In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gave what is now known as the Great Commission. In obedience to that Commission, Christians throughout the ages have been making disciples of all nations, often taking their strategy from the restatement of that Commission in Acts 1 :8. If indeed Acts 1 :8 is the best strategy (start at a home base and gradually move out), then it is interesting that the start of the early church was in a place where the masses were (Jerusalem). This strategy was obviously fruitful because the early church experienced incredible growth over a short period of time. In addition, because Jerusalem was a large urban centre with many different people, the gospel was spread to other regions, both near and far, by those who heard and believed. If the disciples had started in sparsely populated areas, the gospel would not have spread so quickly. The principle seen here is that the gospel will reach the four corners of the earth much more quickly if it is told where the most people are.
The apostle Paul found success in planting churches because he first reached the places where there was a concentration of people and there was a spiritual responsiveness; that is, he reached the cities. By reaching the cities, the surrounding countryside was reached as well. If we, as 21st century Christians, wish to reach our world with effectiveness at all, we, too, must look for a concentration of people and a spiritual hunger.
Obviously the greatest concentration of people is in cities. Furthermore, within cities, due to skyrocketing land costs, there has been more of an emphasis on developing “high density population per acre” housing-that is, high-rise apartments. As Christians, we should realize that highrise apartments are the best opportunity the church has to reach large members of people in a relatively small area. Therefore, they should be viewed as great opportunities, rather than as dreadful places that should be evangelized only by seasoned Christians of great spiritual stature from some other church.
The second aspect that we must look for when selecting a place to evangelize is the responsiveness or spiritual hunger of the people to be reached. Although this does not mean that the church should ignore those who are not spiritually responsive, it should be admitted that time and financial constraints are necessary factors to consider in any work. The best indication of spiritual hunger is change. Change produces stress, stress produces deep spiritual hunger. Where are the most spiritually hungry people? Not in rural communities, which experience relatively little change. They are in the. larger cities$. Within these cities, one must assume that many of these people live in apartments. In fact, one of the natural responses of people in stressful situations is to move to an apartment (consider what a divorcee or a widow(er) often does). It can be concluded that high-rise apartments contain many people with deep needs, not the least of which are spiritual.
A theology of urbanism
A theology of urbanism should attempt to look at the various aspects of the city through God’s eyes, as God would see them, for their potential good as well as for their dangers.
- Massiveness. Just as Jesus and the apostles communicated with the masses in the urban setting of their day, we can communicate the gospel effectively to the masses of our day.
- Pluralism. The first and 21 st centuries are both marked by pluralism-racial, religious and cultural diversity. Apparently pluralism was not a barrier for God in the first century (Galatians 3:26-28, Acts 2:41-4 7), and faith in Christ is for all people today (John 1: 12). In fact, the diversity of urbanism adds richness and variety of expression to a living faith in Christ Jesus.
- Anonymity. Although many think that anonymity is totally negative, there is a positive aspect to it. Agape love, the kind of love Jesus demonstrated and taught in the New Testament, is basically non-sentimental and impersonal-one does not have to know the object of one’s love and does not have to be emotionally involved with that object ahead of time. In other words, agape functions extremely well in an emotionally sterile, anonymous environment. Therefore, no matter how impersonal society is, agape is always relevant. In fact, the impact of agape is likely to be felt more powerfully in an anonymous environment.
- Mobility. The early church was a living, dynamic, mobile organism. After all, God is a living God. Just as the urban community is free and flexible, we, as the body of Christ, should be free and flexible, relating to the masses where they are.
- Conflict. Because of the diversity and mobility, both the first and 21st centuries are characterized by conflict. A static, homogeneous, rural society (and church) has much less conflict than a flexible, diverse, urban society (and church). The majority of Paul’s letters address conflicts in the early churches. Yet, out of conflict arises growth, both personal and corporate-if conflict is dealt with in love.
- Secularization. The secular worldview leaves God out, but there is a sense in which the early church was “secular”, in that it was involved in the secular world. It had no temple or priestly elite (1 Peter 2:19). Jesus had rejected such limitations in John. 4:21,23-24. We need to reconsider what the church is, and return to the “secularized” church of the early centuries.
- Change. Change is a dominant characteristic of any urban context. The body of Christ should not be threatened by change. Change is a direct result of conversion, and is often a direct cause of conversion.
