Understanding and compassion: A recipe for urban mission
A world-famous classical violinist, Joshua Bell, stood outside L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington DC, holding his $3.5 million Stradivarius. It was morning rush hour on a cold winter day in 2007. Three days earlier, Bell had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall, where “pretty good seats” cost $100 each. That morning in the DC metro, Bell began playing the technically demanding “Chaconne” from J. S. Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D Minor. For the next 43 minutes he performed six majestic classical pieces. During the entire time, 7 people stopped to listen for at least a minute, while another 1,090 walked by. Some tossed loose change into his violin case, and 27 people gave money, for a total of $32.17, to a musical genius who can earn $1,000.00 a minute. Bell later joked that $40.00 an hour was not so bad.
“I could make an OK living doing this,” he said with a laugh, “and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent.” But he did admit, too, “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . . ignoring me.”1
For Seventh-day Adventists, playing the “old, old melody” in urban areas can feel like busking to deaf ears in a metro station. Centuries ago the Jewish exiles in Babylon asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137:4, KJV). Today we ask, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in the cities?” The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a strong rural heritage and focus. Many church members feel most comfortable in the countryside, and the cities, in many ways, remain a strange land. We know that the melody of the old, old story is the most magnificent, life-changing music in the universe, but how do we play it in such a way as to connect with city dwellers? We try playing louder, softer, with different instruments, with greater virtuosity, but urban dwellers still, for the most part, rush past, tuned to their agendas.
Look, listen, and learn
In early 2016, Hillsong Church, a large Pentecostal church based in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, with campuses around the world, announced plans to plant another church, this one in San Francisco, California. Ben Houston, son of Hillsong Church founders and senior pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston, would lead the initiative. Nate Lee, a blogger in San Francisco, responded online with a piece titled “Hillsong Church: Do Not Colonize San Francisco.” In his response, Lee expressed disgust at pastors who come to the city, post iconic pictures, and say how much they love the city and claim “God is going to do amazing things here in San Francisco,” without taking the time to understand it. They do not spend any time trying to understand the city, argues Lee, and they come with their prepackaged agenda.
Pointing to ethnic churches that have been operating in San Francisco for decades, Lee said that Hillsong’s language, which suggests God’s work will start with their arrival, “is indicative not only of terrible theology, but of white Christian exceptionalism, the oppressive belief that the correct kind of salvation and healing can be facilitated only through us, on our terms with our methods.” Lee went on to say that it’s this type of attitude that “destroys and undoes the faithful Gospel work” that is already happening in the city. He concluded, “Wake up, Ben Houston—the plan started without you a long time ago, so guess what? You aren’t special. This city doesn’t need you.”2
Although Lee has Hillsong in his crosshairs, the Seventh-day Adventist Church could, perhaps, be subject to a similar critique. At times we have focused so strongly on evangelistic programs that we have not taken the time to understand the context in which they take place. Instead, we have conducted short-term sorties into the city to try to persuade people to become Seventh-day Adventists while we have often neglected social care or community development.
But evangelism does not occur in an isolated bubble; it occurs in tangible social contexts and communities that have their own histories and cultures. As educator Paulo Freire wrote nearly 50 years ago, “I imagine one of the prime purposes that we Christians ought to have . . . is to get rid of any illusory dream of trying to change man [sic] without touching the world he lives in.”3 Bidding people to follow Jesus is one component of a wholistic ministry that also includes mixing with people, showing sympathy, ministering to their needs, and winning their confidence.4 In our experience with Global Mission urban centers of influence and urban church planting projects, we have discovered that this kind of impact does not happen overnight. It takes time. It takes commitment. It means making sure the gospel melody touches people’s lives, not just their ears.
Lee may overstate his case, but he raises several legitimate concerns about urban mission. It is vital to consult with, listen to, and learn from those already living in the city and those who are engaged in the city, whether secular or religious organizations. Any authentic new Christian mission in a city cannot be conceived at a distance, planned in some remote denominational board-room, or voted by some isolated church committee. It must either spring from or be shaped by the existing urban community. It must be approached with a spirit of humility. This spirit of humility will prevent any attempt to bring an outside, prepackaged product to the urban community. An attitude of humility will lead to taking the time to listen to the community itself—residents, leaders, and social organizations.
When the apostle Paul ministered in Athens, he first walked through the city and looked at the sights, particularly the Athenians’ objects of worship. In fact, we are told that he “looked carefully” (Acts 17:23, NIV). At one level, like any tourist, he was probably interested in seeing the pinnacle of Greek culture on display in the center of Greek civilization. But more importantly, he was seeking to better understand the environment. One object of worship, the statue to the unknown god, particularly caught his attention. He then used it as the foundation for his later presentation in the Areopagus on Mars Hill. In that speech, the statue in honor of the unknown god became his connecting link from Greek culture to the One True God.
Like Paul, we also need to take time in our cities to look, listen, and learn. We need to walk through city streets, rub shoulders in supermarket aisles, and participate in community events. We need to study local newspapers and websites. Look at community noticeboards. Make conversation at bus stops. Discover what people are doing with their time. What might be causing our urban neighbors distress and pain? What is bringing them joy? What are they “worshiping”? They may not be formally religious, but everybody worships something.
Compassion in the community
In 2010, leaders in the Central Seventh-day Adventist Church planted a church in the historic district of down-town Mexico City, one of the world’s largest cities. They rented a facility to function as a worship center and a place where needy people in the community could find spiritual and physical care. A few years later, they became convicted to do more. They purchased the facility and then became more intentional in seeking to understand their community. They surveyed the territory around the center, prayed, and studied. They wanted to make sure that their ministry was appropriate and relevant to their community. As a result of looking, listening, and learning, they decided to focus on four demographic groups near the center: sex workers, homeless children, criminals, and indigent adults. Today this ministry is flourishing, embedded in the community, and ministering to real needs in that community.5
When two young pioneers, Maeli and Shouling, moved to a city in Eastern China to plant a new group of believers, they started by visiting homes in the neighborhood. As they went from door to door, they were surprised to find that many of the houses had teenage girls living alone. They were part of the so-called “left-behind children”—children left at home to basically fend for themselves while their parents moved to other areas seeking employment. Naturally such arrangements left these girls vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. As Maeli and Shouling talked with these girls, their vision sharpened and the focus for their ministry became clear. They began to provide practical care for the girls, helping wash clothes and cook their meals. They invited them to their own home, where they sang songs and shared Bible stories.
Soon they were holding prayer times after the girls finished their homework. They also built connections with their parents when they came home to visit. Every week these two young women give an average of 15 Bible studies. If you had asked Maeli and Shouling what their outreach plan was for the new city, they probably would have told you something like, “We’ll visit homes and share literature.” But as they “looked carefully,” studied the situation, and began to understand the community better, they adapted their ministry to the needs.6
No strings attached
Jesus’ no-strings-attached compassion was constantly displayed as He traveled through villages and towns healing people and telling them the good news of how they could be part of His kingdom. When Matthew writes that Jesus had compassion for the crowds, he uses the Greek word splagchnizomai, which does not describe some superficial feeling, a mere metaphorical nod toward caring (Matt. 9:36). It denotes almost a physical reaction, a feeling deep within one’s body. Amanda Miller says this Greek word literally means “moved in the guts,”7 and Daniël Louw refers to it as “a theology of the intestines.”8
The theme of compassion dominates the story of Jonah, whom God called on an urban mission to Nineveh. Ironically, the pagan sailors in the story show more compassion for the Jewish prophet than he shows for pagan Nineveh (Jonah 1:12–14). In a further ironic twist, Jonah gets more upset about the death of a plant that has been sheltering him from the sun than he does about the prospective death of thousands of people in the city (Jonah 4:7–10).
