On 23 August 2018, I was privileged to give a message on the subject of "Revitalising Urban Churches" at the Grace Baptist Partnership annual conference in Swanwick, England. The theme of this year's conference was "Revitalisation: Hope for Dying Churches". Below is the manuscript for my message, and at the conclusion is a link to the audio on Vimeo. I hope that it somehow encourages and blesses.
Psalm 137:5 says “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!”. In thinking about revitalising urban churches this morning I want to direct your thought to a tale of two cities: Jerusalem and your city.
The three irreducible minimums of a truly urban environment are development, density, and, at least in our British context, diversity. Built up places, with lots of people, from all kinds of backgrounds. Our cities may be overflowing with people from around the world, but they are nevertheless often incredibly lonely places and the churches that are within them - perhaps at one time in their history bustling and filled with worshippers, sometimes stand lonely and somewhat empty. The problem is more complicated than numbers in attendance. There are churches that though small in number, are filled with life. And there are others that, though smaller still, are nonetheless like the seed that goes into the ground so that it can bring forth new life. There are also churches filled with people that like the church in Sardis in the book of Revelation have the reputation of being alive but are dead. Even when full, they can be quite lonely, due in no small part to jaded people infected by the lovelessness of the self-absorbed culture around them.
My thoughts go then to Lamentations. Through a series of musical poems, each stanza of which acrostically begin with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the prophetic author takes us from A to Z on several journeys into the mournful assembly of God’s people, who once were alive but now are dead. Start with Lamentations 1, where a city that once was bustling, alive, and flourishing is now deceived by allies, destroyed by invasion, and dispersed into exile. It sits lonely and desolate. In the same way that the author of Lamentations said “how lonely sits the city” so too he says of the crowds that once flocked to the holy place of mount Zion, “they are no more.”
This is the Old Covenant Holy city of Jerusalem, simultaneously an urban environment, the symbolic dwelling place of the Lord, and the gathering place of his people for the worshipful ceremonies and sacrifices presecribed by the Law. The city’s loneliness, indeed lovelessness, is not without cause. It is portrayed in human terms as a great princess who committed adultery, wilfully prostituting herself to many lovers. She did not consider her future walk of shame but was caught up in the naughty and nasty passion of the moment. The biological evidence of her misspent night stains her skirt, betraying her and her downfall is spectacularly swift and shocking . Now homeless, she weeps bitterly in the streets, relationally compared to a widow, economically akin to a slave. No one comforts her, either of her lovers or friends.
So the loveless city of Lamentations 1 becomes the lifeless sanctuary of Lamentations 2. The awe-inspiring temple of Solomon, the symbol of God’s abiding presence with his people, Israel’s glory because it was filled with God’s glory, the meeting place of heaven and earth has been thrown to the ground and by none other than the Lord himself working through his divinely appointed human means. We read that he has wrecked his temple as if it were merely a shack in a field, has abolished the festivals and Sabbaths that once made it a place of worship. Has rejected the altar of the sacrifice, repudiated the sanctuary of his holiness, and replaced the crowds of worshippers singing with an army shouting as they massacre and loot those who have sought shelter there. Lamentations 3 gets personal with the testimony of a hopeless man who depressively reflects on his observations and experiences of decline and downfall and for a while concludes he has no future and there is no hope to be found, not even from the Lord. Lamentations 4 provides a disturbing flashback to the people’s helplessness whilst under siege. Here we read of tarnished gold, debris from the temple littering the streets, starving and dehydrated children ignored by their parents except when their once compassionate mums get desperate, go mental, and chuck them into the pot for evening stew. Their money is worthless, they have no food, no drink, no leadership - at least leadership that’s respected - and no allies. The Lord no longer watches over them, so they must watch out for themselves but as they look out from their crumbling and besieged towers for help they watch for so long that they can’t keep their eyes open. No nation would save them. Indeed no nation could save them. The fifth and final lament sums everything up, and references the regal theme of the first lament with the tragic words: the crown has fallen from our head.
A loveless City. A lifeless sanctuary. A hopeless man. Helpless people. A fallen crown. These themes resonate with me because they so well describe my city, London, the state of far too many of its churches, the people who walk its streets, and those believers clinging on to some remnant of what they think to be healthy church life. Indeed the crown that might once have adorned urban local assemblies with the beauty of gospel gold and sparkling gemstones of faith, hope, and love has long since fallen to the ground and is rolling backwards down the vaulted corridors of time.
It is then urgent that we think biblically and practically about revitalising urban churches.
