Do we need to take Jesus to our urban areas?

Last week, Philip North, suffragan bishop of Burnley, made a typically challenging and provocative claim in an article in the Church Times: ‘We don’t need to bring Jesus to urban estates’. His central argument is that we have failed to engage with our urban areas because too often we have brought a packaged message from the outside as powerful visitors rather than discovering Jesus already there. I think Philip says some important things here—but I also think there are some important mistakes in his claims.

Philip begins by highlighting the challenge that we have in reaching urban areas:

There are, of course, exceptions to disprove the rule, but, generally, the more deprived the area served by a church, the smaller the size of the Sunday congregation. In estates parishes, for example, regular Sunday attendance in 2016 was less than 0.9 per cent of the population, compared with a national figure of 1.7 per cent.

He goes on to comment that ‘Nobody really seems to know the answer to the question’ of why urban churches are so small. I am not sure that is entirely true, as I think we have at least three pointers, relating to both the organisation of the C of E and changes in culture. First, it has been demonstrated that investment in stipendiary ministry leads to growth in congregations. The C of E has far more clergy per head of population in rural areas—and there is proportionately twice the attendance in those areas.

Secondly, changes in culture and particularly in family structures have affected urban areas much more than suburban or rural areas; the wealthy and powerful in the UK have for a long time advocated tolerance and freedom of structures of relationships, whilst largely being immune from those changes or their impact, whilst the collapse of the traditional family has devastated many urban areas. Marriage, it is said, is now primarily a middle- and upper-class pursuit. This has put urban culture at a greater distance from traditional Christian patterns of living, and widened the cultural communication gap between urban life and the church.

Thirdly, there is no doubt that much practice of Christian faith, particularly in the C of E, has accommodated itself to cultural assumptions about consumerism and individualised patterns of living, and that has blunted our ability to bring the gospel to other parts of our culture.

Philip goes on to question the assumptions that we make, observing that ‘Jesus centred his ministry on the poor’ and that ‘a Church run for the most part by relatively wealthy graduates’ is bound to fail in these contexts. I am not sure that these claims are convincing. Reading through Luke’s gospel this year, and commenting on the Sunday lectionary readings, I have been struck not so much by Jesus’ ministry centring on the poor, as Jesus engaging with rich and poor, central and marginal, leaders and ordinary people. To be sure, Luke mentions the poor, marginalised and the ‘sinners’ more emphatically than perhaps the other Synoptic gospels do—but he also mentions the wealthy, the religious and those committed to traditional piety more clearly than others. Luke’s point is that the poor are not excluded from the gospel by being poor (as many thought then, and we appear also to think today)—but that is because no-one is excluded.

And a few years ago, I read that one fifth of Oxford graduates end up working in the voluntary sector with charities; the Bullingdon Club and Parliament are not the only destinations for ‘wealthy’ graduates!

In fact, Philip’s next point emphasises some of the demands of ministry leadership. He rightly questions models of the atonement that are abstract, or merely self-affirming.

For some, that message is about atonement and the promise of eternal life: for example, the simple formula that “Jesus died for our sins.” For others, the message is broader and more upbeat: for example, “God loves us all unconditionally.” The trouble is, neither of these messages seem to be connecting with urban people because they simply do not relate to the needs and questions that they have.

Indeed—which is why those exercising spiritual leadership in these contexts need, for example, to understand the whole range of models of the atonement that we find in the New Testament, and being able to translate those into new contexts. If we are going to nurture a generation of pioneering, cross-cultural church planters, they need to understand more about theological tradition and the disciplines of theological translation, not less, than the previous generation!

I think it is at this point that Philip takes a wrong turn.

By virtue of the incarnation, Jesus is present in all things, in all places, and in every situation. The task of the evangelist is to draw him out and demonstrate him to be already present, so that people can find conscious relationship with the one who made them and longs to draw them home — and that can only be achieved by deep listening and profound understanding of people’s lives. A Church that thinks it knows all the answers will swiftly find that it knows none of them.