The culmination and most important part of the story is the final verse of the book, where God asks Jonah a rhetorical question: “ ‘And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city?’ ” (v. 11, NRSV). The Hebrew word translated here as “concerned,” achus, is also translated as “compassion” and “pity.” It is used to full ironic force because a few verses earlier Jonah had felt achus for the plant that died. And so here, in verse 11, the translation should probably be, “Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, that great city?” God’s capacity for compassion is so great that it bewilders and threatens one of His prophets (Jonah 4:1–3).
Compassion was a notable attribute in the lives of early Christians, most of whom lived in urban areas. Susan Wessel traces the origins of demonstrating compassion, in the sense of truly feeling for someone else’s suffering, to the early Christians.9 Sociologist Rodney Stark describes how compassionate ministry fueled the growth of the early church: “Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world.”10 He adds that Christianity’s doctrines “prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.”11
During times of plague and sickness, pagan priests fled the cities while Christians remained to help the sick and suffering. In an oft-quoted statement, Tertullian said: “ ‘It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. “Only look,” they say, “look how they love one another!” ’ (Apology 39, 1989 ed.)”12 Emperor Julian wrote: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”13
A new paradigm
The compassion of Jesus must be at the heart of meaningful urban mission. This fact means that attention and priorities should be refocused and realigned not only in terms of geography, toward the cities, but also in terms of motivation. Historically, for example, Seventh-day Adventist “success” in mission endeavors has largely been measured in terms of numbers of baptisms and membership accessions. These numbers are regularly celebrated in official church reports and front-cover news stories in church magazines.
A compassion-driven mission will also measure success in terms of no-strings-attached faithfulness, integrity, and compassion. The cities should be seen not as mission projects but as places full of people we should view with compassion, as Jesus did. As the story of Jonah reminds us, the church’s concern must extend past its own community of faith to others from different worldviews, cultures, beliefs, and geographical locations, including the city.
As the Adventist Church moves forward into the twenty-first century, we must follow the example of Jesus’ compassion-driven ministry in our urban mission. His example demonstrates that urban ministry cannot be done from some separated religious enclave or on a short-term basis with only passing contact. It involves rubbing shoulders, touching hands, looking into eyes with compassion (Matt. 9:36). It is not just telling people about the truth of God’s Word, but demonstrating the truth of that Word.
Parks will be cleaner, children better educated, the hungry better fed, the poor less exploited, the elderly less lonely, and spiritual seekers fulfilled because Christians who understand the city are demonstrating Jesus’ compassion in the city. This is the melody that will find its way past the ears of urban dwellers—and into their hearts.
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1 For the full story, see Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can One of the Nation’s Great Musicians Cut Through the Fog of a D.C. Rush Hour? Let’s Find Out,” Washington Post Magazine, Apr. 8, 2007.
2 “You will come and sit at the feet of Black, Latino, and Asian American elders. You will not say a word. You will do this for years, until those elders say you’re ready.” Nate Lee, “Hillsong Church: Do Not Colonize San Francisco,” natejlee.com (blog), Mar. 1, 2016, natejlee.com/hillsong-church-do-not-colonize-san-francisco.
3 James D. Kirylo and Boyd Drick, Paulo Freire: His Faith, Spirituality, and Theology (Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2017), 83.
4 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942), 143.
5 Bettina Krause, ed., It’s Time: Voices From the Front Lines of Urban Mission (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2015), 90, 91.
6 Krause, It’s Time, 87, 88.
7 Amanda C. Miller, “Good Sinners and Exemplary Heretics: The Sociopolitical Implications of Love and Acceptance in the Gospel of Luke,” Review and Expositor 112, no. 3 (Aug. 2015): 465.
8 Daniël Louw, “Compassion Fatigue: Spiritual Exhaustion and the Cost of Caring in the Pastoral Ministry. Towards a ‘Pastoral Diagnosis’ in Caregiving” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 71, no. 2 (Oct. 2015): 8, doi.org/10.4102/hts.v71i2.3032.
9 Susan Wessel, Passion and Compassion in Early Christianity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 1, 2, 24.
10 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 161.
11 Stark, Rise of Christianity, 211.
12 Stark, Rise of Christianity, 87.
13 Stark, Rise of Christianity, 84.