Building a Heavenly City - Part 2: City Life Is In the Neighborhoods

Recently it has become a favorite activity for my wife and I to take friends and go down to San Francisco for a day. Often we park at Ghirardelli Square and then take the cable cars down to Union Square or to Chinatown. I always enjoy riding through the different neighborhoods on the way and seeing the distinctions between them and the commonality even that they share. What never fails to escape me is that there is life in the city. There is activity in the city. But the City as a whole is engaged in lots of different activities. In fact only on a few occasions does the entire city come together to do something. It might be something like a sporting event (a Giants game for instance) or a parade (think Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC) but it isn't often that the entire city is doing everything together. Yet the city is always active, and it is always active in the neighborhoods.

I think far to many churches program "church life" at the city level. We have Sunday services, outreach events, church-wide children's ministries, Bible studies, and on and on I could go listing events or programs that the church plans with the expectation that every member of the body (more or less) will be involved with. What this creates then is a dichotomy where church members must reorganize their life around the city so that the mission of the city can go forward. This creates stress, anxiety, and often a consumer mentality as Christians begin to pick and choose what they will be involved with and how they will serve or not serve within the church. Many times what happens is a Christian gets frustrated with the attempts to balance "personal life" or "family life" with "church life" and the Christian ends up pairing down "church life" to merely Sunday morning services.

Here is where a shift needs to occur. Our churches need to stop programing and practicing everything at the "city" level and begin to allow and assist in the formation of Gospel Communities. We need to devolve down to the level where small communities within the larger church can plan and structure their lives around one another with Gospel intentionality. Instead of always expecting the hired staff of the church to be the primary ones that do the hospital visitation, counseling, discipleship, etc. small communities of believers could do the work of caring for one another, bearing each others burdens, discipleship together.

I'll unpack this more in my next post, but the issue must be of moving the emphasis of the life of the church from the "city" level back to the neighborhoods. As Augustine of Hippo said, "the life of the city is a social life."

Building a Heavenly City - Part 1: The Church As Kingdom, City, Neighborhood

Off and on over the next few weeks I am going to run a series of posts on some thinking I've been doing about how the local church can (and I think should) be more effective at the task of the advance of the Gospel.  My intention is not to spell out a rule book of what the church must do, but to offer a perspective that I think most churches in the West today don't have. Today we start with the framework.

The Church As Kingdom, City, and Neighborhood

Follow me on this line of thought for a bit.  Globally alongside the visible reality of the world and it's nations and kingdoms and kings stands the invisible Kingdom of Christ which is aimed and covering the entire globe as Jesus gathers to Himself a people from every tongue, tribe and nation.  The distinctive reality of the Kingdom is a people who have been freed from their sin by the blood of Christ and have bowed their knee to the reign of Christ in all things.  That's the global reality of the church.  Some theologians call this the "Church invisible." 

Yet within the kingdom there are local, visible outposts of subjects to King Jesus.  They are called local churches.  The function of the local church is to be a City in the Kingdom advancing the Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel.  These cities have a common identity and a common mission: advance the Kingdom.  Furthermore each city is distinct in its various culture and size, yet all Kingdom Cities are to have a common purpose.  Some cities are large, some are small.  That's okay - the matter of importance is that the Kingdom City is making an impact on the local city to advance the Gospel.  

The question then becomes how does the City get built?  I believe that most physical cities were built, and continue to be built around neighborhoods.  For instance if you were to travel to the largest city in my area, San Francisco you would look at it as a large city, but upon spending any amount of time in the city you would see various neighborhoods.  There is Chinatown, The Marina District, Mission Bay, Haight-Ashbury, Nob Hill and others.  Each one of those neighborhoods would say they are part of the city of San Francisco and yet each of those neighborhoods embodies a distinct culture, size, economic quality, and on and on.  Yet they are all San Francisco.  San Francisco as a city grew out of the growth and development of neighborhoods. 

My point is that church growth, and more directly the advance of the Gospel hinges on the growth and establishment of Gospel Communities or "Kingdom Neighborhoods."  Small groups of people living in community together formed by the Gospel for the Gospel.  What is attractive to the lost about our churches is not so much the City aspect of it (although that might play a part) - but it is the neighborhoods within the church that the Mission is advanced.   If we are to reach the real cities of our world, we must begin by planting Kingdom Neighborhoods that can embody the Gospel in life and in word and reach the cultures of their physical location.  

We must stop thinking of evangelism, discipleship and ministry as some sort of individualistic project and start seeing that Gospel Communities must be on mission together, they must disciple and do the work of the ministry together.  They must live intentionally together and embody the Gospel together.  They must live as a neighborhood for the City in the city.