We need to start by Looking in. Looking in relates to Revitalisation at the discipleship level.
Throughout Lamentations the people look not only at their suffering but at themselves, confess their sins and plead for the Lords help. Lamentations 1:18 says “The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word”, later adding “Look O Lord for I am in distress, my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.” A similar pattern of recognising and confessing areas of rebellion, waywardness, and idolatry is seen throughout the book.
Some churches can’t be helped because they won’t be helped. Some don’t think they need help, others may but they do not realise how badly they need it. Their request is more about prevention, when what they need is the cure. Such a church might pray “Lord Jesus, keep us from dying”, only to hear Jesus say “Honey, you’re already dead.”
You cannot realise the solution if you do not recognise the problem. Revitalisation cannot begin without honest self-assessment.
There may be any number of issues that send alarm bells ringing about a church’s health but often a church won’t notice until numbers in attendance and eventually membership begin to decline. Their reaction is “we need to see more people coming”, hear about this thing called “church revitalisation”, and think yeah we need that but really they are more interested in reversing their fortunes than revitalising their fellowship. They’ve not stopped to solve the problems within that might have resulted in declining numbers, so skip to evangelism and various attractional programmes in hopes that the church will be revitalised by the addition of new people from without. They then are confused when no one visits, and if people do visit, they are unlikely to return. They may reach a point where they don’t care any more about whether new people come, “So long as we are faithful”, not seeing any of the areas in which they are unfaithful. They are the spiritual version of my homeless friend who in regular chats with me at church or in the alley where he stays reminds me of all the things he is not “Ryan, I’m not a liar, I’m not a grass, I don’t beg, I don’t go toilet against the wall.” All whilst ignoring the big one “I AM an alcoholic”. Incidentally he also does the things he says he doesn’t.
It is the task of the church’s leadership to guide the church in looking at itself, asking at times probing questions, offering painful answers, and delivering practical solutions. This can helpfully be done by addressing the question “What is the church?” Lamentations is less helpful at New Covenant specifics so if you if you go through the centuries to the Jerusalem of Acts 2 and focus especially on 42-47 you should arrive at answers similar to the ones I’m about to give you.
New Testamently, it is a local gathering of Holy Spirit empowered people who know God as their Father, having turned from sin and trusted in Jesus, the eternal Son of God made flesh, for salvation. These people have publicly declared their allegiance to and union with Jesus Christ as sacrificial crucified, dead, buried, and resurrected King, and are committed to meeting regularly with one another for worship and witness, through preaching, prayer, praise, and the practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Grasping this and seeking to live it out serves as a useful framework for four areas that may need revitalising within the church, namely theology, identity, activity, and visibility.
When it comes to Theology, this definition speaks to the Fatherhood of God, the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, the eternal being, Incarnate person, and sacrificial work of the Son, who loved the church and gave himself for her, was crucified for sins and raised from the dead to justify, that is to make us right with, God.
As for our Identity, it communicates that above anything else we are people of the risen King, no longer defined by our sins but by our Saviour and under his authority.
With regards to Activity, whatever else we do we are to be committed together to the teaching and preaching the Word, fellowship, the right exercise of the ordinances, and prayer. No amount of programmes are sufficient to replace these core practices of the early church since Acts 2. If other activities are coming at the expense of these, you are not doing it right. The teaching proclaims a risen Christ, the fellowship is around a risen Christ, baptism is into Christ’s burial and resurrection, even as we are buried with him in baptism we are raised to walk in newness of life, the Lord’s Supper proclaims Christ’s death, his body broken and blood shed - an event that only makes sense in light of his resurrection. Our prayers, are in the name of Jesus, knowing that he now risen and ascended represents us and himself prays for us, so we can freely access God and the riches of his grace.
When it comes to Visibility - the church is for worship but also for witness. Our theology, identity, and activity should be no secret. The earliest church praised God and “had favour with all the people”. People need to see us and notice us, not for us as people who practice our righteousness before men, but for our Christ. They may not like what they see, but if they find you distasteful make sure it can only be because they find Christ distasteful. You will want to Put a sign up if you don’t have one or a new sign up if you have an old one that is looking damaged and dated. You will want any literature you distribute to point people to your church and any activity you do to be clearly identified as a ministry of your church. You will want a website that is an easy to navigate 2000teens website not something cluttered and from the dawn of the internet. But make sure in your efforts to provide signposts to you, that you yourselves serve as signposts to Jesus.
