A day does not go by without me encountering the beautiful diversity of New York City. The streets are filled with artists, business professionals, dudes from the block, and college students. When I walk to the grocery store or take the subway, I hear a mix of languages and witness the various skin colors. The city's diversity is reflected in my church. I attend a church that was planted in the Harlem neighborhood located in upper Manhattan. Though the neighborhood is known for its historically black culture, recent economic and demographic changes have attracted people from other ethnic identities. My congregation is full of people from all walks of life. I met my England-born, Tennessee-raised, Pakistani husband there.
Due to life transitions, I will be saying "see ya later" to NYC and my Harlem church soon, but the lessons from this diverse community will remain with me. Through these experiences, as well as studying Tim Keller's work in this field, I have learned God's love for the city and the importance of urban ministry. If any of you are curious about urban ministry, I will make a case for it and share how the gospel's power can redeem a diverse city for Jesus's glory.
A city's diversity provides the environment to discover the nature of man and the grace God extends to him. With its dense population, a city is full of God's image-bearers. Scripture tells us that we were made in God's image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). God gave us the unique authority and responsibility to steward creation for His glory. In our stewardship, we reflect the character of God and cultivate a world that points to His lordship.
Cities, full of diverse people, reflect God's creativity and intellect in different and complex ways. Believers can participate in an array of activities that worships Jesus. From science researchers in laboratories to ballerinas dancing on a premier stage, the various human efforts contribute to a culture that evidences God's common grace, which is grace that decrees that any of the good people do glorifies God.
However, with many people comes much sin. We are broken image-bearers. We have a fallen nature that rebels against God. Sin has corrupted God's original creation; instead of a culture of life, we build a culture of death. With economic disparity, crime, and infrastructure problems, many parts of cities are dark and broken. But, even in the bleakest of cities, through His common grace, God restrains sin so that cities will not be as bad as they could be. And, He has equipped His people to bring a saving hope that can transform a city from within.
God has raised up servants to bless cities with the gospel. In Scripture, God called the Israelites, who were His chosen people, to bear witness to His light in a foreign land. Though the Israelites were exiled, they had influence because the Lord would manifest His plan of redemption through them. Jeremiah 29:7 states, "Pursue the well-being of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you will thrive" (CSB). Though a diverse pagan culture surrounded them, Israelites were to remain faithful worshippers and point others to true worship. The Israelites would demonstrate the life they had in God. Similarly, God calls His people in cities today to minister to the surrounding pagan cultures.
Cities are known for their religious diversity. When I stand at an intersection in Harlem, I see four different beliefs represented. Jehovah's Witnesses, Black Hebrew Israelites, Mormons, and the Nation of Israel proselytize on each corner of 125th Street and Lenox Ave. Through the chaos of religious dissonance, believers can declare the supremacy of Jesus. The need for Christians to engage in prayer, evangelism, and apologetics is great in cities. These pursuits in urban ministry don't have to be large, programmatic efforts. Instead, our day-to-day lives, our community stewardship, and our love for our neighbors can lead others to Jesus.
Mercy and justice ministry is another area in which God equips His people to care for cities. Under God's command, the Israelites established cities to serve as places of refuge in the Promised Land (Numbers 35:9-15). A person seeking protection could find sanctuary in biblical cities. Reflecting His character and plan, God designed cities to be places of shelter for the outcast and the vulnerable. In cities today, we see the impact of homelessness, poverty, immigration, and injustice. Believers can work to alleviate suffering with service, care, and advocacy. Ultimately, through our mercy and justice work, we want to point to the saving work of Jesus. In Christ, we find true sanctuary. He paid the debt of sin and nourishes our souls. Jesus hides us in His protecting hand so that we do not have to fear evil. Our lives and our hope of eternal life are secure in Him.
The aim of urban ministry is to shine the light of Jesus Christ within cities. Urban ministry is both exciting and challenging. As you spread the gospel and watch it impact a culture, you will notice the Lord developing you spiritually as well. You will come to depend on the Holy Spirit to bring true change, and you will come to truly love people who are culturally different from you.
If you feel the call toward urban ministry, I encourage you to pray for the Lord's guidance and help as you seek the wellbeing of a city, big or small. As we minister, let us keep our eyes on the eternal city to come. This city of God will descend from heaven, and Jesus will return with it. He will gather us–a broken yet restored people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities–to dwell there.