar to most cities’ urban centers.
The Importance of Cities
If you drive through any urban center in our country, you’ll likely find many old churches, or at least the remains of once-proud edifices that served as gathering places of hope for early Americans. Many of these churches have become theaters, offices, condos or, sadly, parking lots. We started New City Church in large part because the church has lost its place in our cities.
In the 1970s and ’80s, churches left decaying and violence-riddled city centers for the promise of a new life in the suburbs. As a result, a void was left in the place where the gospel was needed most. After all, cities are where the arts, politics, business, and education most often find their genesis. Cities set the pace for the rest of the culture and need a Christian voice. Thus, our vision is to see the city renewed and transformed by the gospel.
Knowing the City
Knowing the importance of the city in the cultural landscape, and knowing God’s heart for the city, we started our work in the urban core of Phoenix determined to have a church that reflected both the character of the people and the truth of the gospel. Like many church plants, we started small—we had 12 people meeting in our living room in one of the historic districts that surround downtown Phoenix.
Our early days were spent in coffee shops and restaurants, getting to know and love the people we were called to serve. Inspired by Tim Keller’s expertise in urban church planting, I asked just about everyone I met, “What kind of church do you think Phoenix needs?” It is amazing how you can engage just about anyone with that question.
Loving the City
Not long after moving downtown, I rode my bike—the preferred mode of transportation for urban Phoenicians—by an old house that had recently served as a real estate office. I remember stepping onto the porch of the house and having a conversation with God about the place.
Long story short, we “just happened” to meet the business people who were buying the home, and had an agreement to lease it from them before they even completed the purchase. Now, I’m writing this article from my upstairs office in this repurposed historic house.
On the main floor is New City Studio (www.newcitystudio.org), which is owned and operated by the church. Each month we host hundreds at our studio. We participate monthly in First Friday (artlinkphoenix.com), an art walk sponsored by local arts enthusiasts and organizations. First Friday draws thousands to downtown each month, and New City Studio’s location allows us to join in a city event.
We host local artists—some Christians, some not—and provide some nice food and drink. Doing so has allowed us to have meaningful conversations with many who by their own admission would “never go to church.” It is amazing how God can use art to break down cultural barriers and see the gospel penetrate into a world known for its opposition to our faith.
Creating “intersections” with our city is one of the church’s goals, and another way we do so is by serving her well. We have partnered with many organizations and assisted them in their civic projects.
My favorite project to date was helping serve with some baristas from a local coffee shop at an Earth Day-related event last year. The baristas led the project and created the advertising, and we provided about 30 people to serve alongside them in a neighborhood cleanup project. In doing so, we showed we love God’s creation and care for the city’s most vulnerable areas. We also illustrated that we have common ground with our neighbors, and from this the gospel can be shared.
Our newest endeavor involves engaging local business people to mentor 18- to 35-year-old inner-city residents about business development and entrepreneurship. We hope to partner with a local high school to do tutoring and provide graduating students an option to seek nontraditional training if they are not going to college or have other postgraduation plans. In doing so, we will be serving the widows and orphans in our community and, again, helping people to flourish in the name of Jesus.
The biggest lesson in all of this is knowing the city, understanding what it needs, and coming alongside businesses, schools, and organizations to effectively serve. Doing so is cost-effective, honors what others are doing, and also helps avoid the stereotype that the church is more about pushing its agenda than really loving the city.
A key to doing this is living where you minister and being a recognizable face in the neighborhood. At New City, we like to say we do “inreach,” not “outreach,” because we are a part of the communities we serve.
Sowing and Reaping
The most satisfying thing has been seeing people who were far from God come to know him, be baptized, and become thriving, serving members of our community. God has blessed us in more ways than we can count, and we’ve seen rather remarkable growth for an urban church: from 125 people at our public launch in January 2011, to 550 in weekly attendance as of May 2013. New City people are a true cross section of our community: the urban poor, professionals, young families, artists, students, and professors. God only knows what the future holds for New City, but we believe if we continue to love our city well, God will continue to bless his movement.
Brian Kruckenberg serves as lead pastor with New City Church in Phoenix, Arizona.