It may be a year or years before you can even think about inviting people to your church. This is the testimony of friends revitalising churches in London’s St John’s Wood and Finchley. They first focussed on personal discipleship, clarifying the church’s doctrine, order, and practice. Such a period of deep, thorough house cleaning may be difficult even painful but it could be necessary for lasting health.
As an important aside, Concurrent with this spiritual house cleaning, there will often need to be other cleaning. Those who have buildings especially. A defining trait of churches that have died past revitalising and need replanting all together is the amount of pointless clutter and rubbish accumulated. I lose track of the skips I have filled. I already suspect that church buildings in our nation are unrivalled for state of disrepair and decay into which they are allowed to fall, but perhaps you can’t financially do much about that. The Urban life is expensive but urban lives are often poor, even impoverished by the measure of our cultural context. At the very least you ought to be able to keep your building clean. An unkempt building betrays a congregation of sluggards, and sluggards are not the friends of vitality.
Will any of this be easy for a church that has become loveless and lifeless, its people hopeless and helpless? Not at all. Even in your bodily life there is some discomfort in waking up, is there not? Your bodies reaction to the light, to eight hours if your healthy of lying stiff in bed. Imagine not only waking up, but coming back from the dead. Your blinded as you leave darkness and enter light, you breathe and gasp as new air fills and expands your nostrils then your lungs, and leaves a burning sensation. You ache so stretch, cracking and popping your bones and joints as you sit up and begin to take your first steps. But you are awake. You are alive. It is well.
You must not forever be looking in. You also need to look out. If looking in is revitalisation at the discipleship level, looking out is revitalisation at the evangelistic level.
Perhaps we look out not unlike the exiles of Lamentations, and the Psalm that I quoted at the beginning. What do we see? Enemies. Deceivers. Lousy lovers and phone friends. Useless allies. Foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless people.
City life shows you a world tearing itself apart on your doorstep and further afield. People are being bullied, abused, tormented, enslaved, tortured, and slaughtered all around the world. Whole nations dwell in the suffering of poverty and despotic oppression. People limp through life like hollowed out shells, moving discontentedly from one job to the next (if they even can get a job), indulging their every fancy without achieving the satisfaction they crave. They drift from one sexual experiment to another, often without any commitment and always without lasting contentment, many just for the sex, flushing their resulting offspring down the toilet, burning them to death with saline, or having them crushed and torn to pieces while still developing in the womb. The environment is being chemically damaged and altered by wanton waste and destructive human behaviours. People feel alone in an intimidating harsh world of violence and despair, crying out for some answer, some hope. But most have none to give.
Rush with me once more to Pentecostal Jerusalem and see that the world is sinful as it ever was but We who believe have Jesus Christ - crucified for sin, resurrected to make us right with God, praying for us in heaven, returning in great power and glory to judge the nations in righteousness. A church that has been reminded and refreshed that they are forgiven people of the risen king are not only better able to go and tell people about that King - they are compelled to. This is where understanding the uniqueness of the urban environment becomes important if you are revitalising an urban church.
Again we are looking at an area that will be highly developed, densely populated, often with diverse cultures represented. People approach the concept of the city with different attitudes and ideas. On the one hand some might run down the city. They argue that “the city” is a rebellion against God’s design and therefore inherently evil, noting that God put man in a garden, that the first city was founded by the fugitive murderer Cain running from God and justice, that cities are like the Tower of Babel, meant to bring people from all over the world together to build a reputation and to get power and prosperity. Scripture is filled with wicked cities, they note, from Sodom and Gomorrah to Tyre and Sidon, to Nineveh, Babylon, and Susa. Characterised by rampant immorality, violence, oppression, slavery and so forth. OK, I take their point. On the other hand, are those who rhapsodise about the city. From Scripture they would argue that God commanded Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it, and this ultimately would entail cities. They note that the manifestation of the presence of God in the glory-cloud filled the Holy Place of the Temple in...a city. God sent Jonah to proclaim judgement on a city so that the city would repent and enjoy his grace. God commands exiled Judah to seek the peace of the city. Jesus saw fit to compare his followers to a hilltop city at night time. The ordinance of the Lords Supper was given in the city. The Holy Spirit came down on the church with abiding presence and power in an upper room in the city. There might have been plenty of towns and villages reached, even an Ethiopian brother on a wilderness road but the apostles spent most of their recorded events in the city. So does God the just and justifier hate or love the city? The answer is...yes.
If you are in the leadership of an urban church that is being revitalised it is imperative that you lead your church to look out and see your city, your region of the city, your borough, your town centre, your ward, your immediate area, your street and to do so with the angry love of Jesus that sees both wickedness and worth. If it sees only wickedness, it will retreat further into isolationism, which will result eventually in the doors shutting, perhaps forever. If it sees only worth, it will rush to pragmatism at the expense of biblical principles, which might fill a building but forfeit the blessing.
Knowing your area and acting in ways big and small to positively impact it is essential. Allow me to illustrate with reference to our situation.
Our city is London, population over 8 million. Our region is North London, population over 1 million. Our borough is Haringey, population 272,900. My town centre is Wood Green, population 28,500 or so people in 1.8 sq. miles. Our ward is Noel Park, population somewhere around 15,500 people. Our immediate area is technically called Hornsey Park and consists of five residential roads. Our street is Park Ridings, a small residential road that has 65 terrace houses, with many more residences when flats are considered.
Wood Green is a cultural melting pot with people from everywhere imaginable, of every conceivable belief - and some you likely could not conceive of. The church I pastor is a snapshot of the area’s diversity - though not a large congregation, I recently counted around 18 different ethnicities present. Most people in the area where I live and serve have no idea what a biblical church looks like or what it's about. All forms of idolatry from radical Islam to ritualistic organisations like Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy to rampant individualistic materialism and atheism are accepted and immorality is celebrated. West of me is one of the top ten most prosperous areas in the nation while one of the top ten poorest areas is East. Despite quite recently emerging pockets of trendiness and more professional, wealthy people moving into the area Wood Green has largely taken on the character of the poorer of these two areas and a fairly significant percentage of the local population are in government housing, often though not exclusively on housing estates.
Our troubled area has made it into the news a fair amount. If you’ve heard “Wood Green” in recent years it likely relates to a fatal shooting or stabbing, mostly gang related. Or your may have read the horrific piece by the BBC a couple of weeks ago about a Romanian girl trafficked and enslaved as a prostitute in Ireland. I read it and was jarred to read of the young woman’s kidnapping outside her home in...Wood Green. Or perhaps you saw the Channel 4 documentary “Dreams of a Life” which tells the story of Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman in her mid thirties who died and no one knew or cared for three years. The floor into which her body melted over those years was in a flat on Sky City, a housing estate on top of the shopping mall mere meters from our front door.
Members of the urban local body of Christ should have a real, tangible concern for the peace and wellbeing of their area. This concern led me to get involved in a number of community projects in the area. For almost eight years I have coordinated a neighbourhood watch, now co chair the local residents association, and chair a local Residents and Business Liaison Group interacting with housing developers, the local council, and various community and business representatives consulting on a large proposed housing development on our doorstep. Through these responsibilities I have gotten to know the community and to care for it in friendly, observable ways that have provided gospel opportunities I may not otherwise have had so readily, whilst also building the profile of the church in a community that would gravitate to disillusionment, disregard, or disrespect in matters of faith.
Safer neighbourhoods, community gardening, and housing regeneration projects are great so far as they go but they stop short of eternity. I want to see my neighbourhood safe from crime but I also want it to be safe with Christ. I want to see Wood Green’s grim brick and concrete landscape kept clean and beautified with flowers and greenery but I also want to see the people who walk its streets glorified by the faithfulness of God. And yes I want to see Wood Greens houses and estates regenerated, but that concern is outweighed by my concern that its humans be regenerated, born again of the Spirit of God with repentance and faith in the risen Christ. That’s why later this year when we deliver 50 Christmas dinner hampers to needy families, we will make sure they also receive the gospel. Man needs bread but he can’t live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from God.
When leading my church at the looking in stage, I’m seeking to help them identify points of weakness in their worship and their witness, and to equip them with what is lacking so they can go out and tell people about Jesus. This requires more than arranging a once yearly Christmas leaflet drop or Easter tracting session and enlisting helpers. Consistency and regularity are vital. Once a week on Sunday afternoon’s we have a book table that we set up on the high road before the evening service, engaging Sunday shoppers with literature in a range of languages and with the two most significant belief systems of our area - atheism and Islam in mind, inviting them to the church, and talking with those who stop about Christ. Every two weeks on Tuesday afternoon’s we have an outreach with the book table and sketch board street preaching. Opportunities like this help people to formally put into practice things they have learned with structure and oversize additional to personal evangelism they do in day to day encounters. Our Sunday morning Gospel Project growth groups blend large group teaching with small group discussion, often with a strong missional theme. Our preaching aims to explain, illustrate, and apply a Bible passage with the hope that God works in the church so that he might then work through us. Occasionally we dispense with the normal format of our Sunday evening service to have a Questions and Answers evening at which people are encouraged to write or text questions - often they tend to be things our people have been asked and aren’t sure how to answer. Looking in, through these and other ways we consider how we might stir one another to Look out with love and good works. And then we actually seek to do it, albeit imperfectly, personally and congregationally.
