by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. – Jeremiah 29:7
In the last issue of A Light for the City, I recommended a talk given by Tim Keller about how churches can best love the cities where they are located. Keller is the founder and senior pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City. In addition to authoring numerous excellent books on faithful Christian living, Keller and his congregation have launched a ministry called Redeemer City to City. This movement helps Christian communities plant new urban churches in global cities around the world. I am indebted to Keller for his writings, sermons, and teachings over the years in helping shape my own missional consciousness about churches in today’s urban contexts.
In his 2016 book, Loving the City: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, Keller begins with a very large and bold premise: “Ministry in the center of global cities is the highest priority for the church in the twenty-first century.” Keller’s argument is that given immigration and economic patterns likely to accelerate in this century, as well as the unique missionary opportunities that present themselves when masses of diverse people are geographically concentrated, large global cities present Christians significant opportunities for new missions. I agree with Keller’s premise. It inspired me in my sense of call to join you in ministry here in Houston, and I hope it becomes embedded in all our corporate discernment about the congregation’s future.
Early in the book, Keller laments from his observation that mission in urban congregations tends toward one of two ends of a spectrum. First, it is necessary to anchor urban missionary movements in a theological vision rooted in the gospel itself. The emphasis here is on understanding biblical principles of mission issuing from the saving work of Christ himself. This is essential. Alas, it is possible to have a good Scriptural and well-articulated theology of missions and not be so good at practical application among those we are called to love outside the church.
Second, and at the other end of this spectrum, there are urban Christian leaders and congregations that enact practical outreach efforts into their city environments without a solid gospel-centered, biblically-based perspective. For all the good that such outreach efforts do – and indeed, there is much good! – Keller would have us check that our motivation for good works is inspired by the Spirit of Jesus rather than some other agenda.
As you would anticipate, Keller argues that vital urban congregations love their cities well when they do both: have a gospel-centered theological grounding AND execute practical expressions of this vision for the sake of others. Keller’s book Loving the City is essentially about how to bridge these two essential aspects of Christian mission in urban contexts. If the foundation of Christian mission is “What to Believe” and the application of Christian mission is “Ministry Expression,” what holds these two aspects together?
Keller describes a third “middleware” dimension that is essential for flourishing missional congregations. This is the “What is Our Culture?” question, which many other missional theologians and leaders call the necessary ministry of contextualization: “between one’s doctrinal beliefs and ministry practices should be a well-conceived vision for how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment” where we are situated in a given locale at a given time. The process of contextualization involves listening to God and listening to our city.
With Keller, I encourage us to ask these kinds of questions when developing a theological and practical vision for mission into the city:
There are many more such questions we can and will be asking, but this set of “middleware” considerations reminds us that the Lord has set St. John the Divine down in a particular time and place with particular people and giftings. These questions are necessary to connect the gospel to its practical application to further God’s Kingdom here and now in the city of Houston. Together, I hope we never stop asking them. And in answering them, I hope we will find abundant new life bringing together our Lord’s “Great Commission” to go forth and make disciples (Matthew 28) with his “Great Commandment” (Matthew 25) to love our neighbors as ourselves. That, after all, is what loving the city looks like.
"… Every ministry of the church should be outward facing, expecting the presence of nonbelievers and supporting laypeople in their ministry in the world.”
—Tim Keller, Loving the City, page 17
Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America
by Dr. Stephen Klineberg
Many of you are familiar with Dr. Stephen Klineberg, professor of sociology at Rice University whose monumental longitudinal study of Houston social change over more than four decades is nationally recognized. This past week, Klineberg retired from direct involvement in this project through The Ricer Kinder Institute for Urban Research. (A personal note: his son-in-law was a fraternity brother of mine at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I know his daughter from young adulthood as well!) Before moving to Houston, I purchased Klineberg’s recent book from 2020, Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America. It was immensely helpful to me in learning more about Houston’s past, present, and future. I highly recommend it, especially in light of the theme of this issue.
PS: You can read the Houston Chronicle article about Klineberg here.