Firstly, that is precisely not what the incarnation means from a theological point of view. The incarnation does mean that God has, in the life and ministry of Jesus, participated in the full reality of human existence. But it means that, when ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1.14), he did so in a particular time and place, and we are dependent on those who witnessed this for our understanding of who and what he was. It is this ‘scandal of particularity’ that is central to Christian theology, and it is why hermeneutics—interpretation, translation—has always been central to Christian mission. As Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts it ‘He moved into our street’—but the problem is that the street he moved into was a dusty, first-century Jewish street, and mission involves understanding and engaging with what it now means for Jesus to move into a British, 21st-century urban street.

Secondly, that has a direct impact on the missional task. I think Philip is spot on in critiquing the historic power dynamic that there has been in mission—that those with the gospel come from the outside with competence and expertise, and deign to bestow these gifts on those less fortunate. The pattern of mission we find all through the New Testament is quite the opposite. In Luke 9 and 10 (and the parallels in the other gospels), Jesus sends the 12 and then the 72 out with no provision, but in weakness and vulnerability. As I noted earlier this year, mission is here seen as inherently risky; if there is a power relationship, then those sent are the ones without power, which seems to be the opposite of most recent history of mission. There is a certain recklessness in the task, since those sent do not plan for their own provision. (I am guessing this is what Philip is referring to when he notes: ‘Dr Justin Stratis, from Trinity College, Bristol, was especially zealous, arguing that, in our listening to estates residents, “We come as beggars seeking bread.”’)

But Jesus’ depiction of mission here also challenges Philip’s curious adoption of a Richard-Rohr-style ‘mission is just enlightening people to the Jesus who is already in them’ kind of approach.

You will find that the Good News is much better news than any simplified message that we think we can import. It is the rich new Kingdom life that we discover together as we find Jesus gloriously present in every aspect of our lives.

Jesus is clear, in Luke 9 and 10, that he is sending his followers to places that he has not yet visited and yet to which he desires to go. He sends them not only as his messengers, but as his very presence.

Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me (Matt 10.40).

In the eschatological parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31f, it is the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick and imprisoned who are the least of ‘these brothers [and sisters] of mine’, a term Jesus uses only and specifically for his disciples (see Matt 12.50)—and the ‘sheep’ are those who have unwittingly welcomed Jesus in their welcome of Jesus’ followers. If we take the presence of Jesus with us as we go, then it means that, in some important sense, the presence of Jesus does not go where we do not go. I am not suggesting here a Catholic-style doctrine of ‘there is no salvation outside the Church’ but simply pointing out the consequence of a Pauline theology of God’s people as the body of Christ.

Mission then becomes a kind of exchange. Jesus’ followers go to different places in poverty and vulnerability in relation to their physical and practical needs, but they go in spiritual power and strength, ready to proclaim the kingdom, drive out demons and heal the sick. What they lack in practical terms they receive from those they visit, and what they do have (the treasure of the kingdom) they offer in return. As they receive something from their hosts that they do not have, so they offer something to their hosts that their hosts do not yet have. Philip is right to critique our reliance on our own competence—but he is mistaken in thinking that we do not bring something, in the message of the gospel, that is actually currently lacking in many parts of our cities. We need to lay down our presumption that we come in competence and strength, bringing all the answers—but we also need to take up the confidence that, in the good news, we have by God’s grace treasure which others need.

But on one aspect of this we will agree: the need to listen as a primary task in the process of evangelism. Tim Keller, someone who has had a very effective ministry in an urban context, also emphasises this. A key reason why his ministry has flourished in the 25 years he has been in New York is his attitude to cultural engagement.

God was helpful to me in finding a way to communicate the gospel without compromising it, but connect it to aspirations and fears and baseline personal and cultural narratives. You find out whatever the culture or person is looking to for meaning, and you show that while it is a good thing, you’ve turned it into an idol and only in Jesus Christ will that aspiration ever be fulfilled. That’s basically how you preach.

I am not sure how much this conviction is rooted in a particular theology of the world and God’s relating to it, but put this way it sounds like a good strategy because it works. For Keller, this attentive listening is not just done in relation to culture, but also to in relation to individuals.

Everybody has got a story. If you’re able to inhabit that so well that [people] feel that you know their story better than they do, and then show in a compelling way how that story is only going to find resolution in Jesus, then they are going to find a compelling case for Christianity.

