Big Cities—Bigger Vision
Every member involved in every possible outreach
By Ted N. C. Wilson
Historians and sociologists tell us that most of the people on earth during the past 6,000 years have lived in rural areas, necessitated by an agricultural lifestyle that had to be “close to the land.” In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1900, 14 percent were living in cities, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants.
During the twentieth century the world experienced unprecedented urban growth. In 2007, for the first time, 50 percent of the world’s population was living in cities. More than 400 cities now host at least 1 million inhabitants: at least 20 cities have populations greater than 10 million.
I’ve lived or worked in some of the world’s great cities, including Cairo, Washington, D.C., metropolitan Los Angeles, New York City, Abidjan, and Moscow. As I studied the faces of the thousands caught in the urgency of city life, I developed a particular burden for the church’s mission to big cities. My concern for big cities is an important part of how I follow Jesus.
Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus paused on the brow of a hill and looked at the capital city of Jerusalem. Though He knew what would happen to Him, and that He would be rejected by many in that city, He wept over Jerusalem with some of the most empathetic language in Scripture (Luke 19:41-44). Following Jesus in the modern world means learning His heart of compassion for those who live in the crowded metropolises of today—understanding their needs, studying their habits, and yes, weeping for their condition if they are without a saving relationship with Him. It’s far too easy to stay within our own comfort zones rather than reaching out to the masses of people in the great urban centers of the world.
Seeing the Big Picture
A commitment to the people of the world’s great cities is not a trendy modern impulse, but is instead firmly based on Christ’s ministry as seen in the Gospels and clearly explained in the writings of Ellen White. As Seventh-day Adventists we’ve often focused our work on rural and suburban areas while many of the great cities remain largely unentered. Several factors are responsible for this, including the undoubted difficulty of urban ministry and the fact that we have received inspired counsel from Ellen White about the desirability of country living. God’s original plan placed human beings in a delightful garden, not a crowded city, but Ellen White is equally clear that we must accept and work with the situation as we find it today. The Spirit of Prophecy offers us a very balanced approach for ministering to large cities, clearly recognizing that many people, including many Seventh-day Adventists, may need or choose to live in the cities. An “in-out” approach by which those ministering in cities are encouraged to regularly recharge their spiritual and physical “batteries” in rural environments is a realistic and restorative approach to the tough realities of urban ministry.
As Ellen White described it, “outpost centers”—including training schools, lifestyle health facilities, and missionary homes—would be established just on the edge of urban areas. A cycle of outreach moves the missionary into the city to engage with people on the level of their need, inviting responsive persons out to the outpost center for rehabilitation and recovery, and then returning with them to continue the cycle of witness. This in-out movement is essential for this special work, because God never intended believers to spend all of their lives in dense, overstimulated urban areas of the modern world.
Essential, Comprehensive, and Sustainable
Let’s reaffirm the fact that Seventh-day Adventists understand that cities are where God would have us focus our work just now—because that’s where the people are. While we continue our efforts in rural and suburban areas, we ought to intensify our work for the hundreds of millions who live in the great metropolises of our planet. More than a century ago Ellen White wrote that “the work in the cities is the essential work for this time. When the cities are worked as God would have them, the result will be the setting in operation of a mighty movement such as we have not yet witnessed.”1
Even as we agree that the half of the world’s population living in big cities needs to be reached with the three angels’ messages, the task looks daunting. Our big city strategies have often been spasmodic, with large evangelistic campaigns sometimes followed by months and even years of silence. The Spirit of Prophecy model is very different, and involves a sustained, biblical, and compassionate approach to doing urban evangelism.
This model is best described as “comprehensive urban evangelism”—with the emphasis on comprehensive. The model includes establishing working units and activities in the cities that use the skills and gifts of local churches, young people, small groups, medical missionary workers, pastors, social workers, literature evangelists, and all available media channels. Diverse, well-planned, and sustainable programs for evangelizing the cities of the world are needed. We must not have one big program once in a while and then forget the people of the cities.
