Ruth and I spent the last two days visiting our son and daughter in Toronto. Mine is a love hate relationship with big cities. I find them crowded, noisy, and as I grow older, more confusing than I once remembered. I am afraid that a world swirling around subway stops, concrete sidewalks, and dashing across busy streets leaves me a bit overwhelmed. My children just take it for granted as we move up and down escalators, through underground malls and hallways. We eventually pop out at the right destination however, regardless of how lost I am. Panhandlers and outright beggars are part of the city panorama and poverty is never far away for tens of thousands of city dwellers regardless of the face of prosperity evidenced in the non-stop building of high rises throughout the city.
There are many things about the city that draws you in and can make your life comfortable. Coming from a small town I find the idea of not only having access to shops and stores without driving twenty-five kilometers a wonderful treat, but also the variety of stores are quite astonishing. Within both my son’s and daughter’s neighborhoods for example, are numerous grocery stores, health food stores, and vegetarian restaurants along with the usual cast of restaurants, deli’s and fast food joints. There is also a feeling of continual motion that is exhilarating and easy to get caught up in. Everywhere you look there is something to do of interest to fill your time. I would think that it would be very difficult to be bored in a city that offers culture, entertainment, and sporting events all within a twenty-minute subway ride.
What I found fascinating and a little disturbing were the numerous churches that sit nestled in between skyscrapers that now dwarf these once proud structures. Many of the churches are beautiful with ornate brick, stonework and beautiful stained glass windows and are in good repair, but they fight a hard battle against a city that seems concentrated upon success and wealth more than spirituality. The pastors and church boards are innovative in making use of their space for service to the community. Many churches have signs advertising after school programs, AA meetings, senior’s coffee, and a host of other worthwhile projects. But, it must be a constant struggle for these downtown churches to attract and keep people with the gospel message when there are so many other options in a world-class city like Toronto.
It might just be me, but I find it so much more conducive to prayer and Bible Study when I am in the quiet of the country. There seems to be time for reflection and serenity when looking out across a humble seascape or landscape. I think Christianity has a huge challenge when it comes to evangelizing the city, and it is going to take more than wishful thinking to make it happen. There has to be a focus on innovative ways to catch the attention of the young urban populations of these megacities. An evangelistic series revolving around lectures on Daniel and Revelation, at least in my mind, is not going to have great success. Too often we seem content to preach to the choir and depend upon Christians in the cities to support a series of evangelistic meetings by not only attending each evening, but also to bring their friends. If this doesn’t happen then the evangelist plods along preaching to a handful of faithful, using up valuable financial resources that could well be used in other ways.
In many areas of these large cities there are whole neighborhoods without a church presence. I wonder what would happen if interested Christians pooled their money, say for two years, and supported a young church planter or a group of families to go into these neighborhoods and become the hands and feet of Jesus. Other Christians might be able to relocate and minister through their work. Yes, hundreds of thousands of dollars on an evangelistic series will stir up the faithful and cause a big splash within the churches involved, but probably have little to no impact on the urban landscape.
As Christians we need to pray that God will open doors for innovative leaders to be able to minister creatively and with passion in the city environment. It takes a special person to catch the vision and then dedicate himself/herself to such a tough mission. For young seminary graduates it is easier to go to an established church in a secure and safe rural setting than face the challenges of urban evangelism, but I am sure there are Christians who are willing to take up the challenge with the right support base and training. We need creative, intellectual people who understand that ministry is not about building up a big church as we think of church, but instead, is about touching lives one person at a time. I learned a lot about that last weekend and after spending time in the city realize how affective that form of ministry can be. As Christians we need a shift in our thinking about what it is exactly that we are called to do and how we are going about ministry.