A recent Grove booklet, by another Tim, Tim Sumpter, explores this issue along similar lines. Tim coins the word ‘evangelistening’ as a way of describing the strategy not only of Jesus but also Paul and others in the New Testament:

Jesus models a person-centred style of evangelism which starts with individuals. He not only spoke words of truth, he also embodied practical compassion, resulting in his readiness to ignore long-established cultural conventions which would have prevented him from ever meeting most of the individuals listed above. He even made it easy for people to walk away without mocking them or disparaging them in any way (Mark 10.17–27; John 6.60–69). Here was a style of evangelism free from the pushy coerciveness which some evangelists have employed, hallmarked by compassion, care, dignity and the ability to listen.

After exploring ways that this can work out in practice for individuals and churches, he highlights its value:

Evangelistening, as an evolving process, is one small attempt to repaint evangelism according to the original colours of the New Testament. It is not a panacea and does not mean we have not made mistakes; we will have made many of those on the journey so far. But alongside those, this style of evangelism has produced fruit, both in giving some Christians confidence to live more evangelistically and in helping some individuals come to Christian faith for the first time.

I do hope and pray that the ‘Estates Evangelism’ project bears fruit, not for our sake but for the sake of those who have not yet heard the good news in a way that they can receive it. But we might need to listen to a whole range of people, including American Calvinists like Tim Keller, if we are going to get this right.

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20 thoughts on “Do we need to take Jesus to our urban areas?”

  1. By virtue of the incarnation, Jesus is present in all things, in all places, and in every situation

    Jesus must have been very confused then, as he walked around Israel in the first century, to fidn that everywhere he arrived, he was already there.

    Seriously, though, how is ‘Jesus is present in all things’ different from panentheism? And therefore how is it not totally wrong and heretical?

    • It might be true to say that Jesus’ handiwork is present in all things but that’s entirely different from him being present in every circumstance. A composer’s wholesome intention may be evident within a Christian hymn tune that he or she has written but if that tune were later to be used as a vehicle for secular words of a profane nature, the composer’s notes would still be present but there would be nothing of his or her spirit within the resulting performance.

    • To be pedantic, panentheism is not heretical but orthodox belief: all of creation is God-infused, existing in each moment only through divine grace.
      Pantheism, on the other hand…

      • To be pedantic, panentheism is not heretical but orthodox belief: all of creation is God-infused, existing in each moment only through divine grace.

        What in that statement is not heretical, is not panentheism.

        It is orthodox belief that creation exists in each moment only through divine grace. But that is not panentheism.

        Is it not orthodox belief that all creation is ‘God-infused’. Orthodox belief is that creation is separate from God; creation is not part of God, nor does it share in God’s divine nature. It exists by God’s grace and through His constant act of creation; but it is not part of Him, nor is it necessary for His existence, normis it ‘infused’ by God.

        That is panentheism: the idea that creation is not just constantly created by God, but that it shares in the divine nature, that it is part of God, that it is ‘infused’ by ‘God’. And that is heresy.

      • I don’t think that is true. Creation is sustained by God, but I cannot think of scriptural texts which suggest ‘creation is God-infused’. Panentheism is advocated by universalists, unitarians and process theologians, none of which would sit inside historic credal orthodoxy.

  2. Thanks for this you make some good points and it’s an important debate.

    I’ve worked a bit with +Philip on these issues and appreciated his support and enthusiasm for what we are trying in our parish, though we were a bit flabbergasted when he baptised a 6 year old from a fringe family and introduced the boy as the “newest Christian in the world”. I’ve debated with him the problem of labelling and therefore stereotyping places as “estates”.

    There are plenty of multiply deprived parishes including ours, some of which are 95%+ white English and highly pro Brexit, and others which are multi cultural, multi faith, but which would never see themselves as “estates”, though they may have a large proportion of social housing. I don’t think the point about breakdown of marriage and family is a particular one of urban deprived areas, family especially extended family remains a strong bond (in both “English” and minority communities, which can be good for support, but can also be a barrier to evangelical commitment which is so individualistic. Unstable sexual partnerships are rife in all classes in the UK.. in urban and estate settings there may be something extra about the forms of masculinity which have been impacted by de-industrialisation which means fewer jobs with a status, a decent wage, a male bonding in community etc. Not that many blokes were in churches in such areas fifty years ago.

