Holiness in the City
By George Dallas McKinney
The urban crises that demand attention from the church and from faith-based agencies are spiritual problems that require spiritual solutions.
The city represents people with power and holy potential. People can be the glory or the shame of the universe. They reflect the glory of God when they practice compassion, righteousness, and justice. But they reflect Satan’s damnable influence when they live in selfishness, greed, and unbelief. Biblically and historically, the city has been a visible expression of peoples’ rejection of God’s authority, power, and sovereignty.
Yet, the city dweller is not exempt from God’s demand for holiness. God destroyed the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because He could not find 10 holy, righteous citizens there (Genesis 18:16–33). God sent the prophet Jonah to the wicked city of Nineveh with a message of judgment (Jonah 3:1–5). God cancelled His judgment and wrath when the king and people of Nineveh turned from sin to righteousness, from ungodliness to holiness (Jonah 3:6–10).
In Luke 19:41,42, Jesus wept over the wicked city of Jerusalem. The pain, suffering, and death resulting from their rejection of God’s offer of salvation and holiness for all the people broke Jesus’ heart. Jesus wept as He considered the spiritual, social, and economic conditions then present in Jerusalem. God’s plans and provisions were for a holy and just city under His authority.
The good news is God has made a way for whoever will believe to return to the family of God and experience the blessedness of holiness. This extends even to those in cities, despite their corruption and poverty and despite their magnificence and wealth.
The urban crises that demand attention from the church and from faith-based agencies are spiritual problems that require spiritual solutions. While we may analyze each of the problems from social, political, and economic perspectives, the desired changes will occur only when there is an application of spiritual truth.
Take, for example, the problem of fatherlessness. The absent father is a manifestation of the fact human beings have rejected God’s plan for families to be led by fathers and mothers. For more than 60 years the welfare system in the United States promoted fatherlessness, and the church was generally silent. When fathers are absent, mothers and children suffer.
The church cannot ignore its responsibility to train boys to become men who are willing to accept the responsibility of becoming a father. Nor can the church ignore its responsibility to train girls to become women who are willing to accept the responsibility of becoming a mother. The church’s ministries must also encourage and equip men to fulfill their roles as fathers and husbands, and to encourage and equip women to fulfill their roles as mothers and wives.
By addressing the problem of fatherlessness, the church will at the same time be addressing the problem of violence, especially gang violence. Gangs and violent activities are manifestations of the absence of strong family connection, resulting from fatherlessness, and the frustration caused by unfulfilled needs. Certainly the urban crisis related to fatherlessness, violence, and especially gang violence is complex, requiring extended study and multiple means of resolution. Churches, however, must become actively involved in ministering to those in need and in advocating personal, social, and institutional changes necessary for addressing the complexity of the problems.
Another crisis we cannot afford to ignore is the growing culture of death through abortion and euthanasia. Abortions are brutal and immoral; late-term abortions, in particular, are barbaric. To be sure, the issues related to abortion as well as to euthanasia are as complex as other urban crises. We must always be careful in the public arena to share ideas humbly, yet persuasively. Christians need not fear participating in public debate and policymaking simply because they are Christians and integrate their beliefs, values, and practices into what they say.
All participants in public debate and policymaking have presuppositions, assumptions, and axioms, regardless of whether they base them on faith. People need to hear Christian voices that are informed, interdisciplinary, and persuasive. They need to hear such voices because of the seriousness and multifaceted nature of the problems involved. Abortion, for example, is a blatant denial of the sacredness of life. The church and those who represent life must be clear in their message that human life is sacred, and that the lives of the unborn are precious in God’s sight.
The education of our children must also be high on our agenda. The church, home, and school must work together in the reestablishment and maintenance of quality education. Ignorance and simplistic ways of viewing things should not hamstring people, especially children who live in urban settings. Promoting quality education helps remedy a variety of related urban crises, just as failing to promote it helps exacerbate them. For example, we can correlate the failing urban schools with the growing prison population. Such ought not to be the case. When promoting education for our children, we should endeavor to address the multiplicity of problems associated with urban life.
