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How Do you Create a City-Reaching Movement?

Many missiologists, mission-minded church leaders, and practitioners have talked about the church engaging in the seven spheres of society. To refresh your memory on the seven spheres, they are:

  • Family
  • Economics
  • Government
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Media
  • Celebration (Arts, Entertainment, Sports)

I believe these are helpful as church planters, pastors, and leaders dream about creating a city-reaching movement.
However, I would like to suggest another way of viewing, envisioning, crafting, and enacting a city-reaching movement. In order for us to think biblically, missiologically, and practically about creating a city-reaching movement, here are three words for our consideration: mission, matrix, missions (methods).

Mission—What is the Mission We are On?

We live in a day in age where we are driven early on to define our terms. Terms matter; but definitions matter more. Not all people are on the same page when we use the word “gospel,” so let’s not assume that we are all on the same page when we use the term “mission.”
There have been many books in the last couple of decades that have attempted to define the word mission and all of its usages with regards to “What is the mission of God?,” or “What is the mission of the church?”
While it seems that each scholar and practitioner have their own crafted definition of mission, here’s my definition of the missio Dei:
God is on mission to create a people for himself that will reflect his glory in all spheres of life.
I know that is a simple, and for some, even a reductionistic, definition. However, I stand by the definition, given my understanding of the grand narrative of Scripture as a missiologist and theologian. I believe this definition holds throughout the narrative. We see it in the Garden of Eden, Abraham, and the creation of Israel (as a people), the Church, and the scene in Revelation 21 with the vision of the New City and the people therein.
In short, God has been on mission since the very beginning to create a people for himself to reflect his glory (his kingdom) throughout planet earth as they manifest the presence of God through enacting his rule and reign in every sphere of life.
Applying this definition to a local church or a church plant I would articulate the church’s mission in the following way:
We exist as a covenant community to reflect the glory of God as we participate in God’s mission of creating a people for himself (from all peoples on planet earth) by sharing and showing the gospel of King Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

Matrix—How Do We Engage our City by Reflecting God’s Glory?

The discipline of church planting is a vital aspect of the mission of God, falling between ecclesiology and missiology. While there is much theological writing regarding ecclesiology and missiology, very few have reflected theologically regarding church planting. Dale Little, a lecturer in theology at the Japan Bible Seminary and church planter, states,
I have developed a habit of looking for writing which deals with the link between church planting and theology…I have come to the conclusion that such books are rare. There are numerous good books on mission…I have found only one book which has a theology of church planting as its major theme.[i]
Without any material focusing on the theology of church planting, there is a temptation to overemphasize methodologies and strategies in church planting literature, conferences, and training courses.
Too often this overemphasis on methods and strategies is to the neglect of the spiritual nature and aspect of church planting.[ii] Methods and strategies certainly have their place in church planting, but they must be driven by a proper theological framework. Stuart Murray expresses concerns about the way people are planting churches, the kinds of churches that are being planted, and the lack of theological depth and reflection among many planters.[iii]
Ed Stetzer, the author of Planting Missional Churches, writes, “There is a lack of theological depth in many contemporary church planting and church growth movements because they emphasize technique, paradigms, and methodologies rather than genuine biblical and missiological principles.”[iv] Methods, techniques, and paradigms are constantly changing due to the nature of society. The truth of God’s word never changes. As the psalmist sings, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105).[v]
A shaky foundation is laid if church planting is driven by orthopraxy. J.D. Payne, warns church planters and practitioners not to base their foundation on the shaky ground of contemporary fads, trends, and whims as opposed to a biblical framework.[vi] Bruce Ashford, in his chapter, ‘A Theologically Driven Missiology for a Great Commission Resurgence,’ writes, “There is much work left to be done to ensure that our methodology is driven by the Scriptures. It must be biblical theology that gives church planting methodology its starting point, trajectory, and parameters.”[vii] Orthopraxy must be driven by proper orthodoxy.
As denominations and church planting networks plead and pray for a church planting movement to spread throughout North America, this is a much-needed time to reflect theologically with respect to church planting.
In short, there’s a general motif that surfaces in the very first two chapters of the Bible. The motif is God’s land, God’s people cultivating the land, and God’s rule and reign being exercised in the land.[viii] This motif, once again, can be traced throughout the metanarrative of the Bible—Israel, Jesus, the Church, and the New City Jerusalem.
I share this theological motif, because it is the bases for a theological matrix for believers engaging a city.
As believers strategize city-wide engagement, they will think about the gospel’s manifestation in three particular areas—spiritual, social, and cultural. Spiritual engagement seeks to manifest how the gospel reconciles man to God. Social engagement seeks to manifest how the gospel reconcile man to one another. And cultural engagement seeks to manifest how the gospel reconciles man to the world in what he does in the world and how he does it.
In addition to these three areas, there are three spheres that engage these three areas. They are individual, corporate, and institutional. This is where James Davison Hunter helps tremendously. James Davison Hunter in his book, To Change the World, articulates how the church can change the world through a ‘Faithful Presence’ theology. He writes,
Indeed, insofar as Christians acknowledge the rule of God in all aspects of their lives, their engagement with the world proclaims the shalom to come. Such work may not bring about the kingdom, but it is an embodiment of the values of the coming kingdom and is, thus, a foretaste of the coming kingdom…. Only by being fully present to God as a worshipping community and as adoring followers can we be faithfully present in the world…. Thus, when the Word of life is enacted within the whole body of Christ in all of its members through an engagement that is individual, corporate, and institutional, not only does the word become flesh, but an entire lexicon and grammar becomes flesh in a living narrative that unfolds in the body of Christ; a narrative that points to God’s redemptive purposes. It is authentic because it is enacted and finally persuasive because it reflects and reveals the shalom of God.[ix]
Hunter maintains that faithful presence is manifested individually, corporately and institutionally. In addition, Hunter also argues that the church will impact their community and the world when it enacts faithful presence to God. Therefore, when a church is faithfully present to God in worshipful obedience in all spheres of life—spiritual, social, and cultural—they will be [missionally] faithfully present in the world. [general faithful presence matrix chart]
The ultimate aim of a faithful presence strategy is the reflection of the glory of God. Throughout Scripture, when God is glorified people are drawn to him, healing and reconciliation occur, and a flourishing (to a degree) transpires.