    I agree Christians from outside such areas and cultures do bring something of Jesus with them, if they are appropriately humble, and listen more than they speak. Ideally they need to move in and live alongside, though it’s not always easy or feasible to do that, but a commitment to be and serve alongside does make a difference. But one does often find that the Spirit has already been at work in people and communities preparing people to take steps to become disciples, and to share their testimonies with peers. there is not a lot of atheism in communities like ours.. though often some mixed up ideas about God and Jesus. Occasionally there is a dramatic conversion, sometimes a slow journey, often in either case lots crises and backward steps as well as growth. and developing relationships and belonging in even the best churches can be a bumpy ride.

    Then their is always the hierarchy of needs issue, If people are hungry or skint, or in bad housing, poor mental or physical health, in toxic relationships they may not be able to concentrate on hearing the gospel, let alone living up to the traditional expectations of Christian lifestyle. On the other hand they may have a lot to contribute in serving the Kingdom, the church and the community.

    But please lets invest, especially in Christian people serving and doing mission in areas like our parish, alongside what’s already there. In Preston we are looki ng to establish an Eden Network team in our parish. I recommend Paul Keeble ‘s book.

  3. I think it is helpful at this point to distinguish (if I have the right terms) between common grace and special grace. Yes, Jesus is already Lord over all things, and no matter how deprived an area may seem (and I have ministered in the inner-city a long time) there is nowhere, no matter how bad, which is truly God-forsaken. Its’s just that most people haven’t realised that fact yet and come under His Lordship. There is a genuine spiritual hunger there, but so often the church by virtue of its established culture, so often acts as a barrier rather than an enabler to help people find the answer to their searching is Jesus. This is where really listening to the local community comes in, as we learn to translate the gospel in a way that can really be heard by those we seek to reach. However the result of such engagement may well be messy and perhaps part of the reason for such low attendance is that many who draw close to the Christian faith live such transient and unstable lives, although they may still be somewhere in the local area.

    The other important issue not mentioned here is that even when people hear the good news, they cannot believe it is really for them. A whole host of issues serve to destroy their sense of self-esteem, from the way they have been taught at school, to the way they have been parented, to the dehumanising way the benefit system is administered, to dependency on drugs and alcohol. So we need skilled pastors who are ready for the long haul, who learn to love each and every person who comes before them as those made in God’s image and for whom Christ died. Quick fixes, five year church planting strategies may have their uses, but we need those who are prepared to give up everything to serve, and show the special grace only Jesus brings.

  4. You slays make some good points but, as always, the real problem is that you have no Trinitarian doctrine that is rooted in the first millennium of theology (and therefore the NT) and so your Jesus is not the Incarnation of God. Your Jesus, indeed, is not much different to the one that Jehovah’s Witnesses preach. Sadly. For your Jesus cannot save. He just makes holy huddles. Not the Body of Christ, who is all in all. Your God is not too small. Your God is just not God…. but rather the pseudo God who is love until he stops at some arbitrary point and is then justice. Which has no place in scripture or good theology. As I suspect you know, deep down. You can start start doing theology in the 16th Century, if you want. But it will always end up warped towards modernity’s disastrous Cartesian philosophy of identifying oneself with one’s thoughts and therefore knit-picking about the meaning of words. St Paul said something about that, of course.

    • You [alw]ays make some good points but, as always, the real problem is […]

      Could you just make explicit to whom the pronoun here refers; the author of the original article quoted, the author of the commentary on it, or one of the commenters?

  5. I think there is a modern tendency to use “Jesus is already there” language when previously it might have been worded, “God’s Spirit is already active”. I think this is akin to what Ian is saying about the particularity of Jesus and then the question of how that particular life impacts lives on estates or in rural areas and in whatever country and time-period. There is (I think) a “universal” element which is about the ubiquity of salvation in Christ, and there is a contextual element which is about how our lives might honour God, imitate Jesus (imitate Christ?), how we live as disciples in our context, which clearly is rather different depending where we live and also on the life-chances we have had which have contributed to our (lack of) well-being, education, opportunities etc.
    Is not one of the task of a missionary / missioner / pioneer to help a local community see where God is, what of their world is of God and what might not be or is less so, and to help discern who God has called to be the local leaders (eg Lydia or Jason ..). We journey with “them” from where they are to where God calls them, not make them journey back to where we want them and then get them to move forward the way we would. In doing so we discover so much new and so much that is rich about who God is and we are changed too.