What is the fundamental nature of the human predicament? A traditional Christian response is the problem of sin. Perhaps this response, more than any other, encapsulates biblical teaching about that which troubles people in the present and damns them in the afterlife. Although the problem of sin may represent the fundamental predicament people encounter, there are other things that exacerbate problems in their lives. People also struggle with their finitude — their limitations as creatures, restricted by space and time. Foremost among their limitations is their ignorance of so much about themselves, the world in which they live, and, of course, God. People are also limited, to varying degrees, by the misery they experience due to challenges of various natures: physical, mental, emotional, relational, political, economic, and so on. Such challenges, too, prevent people from flourishing with the goodness, holiness, and happiness God intends.
Finally, people find themselves subject to various forms of bondage. Biblically and historically, people thought about such bondage in terms of demonic oppression or possession. However, it might also occur as physiological or psychological bondage to drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, violence, and so on. Such forms of bondage may be just as detrimental to living lives pleasing to God and being in a right relationship with God as demonic oppression.
Cities seem to be detrimental to people in terms of living lives pleasing to God. There are various reasons for this. The problems people experience seem to compound when they occur in proximity with a large number of other people. The problems also compound qualitatively. City life also poses a unique challenge to being a Christian and a church, especially as cities grow in size and complexity. The sum of the problems seems to be greater than the mere sum of individual problems, concerns, and difficulties. Truly the crises cities face increase, rather than decrease, with the passage of time and the growth in the number of large cities, and their overall size.
The Role of Churches
Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18,19, alluding to Isaiah 61:1,2).
Christians and churches need to follow this example of Jesus Christ. Christians and churches are called to proclaim the good news — the gospel, the evangel (euangelion) — of Jesus and of salvation. To whom are they primarily to preach? The poor.
This preferential option for the poor seems to be a common theme in Scripture. It does not neglect the needs of others — those who were not poor at the time of Jesus, and those who are not poor today. Jesus, however, emphasizes over and over how believers are to place primacy on ministering to those who are impoverished. Churches need to be advocates on their behalf just as much as they need to fulfill compassionate ministries for the poor.
What does holiness demand of Christians? What does holiness demand of churches, especially those in cities? Certainly it includes being set apart, which is stated over and over in Scripture (e.g., Leviticus 11:44; Romans 12:1,2; 1 Peter 1:16). It includes being compassionate toward those in need, physically as well as spiritually. Holiness, however, also demands that Christians and churches be concerned about the righteousness of God and to withstand that which is sinful, evil, and unjust. If Christians and churches are to be truly loving and compassionate toward their neighbors, they need to become increasingly concerned about, informed of, and proactive about dealing with the causes of injustice as well as caring for the victims of individuals who have gone astray. Injustice can be due to society problems over which individuals have little or no control. Such problems can also be due to institutional sin, evil, and injustice, which can be just as pervasive and detrimental to people.
If Christians want to minister holistically to people in cities, they need to be as “wise as serpents” in withstanding sin, evil, and injustice in its many manifestations (Matthew 10:16, KJV). We must get to the root of people’s problems and not just minister to their symptoms. We must become more aware of the various ways people become impoverished physically and spiritually. Then we must become proactive in dealing with every dimension of their impoverishment.
We find more impoverished people in cities than anywhere else. Moreover, their problems are increasing numerically as well as in complexity. Churches cannot afford to shy away from their responsibilities for emulating the beliefs, values, and practices of Jesus. Just as Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, He also wanted to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom to those who are oppressed. These are real, concrete problems for which Jesus was concerned. They are problems that Christians too often overlook as incurable or unimportant, particularly as compared to the loftier spiritual goals reminiscent of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19,20).
Certainly the Great Commission represents a great priority Jesus left the disciples. However, it does not take away from the holistic approach to ministry that He emulated in His life through His preaching, teaching, and advocacy for the poor. Such advocacy is especially needed on behalf of the urban crises facing Christians and non-Christians in cities today. Jesus did not just minister to the spiritual needs of people, He also ministered on behalf of what held them captive — socially, politically, economically, ethnically, linguistically, spiritually, and demonically. Jesus ministered so people who are blind — one way or another — might see. He ministered so people who are oppressed — one way or another — might be free.