Methods (Missions)—What are the Methods/Missions in Which We Can Engage a City-Wide Movement?

It’s not a surprise to believers that we live in a fallen world in desperate need of redemption. But it’s almost as if 2020 has been a year that has made sure the world has witnessed its own brokenness and fragileness. In addition to the pandemic and health crisis of COVID-19, Americans have experienced economic, racial, and political turmoil.
The people of God, post Garden, have always conducted their mission in a fallen, broken, and sinful world. And as salty and luminescent agents, God’s people, through the power of the Spirit, have exposed darkness and preserved decaying societies all the while pointing to the shalom of the consummated kingdom to come.
Meeting the needs of people, communities, and cities are ways the church today can manifest the shalom Jesus offers. Ministry of mercies, which seek to care for the homeless, famished, poor, orphan, widow, oppressed, diseased-stricken, and helpless are other ways to display the peace of God’s kingdom.
Eric Swanson and Sam Williams in their book, To Transform a City, write, “Whenever we are involved in correcting and making right social ills, seeking to address injustice, and fighting against the wrongs of this fallen world because they are an affront to the character of God, we are involved in kingdom work.”[x]
Robert Linthicum also states, “The essential task of the church is to work for its society’s [shalom]—to work for the full and total transformation of all the people, forces and structures with the love of God.”[xi]
Rodney Stark provides a synopsis of how the early church impacted cities by seeking the shalom of the city in various capacities:

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…To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fire, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.[xii]

The greatest need that the church can meet within a city or community is sharing the gospel with those who are separated from God. It is the gospel that brings ultimate peace in a person’s life (Eph 2:13-18). By seeking the shalom of the city, the church today provides the appetizer for what the main course of God’s consummated Kingdom will be.
The call of missions to accomplish the mission, is for every believer. According to Hunter, faithful presence rests with all Christians—not just the clergy, the rich, or the powerful.[xiii] The reason for this, according to Hunter, stems from the command of the Great Commission. Hunter offers a slight twist on the Great Commission in that the church is to “go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service.”[xiv]
In other words, it is the call of the church, every Christian—individually, corporately, and institutionally—to discover ways to go into all the world enacting and proclaiming the good news, which becomes a direct assault on the worldliness of this present age, and [potentially] results in shalom and joy for the world.[xv] In fact, the church has a history of doing this, and must once again do this “in ways appropriate to the times.”[xvi]
What are ways appropriate to the times? In this exercise, start to develop a faithful presence blueprint for how your church plant will engage in a city-wide gospel movement in the next 10–15 years.

  • How will you disciple individuals to enact a faithful presence spiritually, socially, and culturally?
  • How will you lead your corporate body to enact a faithful presence spiritually, socially, and culturally?
  • How will you partner with or develop other entities that enact a faithful presence spiritually, socially, and culturally?

We’ve all heard the adage that Rome wasn’t built in a day. I would like to add the following adage, “Rome wasn’t reached in a day.” Evangelicals are coming off not only 1700 years of Christendom captivity, but we are also coming off decades of fast-acting strategies to reach people. These weren’t necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, such strategies worked. However, our current climate—the state of many of our communities and cities—will require a long-term gospel strategy. We will need crockpot strategies rather than microwave ones.

[i] Dale Little, “Theology And Church Planting,” n.p. [Cited 5 September 2010]. Online: The book Little is referring to is Stuart Murray’s book, Church Planting: Laying Foundations.
[ii] Stuart Murray, Church Planting: Laying Foundations (Waterloo, Ontario: Herald Press, 2001), 41.
[iii] Murray, Church Planting, 17.
[iv] Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman and Homan Publishers, 2006), 23.
[v] All Scripture references will be quoted in the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.
[vi] Payne, Discovering Church Planting, 5.
[vii] Chuck Lawless and Adam W. Greenway, eds., The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time, by Bruce Ashford (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 202.
[viii] This is a similar motif that is used by Grame Goldsworthy in his development of a biblical theology in his books, The Goldsworthy Trilogy,(Colorado Springs: Paternoster Press, 2000) and According to Plan (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1991).
[ix] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. (Oxford: University Press, 2010), 234, 244,253-54.
[x] To Transform a City, 78.
[xi] Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 75. I would caveat Linthicums statement by reducing the word ‘essential’. I would argue that, rather being an essential task of the church, it is an ‘aspect of the church’ to work for the society’s shalom.
[xii] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997), 161.
[xiii] Ibid, 256.
[xiv] Ibid, 257.
[xv] Ibid, 262, 264.
[xvi] Ibid, 271. Hunter notes how the church has been involved from everything from the patronage of the arts and the establishment of schools and universities, to the creation of hospitals and institutions that care for the poor and needy (270–71).