Characteristics of high-rise dwellers
- Isolation. Apartment dwellers are isolated from other people. One study found that high-rise children play alone more often, play outdoors less and watch TV more than other children. Researcher E.T. Hall explained that there are four basic distances that North Americans recognize: intimate, close, personal and social. It is almost taboo to be at either an intimate or close distance in public. However, day after day, city dwellers, particularly apartment dwellers, have their intimate and close space invaded by people with whom they are neither close nor intimate. This occurs often in elevators and public transit. As a result, people erect defences, such as fixing their eyes on infinity and appearing deep in thought. Another researcher, J.J Edney, explained that apartment dwellers always have the uneasy feeling that their “territory” is being invaded because of the population density and the fact that their walls, floor and ceiling are all shared by others. The urban high-rise dweller is in a bind. In order to survive, he must erect many defenses, yet it is those defenses which make it difficult for him to establish meaningful relationships.
- Powerlessness. A second characteristic of high-rise dwellers is the feeling of having no control over their environment, which can lead to an identity crisis. Often people’s identity is projected onto their dwelling. In high-rises, however, all the dwellings have the same basic layout, thus making it very difficult for a person to feel unique as a human being.
- Disconnectedness. One study found that women living in highrise apartments meet their friends through common interests rather than through their neighbourhoods. Another study, of singles, discovered that half of all contacts with neighbours in the same high-rise were made outside of the complex (at the bus stop, grocery store, bank, etc.). Furthermore, most tenants preferred not to be tied down to a regular commitment of time, but desired activities where they could drop in at will. A third study, of seniors, found that the only “common” areas used by most tenants were the mail room and laundry room.
- Further research has revealed that psychological strain is directly related to building design-the higher the level, the more strain tenants feel, especially women. Hence the desire to “escape” to somewhere less crowded and more private. Furthermore, there is a great fear shared by all tenants of high-rise apartments: the fear of fire.
An evangelism strategy
In order to reach high-rise dwellers with the gospel, one must first ask what type of congregation to establish-will the congregation be homogeneous (composed of people from the same ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic group) or heterogeneous (diverse)? It has already been established that urban life is heterogeneous, but private life is most often homogeneous. Therefore, both models are valid. It is true that people like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers. It is also true that no one has the right to establish the terms on which he or she will receive eternal life. Is not conversion the willful giving up of oneself to God and consequent radical change? Even a brief glance at Acts 2:41-47,8:4-40,1 Corinthians 12:12-13, Galatians 2:26-28, Ephesians 2:10-22 and Colossians 3:11 should make it clear that the culturally diverse congregations of the New Testament were flourishing. That is why the apostle Paul called for spiritual unity among cultural diversity.
A second aspect to consider is the style of the church. This will vary from place to place. However, since people dislike the impersonality and massiveness of tall buildings, it is questionable whether apartment dwellers will be reached by a large church characterized by impersonality and massiveness. A small church, on the other hand, could foster a sense of belonging and a family atmosphere, which would be attractive, even though the large church can offer a greater variety of programs.
Further, since the church of Christ is a living, dynamic body, it is questionable whether it should be housed in a permanent building. Rented facilities are inexpensive, flexible and attractive to those dissatisfied with large, impersonal institutions. The main life of the church, however, would have to occur more than just once a week in rented facilities. A house church model would fit the apartment setting because of its mobility, economy and appeal to all kinds of people. Therefore, a small house church which meets in apartments and uses rented facilities for both larger meetings and as a base from which to provide services seems to be the most practical model to use in evangelizing high-rise apartments.
Finally, the church needs to consider how to make contact with the people it wants to reach. It would be almost impossible to personally communicate the gospel to every person in an apartment complex. Therefore, the ideal would be to impact the whole population with mass communication, then personally communicate the gospel in a house-church setting. Ideally, this would require as many members of the church or outreach team as possible to move into the apartment complex. Then, various services could be offered to the tenants-child care services, interior decorating classes (so that tenants can overcome their loss of identity by personalizing their apartments), a counselling service (to help people deal with the stress of divorce and other sudden life changes), an advocacy service (to help apartment dwellers resolve frustrations with the apartment’s management), a seminar with a fire department official (to help deal with the fear of fire), meals for people just as they are moving in, special interest classes and clubs, and recreation packages such as ski trips. At the same time, worship services, Bible studies and fellowship should also be offered. Although apartment dwellers are said to want very little commitment to anything, it is well within the range of God’s power to change that characteristic, and any others He wishes as well.
Mark Johnson is the newly appointed Conference Minister for the Ontario MB Conference.