21 August, 2014 Ralph Cunnington
Tim Keller has done much in recent years to highlight the strategic importance of reaching the cities of our world with the Gospel. He’s not, of course, the first to trumpet the importance of the cities (a point which he readily acknowledges) and in this short blog post I want to highlight some important insights that can be gleaned from an Anglican missionary, Roland Allen (1868-1947).
In chapter 2 of his best-known work, Missionary Methods: St Paul’s or Ours? (1912), Allen addresses the importance of strategic points for the apostle Paul in his missionary journeys. He notes that Paul dealt in the unit of the province rather than the city, but argues that he targeted cities as part of a larger strategy to reach the region as a whole through a city-based hub. Moreover, in deciding which cities to visit, Paul was deliberate; he made decisions based upon the relative strategic importance of provinces within the Roman administration. This explains why he went straight from Cilicia to Lystra without stopping off in Lycaonia Antiochi – a less important province that lay in between the two.
The strategic importance of cities
Paul was strategic, Allen writes. He made the most of the privileges he enjoyed as a Roman citizen in the centres of Roman administration which he visited and he used the global influence of Rome to aid the spread of the Gospel. Moreover, by planting churches in centres of Greek civilisation, he tapped into the benefits of a common language and a desire for learning that were not present elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, by targeting centres of world commerce, Paul was able to preach the Gospel in the “great marts where the material and intellectual wealth of the world was exchanged”. These were centres of influence which exerted that influence well beyond the boundaries of their own city walls or provincial lines.
The cities of Paul’s day were much like the cities of our own. They presented unique cultural, social, intellectual, political, linguistic and geographical advantages that aided the rapid spread of the Gospel. They were strategic for reaching new communities and the new generations because it is was in the cities that these groups settled. Indeed, so significant were these advantages for the spread of the Gospel that Paul was able to say that he had ministered the Gospel to a whole region (Romans 15:19), having occupied only two or three centres. As Keller, John Stott, Harvie Conn and others have insisted, targeting strategic centres is both wise and Biblical. It follows the apostolic example.
What makes a city church strategic?
But (and this “but” is really the heart of Allen’s argument in the chapter) simply planting churches into strategic centres is not enough. “Important cities can be made the graves of a mission as easily as villages.” What matters is not the natural advantages of the cities but what we do with those advantages. The cities that Paul visited became strategic centres for mission and evangelism because he made them such. This is a warning that I and other city centre pastors need to heed. To be strategic, to be a church that wins a region for the Gospel, city centre churches must be centres of evangelistic life. They must be training centres but they must be training centres that send out. Allen warns his readers:
“At many strategic points where we have established our concentrated missions it is noticeable that the church rather resembles a prison or a safe or a swamp into which the best life on the country round is collected than a mint or a spring or a railways station from which life flows out into the country round. We are sometimes so enamoured with the strategic beauty of a place that we spend our time fortifying it whilst the opportunity for a great campaign passes by unheeded or neglected.”
The natural advantages of cities will usually mean that centripetal forces are at work drawing people into city centre churches. But in order to be truly strategic, the church must generate centrifugal force. The call of the Great Commission is to “go and make disciples of all nations”.
This means that, to be strategic, a city centre church must be drawing in and training up in order to send people out. This is inevitably costly and it will involve self-sacrifice. No church enjoys having a 20% turnover of members each year. Pastors rarely feel unqualified excitement at the prospect of losing 20 of their best leaders, servants and givers to start up a church plant. But that’s part and parcel of Gospel ministry. It’s what strategic churches are meant to do. Strategic churches are not swamps and prisons that become famous by drawing in and trapping the brightest and the best. They are centres of Christian activity that send out their best with all the relational, financial and practical strains and anxieties that go with that. It is my prayer for City Church Manchester that we and many other like-minded churches will prove to be what Allen describes as “mints, springs and railways stations” from which the glorious good news of the Gospel flow out.