Written by Kyuboem Lee
Friday, 19 July 2013 00:00
Often, I find myself preaching to the choir with regard to urban mission--these folks don’t need convincing that urban mission is an important and urgent agenda item for the Church and we need to do all we can to learn about urban mission if the Church is to be faithful to God’s mission.
But others will need more convincing. “I won’t be moving into the city to live and minister there; my role is a pastor in a suburban church or a small town context. Why should I care about urban mission? My plate is overflowing as it is.” I will try to speak to them through this series of blog posts. If you are the choir, perhaps you will be find these posts useful as points of apologetics for urban mission. (You can find the first post here, and the second post here.)
Micah’s well-known charge that sums up the duty of the faithful lists three commands: “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) This charge corresponds to the two greatest commands--to love God and to love neighbor. Loving neighbor, then, is not mere sentimentality nor random acts of kindness. Rather, love for neighbor specifically translates to the doing of justice and the practicing of mercy. In other words, justice and mercy is essential to Christian discipleship, not peripheral.
Urban mission has traditionally led the way for the Church in the area of justice and mercy. We can think of William Booth and his Salvation Army, which found its reason for being in the great social needs and sufferings found in the British cities during the Industrial Revolution. We can think of John Calvin’s ministry in the city of Geneva to lead relief efforts for the masses of wartime refugees and Thomas Chalmer’s leadership of diaconal ministry in the city of Glasgow. We can think of Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta and John Perkins in Mendenhall and Jackson, Mississippi. We could go on. The point is, ministry in the city has often pioneered justice and mercy efforts to love neighbor in tangible and strategic ways, and the field of urban mission has therefore much to teach the Church in this regard.
There is much to say as a follow-up, but for the sake of this post, I will briefly mention three thoughts:
One, the density of the city brings God’s people into much closer and more direct contact with human suffering and structures of injustice. Pastors in suburban and exurban communities regularly express how people who are struggling with poverty and lack of basic needs are often very hard to find in their communities. This does not mean poverty does not exist in the suburbs; it is however often invisible there to those in more privileged circumstances.
This closer contact with communities of need is a necessity for Christian spirituality. It keeps the faith real. These urban communities are where the Church needs to be at, not primarily for the sake of those the Church is serving but for the Church’s own spiritual vitality. Mercy and justice need to be an ongoing Christian practice, not merely something you do elsewhere during a mission trip. Remember, to do justice and to love mercy is not optional or an add-on to Christian discipleship; these are a daily lived reality in the kingdom of God.
Two, there is a surging interest in and activism surrounding social justice among young evangelicals, as evidenced at the recent Justice Conference. This is a welcome development in many ways; however, are the young activists drawing from and building on the experience and theology of older saints who have spent much time practicing and reflecting on justice? Sadly, the answer is often no. Evangelical churches who purport to be committed to the authority of Scripture have often withdrawn from the arenas of social justice. Without a thoroughgoing Christian tradition and theology of justice readily on hand, younger evangelicals may turn to what is more familiar in our culture--humanistic traditions of social justice that is devoid of a God-centered soul. This situation presents a challenge and an opportunity for Christian leaders to disciple a new generation in the faith; however, are they up to the task? Learning from urban mission’s rich trove of practical experience and theological reflection on justice and mercy, it seems to me, is a priority for everyone concerned about Christian discipleship in the 21st century.
Three, cities are where the cultural structures of economic, religious, and political institutions and networks are concentrated. These structures, or “powers,” can do much to foster a just and righteous society. But they are fallen, just as each individual human person is. Therefore they perpetuate grave injustices that rob the human community of life as God had intended for it. The field of urban mission is concerned with how the Church may engage these urban structures or powers for the sake of faithful witness to the coming kingdom of righteousness ruled by the just King. The question of how the Church ought to be salt and light in this urban world--how it will realize its world-formative vocation--is a vital and urgent one.
The call to do justice and love mercy requires a faithful theological reflection and thoughtful practice. The field of urban mission is an invaluable resource for the Church today.
(This is probably a good place for a commercial: I will be teaching an online course, “Justice & Mercy,” in the fall term. If you are interested in taking the class, please contact us. We will be exploring above themes and much more.)
Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as a lecturer of Urban Mission at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission (http://jofum.com).