Just over a week ago I had, from the forecastle of one of the Venetian bus-boats, a marvelous view of the palaces and other buildings that face the canals. As I looked around I wondered (as a church professional tends to do) how one can, for heaven’s sake, bring the gospel to the inhabitants of such a city—let alone to the hordes of tourist from all over the world. This thought often occurs to me when I visit a large city and see the masses of humanity, in all their diversity, and the enormous housing estates and constant streams of traffic. How can we as Christians, under these circumstances, do what we have been told to do?
This thought re-emerged this morning, when, under a large umbrella, I took an hour’s walk through the small town where I live, in order to maintain a degree of physical fitness. As I walked, I realized that today the annual meetings of the global executive committee of the Adventist Church begin in the American city of Silver Spring (near Washington, DC). One of the items on the agenda is the stagnation of the growth of the church in the mega-cities of the world. The delegates will discuss a document that has been debated during a special five-day conference that preceded this Annual Council and that has just been finalized. Through the various media I have tried to stay informed about the discussions during this conference on A Global Strategy for Urban Mission. I was not there, and I may be wrong, but what I have concluded from what I have read does not sound very exciting. In fact, the collective reaction seems to be: ‘We really do not know what to do.’ On the one hand, it would seem that many want to stick to traditional methods, hoping that doing more of the same will eventually produce a more satisfactory result. On the other hand, much was said about ‘working in small groups’, church plants’, ‘centers of influence,’ etcetera. It could not find anything that sounds really new. But, before I have a final judgments, I should wait until I have seen the text of the document and read the reports of what is said during the Annual Council. Maybe, I will yet be surprised!
Nonetheless, in the meantime, I have an opinion. The grand majority of those who took part in the recent discussion on the topic of urban mission, and who will be talking about it in the coming week, know preciously little about cities. Most of them avoid the city as much as they can and do not really know what city-life is like. They have never really met most of the population segments of the city. They worry about the spiritual state of the cities, but accepting an invitation to spend a few weeks giving presentations about a religious topic is not the same as getting involved in urban mission. Usually they talk to people who are already in contact with their denomination and do not touch the target audiences that are in most urgent need of the gospel message.
A substantial ‘urban mission’ can only get off the ground when a significant number of (Adventist) Christians are willing to work and live in the city, between the people that they feel must be reached with the gospel message. Their house must be open for these people. They must also be prepared to send their children to an ethnically mixed school in their neighborhood. They must be willing to invest in volunteer work, and in activities in their neighborhood, in clubs and associations. They must know (and speak), or at least accept, the language of the people they seek to reach and would do well to visit the local pub on a regular basis. Of course, they must be trained and be coached by their church. This is, I believe, the only approach that, in the long term, can have success.
But I wonder how many of those who keep talking about the importance of ‘urban mission’ are prepared to do anything like this. And, let me be honest: I also prefer to remain in the tranquility of Zeewolde and will not volunteer to move to the center of Amsterdam for more than a day. Yes, perhaps I might feel tempted, if I were offered a nice apartment along one of the canals of Amsterdam. But I would like to have a spacious apartment with a lot of privacy, that is safe and has every comfort (preferably with my own parking place). I realize, this is not exactly the starting position for a successful contribution to ‘urban mission,’ as I described in the previous paragraph. But that is, I think, the only viable approach that will ‘work’ when we try to reach the people in the city . . .