I was riding in the back of an old and noisy Mercedes Benz up and down narrow cobble stone streets in Lisbon, when I realized I was part of a community and it was powerful. Someone was taking an interest in me, there were people who cared for me, there were people who shared life with me, and it made a difference in how I saw Jesus.
One of the leaders in our church was taking me to a bass guitar lesson. He was in his late thirties, a husband, dad, and business owner, yet he was driving me and my kid brother around so we could learn music. He took us into his home with his family and shared more than musical notes with us—he showed me what loving Jesus looked like for a busy business owner and how to use music to worship God. But this was not one-on-one discipleship; this was a community effort. Others in our community would meet up with me to watch movies, others would share requests for healing, and the rest would pray. Financial needs were cared for. Parties were thrown in celebration.
I remember lots of laughter and tears in that community. Above all, I remember Jesus’ presence. Being part of that community helped Jesus go from blurry to clear. It wasn’t just for me, it was for many. That community of believers called Graça, or “Grace” in English, made Jesus clear to many people. Through that community Jesus made himself known to us and our city. This is the type of community we long for. This is the kind of community our cities need—ones that make the gospel known within and outside of it.
Good News in the City
Our cities are the gathering place of culture, human capital, and change. Suburban flight is a reality as young educated creatives flock to cities for the opportunities and lifestyle it offers. All this comes on the heals of the American church surrendering property and influence in the urban core while finding its place as the religion of the suburbs. Evangelical Christianity doesn’t have a literal or cultural place in the city. We gave it up decades ago. Now, we’re trying to reengage in a context completely different from the orderly and homogeneous context of the suburbs the church has made its home.
Cities need both worship gatherings and missional communities to intersect the people and needs of the city. (My book, “Sent Together”, expands even further on missional communities in cities). We need for missional communities in the city because it is in the context of relationship that the gospel shines brightly, speaks clearly, and welcomes sojourners with questions and doubts.
Oddly, the first step forward isn’t toward cutting edge strategies or culturally relevant events. It’s pressing into the gospel—the thing of first importance. The gospel is the good news that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and resurrection and is making all things new, even us. This is good news in the city and for the city.
The city is where death, evil, and destruction is obvious to all. The affects of sin, whether it is acknowledged as sin or not, is exposed in every neighborhood. The city is where the abused gather together. It’s where the enslaved, broken, and downtrodden end up. It’s where schools fail to keep kids safe. It’s where injustice is present on almost every corner. It’s where isolation from community, family, and others is rampant. Cities are settling grounds for fugitives and refugees. They gather orphans. They are the last stop for vulnerable women.
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The city is also a place for hope. It’s where we hope in our humanity, ingenuity, non-profits, and creative solutions. The city is a place of beautiful artwork, music, and cuisine. Cities gather ideas. The city is where humans, created in God’s image, thrive in expressing some of God’s most beautiful attributes: compassion, mercy, creativity, and justice.
Despite the high volume of humans, each made in God’s image, our hopes and solutions always fall short. Despite the population density, one of the biggest needs is loving community. Despite the creative capital, one of the biggest needs is justice and healing. Despite the plethora of opportunities, one of the biggest voids is lasting satisfaction and joy.
The gospel of Jesus is good news in the city. Sin, death, and evil have been defeated by Jesus through the cross and empty tomb. Jesus isn’t just defeating. He is recreating, making all things new. This is good news in the cities of unfulfilled promise and expectation of complete restoration. This good news is what every mayoral candidate promises but only Jesus delivers: not only a new city, but a new humanity. The gospel offers redemption, restoration, and renewal.
Community and Mission in the City
The gospel saves us from sin and death toward something: unity with God, unity with his people, and the ministry of reconciliation the gospel of Jesus offers. In other words, Jesus calls us to himself, to his community, and sends us on his restorative mission. The gospel is the starting place. The cause for the gathering and scattering of his people on mission.
I’ve never been around a community that was centered on the gospel that wasn’t on mission. A gospel-centered people is a missional people. I’ve never been around a community that loves one another, that doesn’t have Jesus at the middle of everything they do. A gospel-focused people is a missional community. As Jesus transforms us, we are witnesses to it in public, with friends, at work, and in our homes. The gospel makes us, as Paul says, ministers and messengers of reconciliation. God makes his appeal to the world through us! God’s mission of reconciliation goes through gospel community—also known as the Church.
If the truth of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection isn’t woven into the fabric of everything a community does, it has no purpose outside of its own will to make its cities better. Without the gospel at the center, the community has no reason to endure and bare all things together other than its consumeristic pursuit of the ideal community. This is no different in the city.
Our cities need the gospel to be made visible and audible. This is certainly done on Sunday mornings in worship service throughout the city. However, it is just as crucial the gospel become pervasive in the city through God’s scattered people. The city needs gospel communities on mission nestled into every crack of the city.
Our cities need communities of people who are learning to follow Jesus together in a way that renews their city, town, village, hamlet, or other space. They don’t need fancy community. In fact, missional communities are always a messy collection of everyday citizens who are devoted to Jesus, to one another, to their neighbors, and their city.
This means they invest in each others’ lives, calling one another to repent and behold Christ daily. A missional community reorients their activity to center, not on themselves, but on Christ. They struggle forward as in-process-sinners redeemed by the unconditional and infinite grace of God. They share meals, step humbly into the injustice in their city, welcome others into community, and take care of each other.
We see seek to establish thriving communities because we long to see our cities renewed. I pray to see every nook, cranny, and neighborhood filled with life and restoration. Not simply restoration on the outside (with better schools, better housing, better inclusion of all into the thriving culture of a city, and better culture) but restoration on the inside (whole people, present with God, walking with him in every arena of life, sharing in our love for God, loving one another, and loving our city.) I’m certain that if our cities knew and experienced the power and grace of the gospel everything would change.