  6. Another reason urban areas have proportionally lower church attendance is they have proportionally higher populations of people committed to other religions or denominations ie they are more religiously (and ethnically) diverse.

  7. If bishops think that the gospel of free forgiveness of sins by God, who made us and gave us life, has no power to touch people’s hearts, that urban people have no conscience to be awakened, and that they are all so poor that all they can think about is their next meal, it is no wonder that Church of England attendance is only miniscule – be it 0.9% or 1.7% of the population. There is no faith in the Church, let alone outside it.

    Philip North says that ‘the gospel seems to be so much more compelling for the rich and powerful’. What a strange view. Average attendance of 1.7%, relentlessly falling at a rate of 2.7-3.8% p.a. (faster in the last 3 years than in the previous 3), is no sign that the gospel as presented is compelling. To suppose that a message of forgiveness of sins and a call to live in the light of that forgiveness is an ‘intellectual message about a mechanism for future salvation’ and, as such, ‘irrelevant’ is the most appalling misapprehension.

    In poorer parts of the world, people find the gospel relevant even though they are poor and sometimes hungry (hungrier than almost everyone in the UK). Moreover, they understand that one of the key messages of the gospel is that, when Jesus comes back as king, he will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. That is a message also for ‘the rich and powerful’ in our churches.

  8. ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. … In it the righteousness of God is revealed’ (Rom 1:16-17) – the God whom everyone can see, because his eternal power and deity are manifest in creation. The true gospel has power.

    ‘Not many of you were wise in a carnal sense, not many were powerful, not many were high-born. … But God chose the low-born and despised of the world.’ (I Cor 1:27) The lower classes respond to the true gospel and God opens their hearts.

    ‘I decided not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling …’ (I Cor 2:2-3) The true gospel is not an intellectual message, and it will do its work even when its bearer appears no better off than the low-grade people he is sharing it with.

    Paul expected more of his listeners, whatever their social condition, and got more.

  9. Listening isn’t really part of mission in Luke 9-10 either. That mission is characterized by announcing the kingdom, that is, announcing God’s intention to judge the world, and by authenticating that kingdom message through healing signs or condemnatory protest (Luke 10:8-12).

  10. “By virtue of the incarnation, Jesus is present in all things, in all places, and in every situation.”

    That Jesus sustains all things is an argument that can be made from the start of Hebrews 1, but it isn’t dependent on the incarnation. Athanasius argued that Jesus was still doing this and being everywhere whilst he was on earth which doesn’t work well with my brain as I tend to think of the everywhere power of God as the spirit. (Ch17, on the incarnation) however, the argument makes more sense when argued by Ian McFarland in his lecture on chalcedonianism without reserve, where he posits the incarnation as a projection from another dimension (my take home, not his words)

    However, what is more important from a mission point of view is that we can pray the work of the spirit into is and other areas before we start. Pray for God’s Kingdom to be there. Then we will expect to find God working when we arrive and this will help us have the right attitude. (Not that I’m good at doing this)

  11. Jesus, listened, and at the same time addressed, the individual, culture and beliefs, as did Paul, in Acts,listened to the culture, addressed the culture. And in his letters
    It does not negate a need to proclaim the Gospel as well as give an answer. Horses for courses, starting with where people are at, coming from in their lives, hopes dreams, meaning of life for them. It is both personal and objective truth.

  12. Thanks Ian
    Thoughtful post

    It’s interesting this automatic assumption that John 1:14 is about ‘The Incarnation’ (pardon me, it’s ear morning as I write, but I can’t remember the word ‘Incarnation’ anywhere in Scripture?) Having lived with this assumption uncritically tested throughout years as a Christian I was shocked by John Behr’s latest (?) book ‘The paschal Gospel Of John’ in which through careful engagement with Patristic sources suggests that this is not remotely as that text was understood in the first millennium. As Behr puts it, ‘it is not so much that the Word becomes flesh, but rather [or perhaps consequentially] the flesh becomes Word [in Jesus’ ‘ascent’ to the Cross’ (which is John’s ascension

    Perhaps this is at cross purposes (no pun int . . . Et seq) but ‘Incarnational Theology’ seems to have a unwarranted grip on the imagination of the Western church. It is perhaps not so much a Theology as an Anthropology disguised as such??

    Again- apologies if this isn’t coherent, it’s early morning in this neck of the woods.


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