The Beehive Model
Ellen White eagerly described the church’s efforts in San Francisco around 1906 as a “beehive” of activity.2 This, she wrote, most closely resembled what the Lord had in mind for doing city work—everyone working together, each with specific responsibilities, but all integrated with the common goal of evangelizing the city.
Ellen White elaborated on what she termed “centers of influence” in the many communities that make up a city. These centers of influence can be churches, bookstores/reading rooms, various kinds of street ministry, vegetarian restaurants, educational entities, community service centers, health education centers, or clinics. There may be new and creative outreach methods of community service or Internet-based witnessing strategies that target special communities. The key quality is sustainability: how can we continue interacting with the community in helpful Christian service and evangelistic outreach, rather than lapsing into sporadic activities?
This kind of comprehensive urban evangelism will change both the cities, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and us as a church family. By individually studying the Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy, we will find platforms for cooperation and sustainability, and experience the Spirit-inspired unity among His people for which Jesus prayed (John 17:21).
Reaching the “Big Apple”
Just now church leaders are focused on trying to replicate this “beehive” of activity and work in New York City and then, through God’s power, in many other large urban centers of the world.
Many wonderful Seventh-day Adventist evangelistic activities are taking place in hundreds of cities around the world, but we have to intensify our efforts using the “comprehensive” approach described here. While many useful strategies for witness have been implemented in New York and elsewhere during the past century, we have never been able to put together all the elements Ellen White described.
Some may ask the question “Why New York?” Ellen White indicated that New York should be a symbol for how other urban areas should be worked.3 New York City is a unique microcosm of the world’s population, illustrating both the amazing diversity of the world’s people and the special challenges of designing methods of witness that will appeal to them.
Over the coming weeks and months church leaders will be discussing how to plan, implement, and launch a multidimensional approach for New York City and other major urban centers. The “beehive” model suggests a swarm of activities: evangelists, health ministry leaders, and creative outreaches targeted to specific populations are needed from all over the globe if these plans are to succeed. By God’s grace the church will then replicate this approach in each of the church’s 13 world divisions—focusing on the large cities in each division, union, and local field with sustainable evangelistic outreach.
For the New York City initiative, the North American Division, along with its unions and conferences in the specific area of New York City, will lay the groundwork over the next two years and then coordinate the sustained beehive of activities that will extend beyond public evangelism. Health work and “medical missionary work” (a multidimensional approach to meeting people’s needs as seen in Jesus’ ministry and outlined in the Spirit of Prophecy) must feature largely in all this. I foresee a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate even greater cooperation with our Seventh-day Adventist health professionals, institutions, and the many supporting ministries that enrich Seventh-day Adventist mission.
We are now in a multiplatform media age, and we need to use all available media to the fullest as we lay plans for urban outreach. When a city dweller hears about something on the radio, sees the same message on TV, views it on different Internet sites or Facebook, then comes across the same thing in print or on billboards, that individual will be far more receptive to one-on-one contact.
Here is where we will particularly need the energetic support of the church’s young adults. Imagine hundreds of dedicated Seventh-day Adventist young people going to New York City every year, selling truth-filled magazines and books, walking the boulevards and parks to witness about their love for Jesus! This is at the heart of city evangelism: we have to make and maintain contact with people using Jesus’ methods of interaction (see the Spirit of Prophecy article “To Make Him Known,” on page 23 of this edition). Now imagine thousands of Seventh-day Adventist young people doing the same thing in hundreds of cities around the world!
Next month I’ll focus on this talented population—this army of youth “rightly trained”4—and why we need to motivate and support them as they invest their time and love in reaching the world’s great cities.
1 Ellen G. White, Medical Ministry, p. 304.
2 Ellen G. White, Welfare Ministry, p. 112.
3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism, p. 384.
4 Ellen G. White, Christian Service, p. 30.
Ted N. C. Wilson is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.