What does it mean for a church to be “for the city”? As humanity increasingly becomes more urbanized, this question grows in importance. Pastors Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter have spent the last several years of their ministries trying to figure out what that means and what it looks like for the church to serve the city to the glory of God. And in their new book, For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel, Patrick and Carter share what they’ve learned along the way, both from their successes and their failures.
For the City is divided into two parts, with each author largely handling their own topics (although they do come together in a few chapters). The first part of the book, “A Tale of Two Cities,” deals with Carter and Patrick’s vision for planting a church that exists to be a blessing to the city and the stories of planting The Journey in St. Louis (Patrick) and Austin Stone Community Church in Austin (Carter). These stories are incredibly encouraging as the authors do a wonderful job communicating the vision of gospel-centered city ministry. Carter shares how Metropolitan Tabernacle, where Charles Spurgeon ministered in the latter half of the 19th century, inspired his call to plant a church for the city.
Imagine an urban church so influenced by the power of the gospel that it seized every opportunity to proclaim and live out the gospel for the good of the city. Imagine that this church physically and spiritually served the poorest of the poor, but also lovingly rebuked the wealthy. Imagine this church as the epicenter of straight-up, God-fearing, Spirit-filled revival, leading thousands of people to eternal life in Christ in just a few years. Imagine a church that built elderly housing, housed all the orphans in the city, and taught wealthy business people to have a ‘double bottom line’ so they could run a profitable business in order to support the work f the church and meet the needs of the city. In other words, imagine a church that boldly preached the gospel and lived out the values of the kingdom.(pp. 20-21)
The vision is captivating and something that all our churches, whether urban, suburban or rural, should strive to attain. We should be for our communities, in whatever context God has placed us. Reading their stories, I was greatly encouraged by the burden that God placed on start churches that were to be a light in their cities. It’s what I pray would be the burden for all of our churches.
Part two, “In and For the City,” digs more into the nitty gritty of what it means to be for the city. Addressing contextualization, community and service (Patrick), equipping and suffering (Carter) along with the authors’ confessions and conclusions, this part is practical and extremely thorough. Patrick’s work on contextualization is sure to rub a few folks the wrong way (specifically those who tend to misinterpret what’s really meant by the term), but it offers a couple of the most helpful nuggets in the entire book: the danger of over-contextualizing and under-contextualizing. One leads to syncretism, the other leads to sectarianism and neither are biblically tenable. Healthy contextualization, according to Patrick, means being a gospel-saturated people, a congregation that “knows how to enter into culture without losing its Christian distinctiveness” (p. 81). This kind of community sees itself as missionaries, ambassadors for Christ who “see how cultural values merely point toward the ultimate fulfillment and purpose found only in Christ” (p. 82).
Likewise, Carter’s chapter on suffering was fantastic. Here Carter reminds us that suffering is something that God has promised all of us—and if we’ve not yet experienced it, then it’s just a matter of time. But this is not meant as a downer, because our suffering gives us an opportunity to witness to the glory of Christ in a powerful way. Carter explains:
…of all the things the church can do, there is not much that we can do better than the world But the church can suffer in a way that is unique. Suffering well is something that the church can model for hte rest of the world. We can be witness to God and his gospel as we suffer. The church, if it loves its city will teach and model the importance of suffering well. As we suffer with and for our city, we suffer like Christ— sacrificially, pointing others to the goodness of God, for his glory. (p. 142)
One point of contention I found in the book, perhaps the only place where I had any strong sense of disagreement was found in Carter’s chapter on equipping. There, he asks how you move a congregation from low to high commitment—from being inwardly focused to missionally-minded? His answer: “you just do it! You act your way into a new way of thinking. . . . We have learned that casting a vision isn’t enough to inspire spectator Christians to become missional believers. Why? Because spectator Christians will simply accomodate the missional vision into their preexisting categories. They’ll add the right lingo, but never change their behavior” (pp. 120-21, emphasis his).
While I’m chocking this up to a poor choice of words, it’s a view that we must avoid. The problem with this is that Scripture emphatically and repeatedly affirms the polar opposite of this statement. In Jesus’ teaching and in Paul and John’s epistles, we see a consistent pattern, which is that because God has shown us such wondrous love and mercy in the person and work of Christ, we are now able to share this love with others. We go and do likewise. Grace always comes before command. And “just doing it” doesn’t produce a heart that longs to serve God by serving others. It’s an idea that’s motivated more by pragmatism than biblical fidelity.
All this being said, For the City is a very helpful book, especially for those seeking to serve the city to the glory of God. Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter overall do an excellent job of keeping the gospel central in dealing with a subject that can easily and quickly lose sight of it. And they are right to keep the cross front and center because that’s what it’s really all about: God being glorified in the cities where His people are gathered to worship and serve Him. In our suburbs, our jobs, our community involvement—it’s all about Jesus. Give For the City a careful read. Wrestle with it’s conclusions and let that which is most excellent and praiseworthy help you in your service to the city.
Title: For the City: Proclaiming and Living Out the Gospel
Authors: Darrin Patrick and Matt Carter (with Joel A. Lindsey)
Publisher: Zondervan (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher.