By Gary L. Johnson
The very first church was in the heart of a world capital. Thousands of people were part of “First Christian Church—Jerusalem.” In every sense of the word, FCC—Jerusalem was an urban church. Members worked and lived in close quarters, on streets teeming with thousands of people who were not fellow believers in Jesus Christ. These first-century believers were strong salt and bright light to their family members, neighbors, coworkers, and friends who had rejected Jesus.
Some things never change. Many of us live in cities teeming with people who are far from God. The churches we attend are situated beside businesses, high-rises, sports arenas, concert venues, and more. These churches face all the dire sociological challenges that take up so much of the news cycle: poverty, crime, homelessness, and others. Urban churches face leadership challenges for which many of us who graduated from Bible colleges and seminaries were never prepared.
How then can we be strong salt and bright light to people who continually reject Jesus Christ? Elder teams must “play to win” against the opposing darkness on the playing field of an urban setting. Here are three game-winning plays for elders in such a demanding environment.
Play 1: Compassion without Compromise
Urban churches see and deal with the raw pains of life in inner cities. Christians walk and work beside people who struggle. These myriad problems are amplified by life in close quarters. The church must deal compassionately with these people, just as Jesus did.
In John 8, Jesus did not shy away from the fact a woman was caught in adultery, but he showed compassion—and told her to leave her life of sin. He showed compassion without compromising God’s truth. He came “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Paul reminds us that kindness leads to repentance (Romans 2:4). Urban settings are fertile ground to experience firsthand that “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Elders, we must lead by example, as we follow Christ’s example (1 Corinthians 11:1), practicing compassion without compromise.
Play 2: Courage in the Face of Threat
Just as cities try to light up dark streets, elders in urban churches must make a great effort to be a bright light in the midst of pervasive spiritual darkness. Again, urban settings amplify the depth of this darkness, and it will challenge elders to model ever-increasing courage in the face of it.
God commanded Joshua three times to be strong and courageous in leading his people into the Promised Land (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9); even the congregation of God’s people encouraged Joshua with the same (Joshua 1:18). God, who never changes (Malachi 3:6), commands elders to lead in the same spirit of courage (2 Timothy 1:7).
Urban churches are often in settings where political correctness abounds, yet biblical correctness must abound more. Even within the church, believers may want to “play it safe” and not take the hope of Jesus to the streets. When this thinking prevails, elders must courageously keep the urban church mission-driven, not member-driven.
Play 3: Creativity rather than Routine
Like it or not, many churches are stuck in a rut. Rather than studying and responding to the demographics of their community, a church often defaults to doing the same things in the same ways, only to reap the same—or diminishing—results.
When faced with the raw reality of inner-city life, elders must push one another and their ministry teams to lead with creativity. Doing life in dense population centers affords us opportunities to creatively reach people who are far from God.
Most people do not have the “creative” gene. It is easy to fall into routine, tradition, even complacency. People within the church may have a “can’t-won’t-don’t” mentality. When congregants are of the mind-set that they cannot be creative because they do not have monetary or volunteer resources, they will not step out and pursue innovative ministries.
Just as God gave creative ability to Bezalel and Oholiab to build the tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-6), God can do the same in church leadership. Elders create the ministry environment in which the ministry teams have ample permission to innovate and take Jesus to their streets.
Some things never change. In the face of growing urbanization, urban ministry is nothing new. Just as coaches want their team to take the field and win against their opponent, elders must lead their team to victory against an opponent (Ephesians 6:12).
Using these three plays, we have ever greater hope of being strong salt and bright light on the crowded streets of our cities. We cannot do this in our own strength, but only by the strength that is in us, for “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
Dr. Gary Johnson serves as an elder/senior minister at Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek) in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is a cofounder of e2: effective elders. Gary offers resources and coaching as he works with elders to lead with greater focus and confidence.