The following is a talk given by Jennifer Chan (Missional Church Director, City to City NYC) at Movement Day NYC 2021 and broadcast to leaders in over 150 host sites throughout North and South America. We are thankful to Movement.org, LEAD.NYC, and their ministries to connect, equip and transform leaders to make a spiritual and social impact in their cities.
Over the years, we at Redeemer City to City have often returned to the foundational principles of Gospel, City, and Movement as a way to frame our vision and mission. We believe that the historic gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for the salvation of the world. We believe in the importance of cities in God’s redemption, both as places of culture creation and spiritual transformation. And we believe it takes an entire movement of the gospel – not just a single church, denomination, or network – to reach these cities. After more than two decades of work in more than 75 cities across the world, we are more convinced than ever of these foundational truths. But we’ve also learned and grown through our work and our understanding of each of these principles has been enriched and nuanced in significant ways.
When we started this work, our understanding of how the gospel transforms a city or neighborhood was essentially unidirectional. This might be a slight generalization, but a fair one. We worked with the overall understanding that gospel change begins in individual hearts, gathering these transformed individuals into communities and in turn impacting the world around them. In so many contexts, we found this to be exactly the case. This was especially true in more individualistic, Western contexts. And so, our primary emphasis was on “the gospel in the heart,” believing that the gospel goes on to change everything because it is the good news of God renewing all things in His material creation.
But as we continued our work we noticed that in some urban contexts – very often in communities less influenced by the individualism of the West – the power of the gospel often had to first be demonstrated as having a tangible impact on a world that too often was marked by sin, suffering and oppression.
Like so many of the miracles recounted in the New Testament, the power of the gospel to heal and liberate people from the powers of sin and death had to be made evident first. Only then could they be drawn into a believing community that was participating in this liberating work. It was often this tangible, living witness of a reconciling community in our cities that enabled people to experience the good news that Jesus Christ was forgiving sins and putting a sin-sick world right through his unmerited, self-sacrificing love. For others, it would be the experience of surprising welcome and belonging in a gospel community that would open their eyes to both the work of God in the world and the power of the gospel to remake their own hearts. In short, our work in cities over the span of two decades has shown us that gospel renewal dynamics are multidirectional and far more nuanced than we had originally articulated.
In a similar way, our initial emphasis on cities focused primarily on reaching what we called the “center city”, that is the parts of the city that were centers of cultural influence. We tended to have in mind neighborhoods that were largely populated by educated professionals and creative classes. At the time of our founding, there were many organizations that were effectively reaching more inner city neighborhoods and immigrant communities, but very few that were focused on the educated elite. In emphasizing the importance of reaching this particular demographic we were able to bring into view a fuller vision of reaching the entire city.
But as we continued this work, we began to see that reaching the educated and professional class in a city apart from real, meaningful relationship with the poor and the marginalized was, in fact, malformative. In order to reach the city, we began to see that we could not take a unidirectional approach that prioritized the center city. Instead, like our understanding of the gospel, we saw that we needed to enrich and expand our understanding of the city by adopting a far more nuanced, multidirectional understanding of the dynamics of the city. The poor and the rich were made to need one another in the economy of the kingdom. The marginalized and the privileged were made to need one another.
The center needs the margins every bit as much as the margins need the center.
We continued to see the importance of cities in the work of God’s redemption, but we began to see that we needed to approach gospel ministry in the city more multi-directionally.
Finally, our understanding of movement dynamics has gone through a similar process of enriching. Our earliest understanding of what movement would look like in urban centers was probably best articulated by James Davison Hunter in his landmark book To Change the World. In his understanding, social change happens not so much through broad-scale grassroots change but through the influence of tightly networked cultural elites working on the margins of powerful institutions. This was a theory of cultural change that rang true with our experience in center city ministry.
But as we continued to press deeper into our cities, we began to witness the truth of what we see in Scripture, namely that the kingdom of God moves forward through the overlooked, the forgotten and the inconsequential. Time and again we would see movement dynamics emerge in the most unexpected places. In the power-inverting logic of grace, God delights to use the foolish, the weak, and the despised in order to shame the wise, the strong, and the influential (1 Cor 1:26-31).
As we paid attention to these dynamics we began to see that while Hunter provided incredible insights into how the Holy Spirit effects common grace cultural change in cities, we also had to account for how the Holy Spirit effects particular grace change through his supernatural, regenerating work. And so our thinking around movement dynamics expanded from focusing largely on how cultural change could happen from the centers out to include the “counter-current” of God’s redeeming grace where He delights to bring about change from the margins in. Here, as with our understanding of the gospel and of cities, we have been able to incorporate a more nuanced, multidirectional understanding of gospel movement dynamics.
Reflecting on an Enriched Framework
Over the course of this next year, we will be reflecting as a community on these themes of gospel, city, and movement. We will be posting articles, hosting conversations, and inviting your participation as we seek to continue to incorporate these insights into how we think about city ministry as on the ground practitioners. We believe that a multidirectional understanding of gospel, city, and movement will not only deepen our DNA here at Redeemer City to City but will make us more effective in reaching cities with the gospel of Jesus Christ.