These ministries of Jesus are not just holistic; they reflect the holiness of God and the holiness to which God calls people. We do not generally think of cities as places conducive to the cultivation or flourishing of God’s holiness, much less as places conducive to wholeness, health, and the flourishing God intends for everyone. However, hindrances that cities pose to the salvation, holiness, wholeness, health, and flourishing that God intends should not prevent Christians — individually and collectively — from ministering, advocating, and hoping for those ends.
By the grace of God there is always reason to hope. Such hope is not unwarranted for cities. On the contrary, God promises greater grace where the needs are greatest. There is no lack of spiritual empowerment for those who minister in cities. They will need it, given the extensive needs of people who live there.
Historical precedents are not lacking of Christians and churches wishing to minister effectively to cities. In the Bible, most ministries took place in the large urban centers of the ancient world: Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome. Certainly first-century Christians were aware of the needs of city dwellers. Subsequent developments in church history continued to occur in and around urban centers. Never have Christians been unaware of the neediness of people living in cities. As the church developed, there were times when the mission of the church included missionary and other ministries that reached out to smaller communities and countries that were less developed. However, seldom were such outreaches far from nearby urban centers. On the contrary, the mission of the church throughout human history has been inextricably bound up with urban settings.
Sometimes Christians and churches understood God’s call to holiness to be a call to oppose the world — to withdraw from the cultural influences as well as the sins, evils, and injustices. H. Richard Niebuhr documents such views in his book Christ and Culture.1 Yet Niebuhr also documents the views of Christians and churches that take active roles in engaging the world with its many challenges to God and God’s will. Some try to find a synthesis between the beliefs, values, and practices of Christianity with those of the world and of culture, in its various manifestations. Other Christians and churches engage it paradoxically, recognizing the tension between the two; still others seek to transform it.
Christians and churches, of course, are not always consistent in terms of how they engage the world and culture. However, we need engagement for the sake of holiness more than withdrawal. If Christians and churches want to minister effectively to cities, they need to develop theologies and praxis that supports their proactive engagement.
Christians and churches cannot neglect the holistic approach to ministry that Jesus embodied — the physical and spiritual needs of people — that are especially evident in cities today. If Jesus promoted care for the poor of the world, there is no better place for Christians and churches to be at work than in urban settings. Nowhere else are the needs greater, and nowhere else can Christians and churches better fulfill Jesus’ calling to salvation, holiness, and health than in cities.
The city represents people with holy potential. Cities and the people who live in them can reflect the glory of God when they practice compassion, righteousness, and justice. If, however, they live in selfishness, greed, and unbelief, they live for themselves. They are lacking in love and are characterized by lawlessness and injustice; they are susceptive to various forms of personal, social, and demonic bondage that enslave every aspect of their lives, individually and collectively. Too often cities have accentuated the plight of humanity, literally and symbolically, as visible expressions of people’s rejection of God’s authority, power, and sovereignty.
The good news, however, is that God has neither neglected humanity nor cities. God has provided ways for whoever will believe to return to the family of God — the church — and experience the blessedness of holiness, individually and collectively. This good news extends to cities as well as to individuals. Christians and churches need to work with the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit for the sake of those in need, especially those in cities. It is no accident that the Bible visualizes heaven as a heavenly city — “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2).
The fullness of God’s kingdom will occur in the future; God’s kingdom, however, is also already present. It is present in individual Christians; it is present collectively in churches; it is present in ministries on behalf of the physical and spiritual needs of people; and it is present in cities, though not yet perfectly.
Far from being perfect, cities seem at times impregnable bastions, resistant to the ministrations of God, churches, and Christians. It is easy to become discouraged, complacent, or neglectful of the needs of urban centers. Yet God loves people in cities. Indeed, since God has special care of those who are impoverished, He has special care for those in cities. Christians and churches must diligently work on behalf of those in cities, ministering to their social, political, economic, ethnic, and spiritual needs.
As we minister, we demonstrate our love toward the unique needs of those who live in cities, and we reflect the holistic and holy ministry Jesus embodied and promoted. By the grace of God and through the obedience of Christians and churches great things will happen for the sake of God’s kingdom that will extend to cities as well as to the uttermost parts of the world.
1. See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).