But how is this cycle of looking in and looking out sustained? And how is it that the urban church will well and truly be revitalised?
You must look up.
Some churches looking for a quick fix may invest their hopes in a person,
Perhaps the pastor, a new pastor, or some kind of revitalisation consultant with, one would hope, the necessary expertise. Others may go to a parachurch organisation or denominational entity. If they are expecting this person or people to save them, their expectations are misplaced. I remember a young Somali man, just a teenager, who was involved with a local gang of similar young men in the drugs trade. Since pushing him against a wall and interrupting a deal one dark and lonely night on Wood Green High Road a few years ago, we have had several friendly passing exchanges. The first time after this event, he walked up to me and hugged me: “You saved me” he said. But not for long apparently. The next time I saw him he had a scar on his face, allegedly made by fellow gang members, and was back dealing. “When does it end?” I asked. “Get rich or go to prison, you know what I mean”. Well, he’s not rich and he’s been to prison and though it’s been a while I can only assume he’s still dealing. Fat lot of good my salvation did him. But were he to take hold of the Lord’s salvation!
So it is with the church that looks to someone else to effect the desired revitalisation. They are like the city of Jerusalem looking out for help from a nation that could not and ultimately would not save. But out of the ashes of that city the hopeless man of Lamentation 3 arises, spits out the gravel on which his teeth have been made to grind to sing “I might have said I was hopeless then but I remember now and so I do have hope: the steadfast Love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end they are new every morning, Great is thy faithfulness.” “I was throne into a pit. They sealed it with stones and Water came over my head and I cried “I am lost”, but then I heard the Lord come walking by. He said “Do not fear”, pulled me out, pumped me alive again!
They are like the disciples must have been before they saw the risen Lord. Looking in, they knew guilt and grief. Looking out they saw God-forsaken Golgotha, a gory cross on the hill of the skull, a grave filled, sealed, and guarded, a grim future in a godless world. But just as the seed goes down into the ground, dies, and rots so that it might bring forth new life, up from the grave Christ arose! Weeks later they looked up and saw God made flesh, Christ triumphant, ever reigning, Saviour Master King, Lord of heaven, our lives sustaining, ascending with all authority, the promise “I am with you” still in their ears. They returned to the city, gathered for prayer, the Spirit came down, and the glory of the Lord filled not a temple but people, men and women like you and me. Those people proclaimed the wonders of God and his salvation, and the twelve turned 120 became over 3000 in a day.
If ever a church was vitalised it was that church. To be revitalised you will have to look in and ask whether you are devoted.They devoted themselves. You will have to look in and ask what your church is devoted to - The apostles teaching and fellowship, Breaking of bread and prayers. You will have to look in and out and ask how are we devoted? Is it with unity? All who believed were together. Is it with impact? They were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all as any had need. Is it with worship? They did this with glad and generous hearts, praising God. Is it with witness? They were in the temple, they were from house to house, they had favour with all the people. But never, ever forget “why you are devoted”. My Bible says in verse 43 “And awe came on every soul”. Awe of the God who gives life.
You feel afflicted, dead and buried? It is in the rich soil of adversity, that the acorn of our faith grows into a mighty oak. It is in the winds of doubt, that that the steadfastness of our roots are most tested, and when passing the test, proven. You look ahead and don't see a way? Our God is the God who makes a way out of no way!
The Lord will make a way somehow, when beneath the cross I bow,
He will take away each sorrow, let Him have your burdens now;
When the load bears down so heavy the weight is shown upon my brow,
There’s a sweet relief in knowing the Lord will make a way somehow.
He will take away each sorrow, let Him have your burdens now;
When the load bears down so heavy the weight is shown upon my brow,
There’s a sweet relief in knowing the Lord will make a way somehow.
Applying worshipful principles and wise practice your church will be able to claim the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Cor 1:
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”
So with the man of Lamentation 3 rediscover the love of God for you. It is Greater than our feelings. Greater than our faithlessness. Greater than our fear.
With the people of Lamentations 5, look to the Lord because he remembers! Look to the Lord because he reigns! Look to the Lord because he restores.
In Christ, the once dying or dead urban church can say like the old Appalachian gospel song “There ain’t no grave can hold my body down.”