The image of missions seems more captivating when those to be reached are out in the bush wearing loincloths and brandishing spears and blowguns. Indeed, there still are natives out in the bush country who need to hear the gospel. In these modern times, however, that dramatic image is not always accurate. Whether the area to be evangelized is Africa, India or Iowa, the inhabitants are quickly becoming urbanized. Villages tend to grow into towns; towns become cities; cities sprawl out into surrounding suburbs to become megalopolises. Contemporary mission strategy, both foreign and domestic, must take this into account. If we are to bring the gospel where the people are, we must recognize that the majority of them live in the heavily populated cities.
Lately I have read a great deal and have attended a number of conferences that dealt with the topic of evangelizing the cities. There is much discussion these days about the problems of urban evangelism. Missiologists talk about reaching ethnic groups, about social problems, and about the Church’s failure to communicate. As the leader of a Jewish mission, I am well aware of those problems. After all, my Jewish people are an ethnic group. My people, like everyone else, have social problems, and the Church is not communicating the gospel effectively to them.
Something else is so obviously essential to the topic of urban evangelism, yet it is not being stated in what I am reading and hearing. The crux of the matter is not merely that most of the people we want to reach live in the cities, but that if we hope to witness effectively and win them to Christ, we must go and move into their midst.
In this respect I greatly admire someone like Dr. Roger Greenway, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Dr. Greenway not only talks about missions, he has moved into the central city of Philadelphia—in a less-than-elegant neighborhood—in order to be among those he wants to reach.
That is not the comfortable way to go about urban evangelism. Everyone knows” all about the cities: that there are more crimes committed in the inner cities; that there is more social unrest in the cities; that there are worse schools, more congestion and impossibly higher housing costs in the inner cities! That’s what people “know” about the cities, and like almost everything else that “everyone knows,” it’s not necessarily true.
So far as the quality of life is concerned, I am not saying that circumstances are better in the big cities than they are in the small towns. They probably are not, and they may indeed be worse, at least some of the time. I feel strongly, however, that this does not provide justification for evangelical workers to absent themselves from urban life.
I, too, once went about it the wrong way. I was a missionary to the Jews of New York City. I lived in the suburbs 32 miles away. It took me an hour and a half to get into the city every morning, and an hour and a half to get back every evening. I spent three precious hours every day traveling instead of ministering. Not only that, but living so far from those I wanted to reach discouraged me from building the kind of relationships I should have had in order to be most effective.
I remember one conversation I had back then with a New Yorker. I was telling him how Christ could give him a new quality of life. He said, “That’s all right for you. You can afford to live in the quiet suburbs, where your children can go to good schools and your wife can walk down the street at night and not fear being attacked. As for me, I have to work at two jobs to pay the rent on a cockroach-infested apartment just to survive in the city.” I felt convicted and ashamed. I knew that I wouldn’t like living in that man’s circumstances any more than he did.
Some would maintain that they could not allow themselves to live in an urban situation because they have an obligation first to their families, then to their ministries. But I maintain that if an individual cannot bring his obligations into line in order to put himself where he can be most effective, he ought to give up the idea of being a minister.
In the early days of my ministry I worked for a mission board that allowed me to live in the more comfortable suburbs while I ministered in the inner city. Jews for Jesus is not that kind of mission board. Our people must live where they minister. That is a necessity for effective evangelism which I discovered, and I am more certain of it now than ever.
All too often, when we Christians are in the minority we tend to huddle together in the church or in our tightly-structured little social groups, content with merely reassuring one another rather than reaching out with our faith to unbelievers. In all its triumphalism, the Church has never learned to be an effective minority. It is only prepared to be a community-wide majority. As servants of Christ we must learn to work within the context of being a minority among a majority of unbelievers. Then we will develop more realistic attitudes and ultimately be more successful in our evangelistic efforts.
There are certain guidelines for effective urban evangelism. These apply both to individual Christian workers and to the Church-at-large:
- An urban evangelist must live in the community to be reached.
- An urban evangelist must associate with the people he or she hopes to reach and win to Christ.
- An urban evangelist must learn to understand the thinking of those to be reached. For example, if you lived in San Francisco, our Jews for Jesus Headquarters city, and hoped to appeal to “common decency,” you might be shocked by the rather strange ideas of some San Franciscans about what constitutes decency. In most large cities, fun and materialism are “the name of the game,” and the repentance trail is a rather lonely walk. If Jesus were to return and run for mayor of such a city, he would only win the election if he ran on “a loaves and fishes” platform.
- An urban evangelist must learn to communicate to people in manners and terms that they understand. For example, in Des Moines, Iowa, a wisecrack might be construed as rudeness and contempt, whereas in New York it might be considered as wit, wisdom and a sign of willingness to enter a discussion.
- An urban evangelist should not quit easily. If he or she reaches out to someone who does not respond, the evangelist must not feel personally rejected. In evangelism it’s better to evangelize friends than strangers, and persistence and attentiveness are the main qualities of a friendmaker in the cities.
- An urban evangelist is a missionary. The very term “evangelist” means “sent one.” The evangelist is one who is sent out by God to bring the good news to those who have not heard or considered it. The individual with a mission must go—must move where he or she is sent. Those who want to serve God can seldom serve him well by doing what is comfortable and convenient. They must be ready to endure discomfort and inconvenience.
Not many have it within themselves to do what the Savior did: to leave grandeur (or even mere comfort) in order to go where they will be misunderstood, or even despised, for who and what they are. Nevertheless, because the Savior did just that for us, he calls on us to be willing to do the same for him. It’s usually not so bad. I can’t think of anyone who has ever been crucified in Times Square in New York, Water Tower Place in Chicago, or Hollywood Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles. Difficult as those places are, it is necessary to stand for God and preach the gospel there.
It takes courage and determination and a certain dying to self to go to some of the difficult places God may send us. In a sense, all of us who believe and have been redeemed are missionaries and evangelists. Sometimes the difficult places are far away, and sometimes they are in our own back yard. Wherever they are, the Savior challenges us to bear our cross and follow him. Isn’t it odd that many believers who would be willing to die for him find it so difficult to live for him in the way that he lived? They’d rather be comfortable than effective. Perhaps it really is easier to die for Christ than to live for him; nevertheless he still calls us. He beckons us to pick up our cross and follow him—and there is no such thing as a “comfortable” cross!