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   Christian Concourse - CHRISTIAN UNITY
An embossed rendition of the Cape May Lighthouse.

A Brief Apologetic for the City Church of Spokane...

 
Topics discussed are:

Section 1... God's Dealing with People on a City Basis

Section 2... The Scriptural Basis for the City-Church

Section 3... Answering A Few Theological & Practical Objections to the City-Church

Section 4.... Practical Applications of the City-Church Ministry Model

"By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:35

"I pray...for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.... I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.... May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." John 17:20-23

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem...." Acts 1:8
 

The life, health and spread of the church of Jesus Christ immediately following Pentecost stands as one of the greatest demonstrations of God's grace and power throughout the centuries. While there were certainly many factors that contributed to the depth and breadth of the early church, this apologetic would like to propose that one of those key factors was the existence of a practical and relational unity of the people of God in any given city and that the absence or existence of such unity has important implications for our city today.

We would propose that the absence of biblical city-wide unity by the Church today has had a detrimental impact upon the life and witness of God's people in the city. Stated positively, we believe that the presence of a biblically united and healthy city-church results in God blessing his people with a level of church life and public witness otherwise absent in that city. We believe that God, in some important way, deals with His people on a city-wide basis.

   

I. God's Dealing with People on a City Basis

   

When one begins to look at the New Testament through a "city-lense" of vision, we are forced to acknowledge that either cities have a particular role to play in God's Kingdom strategy or there exists a significant amount of biblical material that simply "happens" to touch on ministry that is framed in a clearly city-based context.

Consider, for example, the following random questions prompted by a look at God's dealings with cities in the New Testament alone.

    

Why was it that Jesus spoke some of his harshest words of judgment against individual cities (Mt. 11:20ff) rather than provinces, regions or nation-states?

Is it insignificant that Jesus called for effective world evangelization to begin first with effective city-focused witness (Ac. 1:8)? (Note the relationship in Acts 2 & 4 between united city-church life and ongoing evangelistic witness and growth.)

Is there any significance in the fact that Jesus, in the Parable of the Ten Minas (Lk. 19:11-27) rewarded faithful and competent stewards of mere financial resources with oversight of entire cities?

Was it merely superb management expertise that led Paul to leave Titus in Crete to "appoint elders in every town" (Titus 1:5) rather than various gathered fellowships in a given city?

And why, whenever Paul writes to saints in a given city, did he address his words to "the church" (singular) in that city but when he writes or refers to a region (such as Judea, Galatia or Macedonia) he speaks to/of "the churches" (plural) of that region?

Is it not significant that our Lord's last recorded words to the developing churches of the first century were addressed to the spiritual needs of "the church [sing.] in..." each of seven individual cities?

   

We would like to propose that one of the critical components of the effective spread of the Gospel in the first century had to do with the principle that God was dealing with his people at some level on a city-church basis and that his people were, at some level, living in biblical unity at the city level.

We believe that one of the reasons the Church in twentieth century western civilization has been so relatively ineffective today is that it has been fragmented into dozens if not hundreds of unconnected and unrelated congregations and denominations within any given city. Calls for even minimal city-church unity are usually written off as " a contemporary impossibility" or "theological compromise". We would propose that it is neither but rather a falling short of a standard of experience to which God has always called his Church.

Lest this be seen as a merely academic discussion, let us be reminded that never in the history of Spokane, this nation or this world have there been more unsaved and unchurched people than there are today. While the spread of the Gospel is making tremendous strides world-wide, the growth of the Church in Spokane over the past decade or more has merely kept pace with the biological growth of the region (0.5% per year compared to the population). Some congregations have grown. Some have declined. The overall net effect has been that less than one in five people in Spokane attend church on any given Sunday. Of the 414,500 residents of Spokane County, some 340,000 are not a functioning part of a congregation from week to week.

But if God's people in any given city are to attempt ministry on any sort of city-wide basis in a way which encompasses the spectrum of God's church in that city, it must be based upon a solid scriptural foundation.

   

II. The Scriptural Basis for the City-Church

    

Any treatment of this issue must address such plaguing issues as, "What is the biblically historical basis for doing city-wide church ministry?" "What implications does city-church ministry have for theological diversity and orthodoxy?" Furthermore, "What must change and what must not change in local congregations if we are to begin to approach a biblically-driven city-church ministry?"

   

The New Testament data in regard to the city-church:

    

A. Jesus dealt extensively with people in their city context.
 
Unlike John the Baptist, much of Jesus' ministry and miracles take place within cities and towns of Israel. A simple list of the places where Jesus is recorded to have exercised his ministry indicates that cities held an important place in Jesus' strategy of ministry (i.e. Nain, Nazareth, Cana, Korazin, Tyre, Sidon, Zarephath, Caesarea Philippi, Capernaum, Sychar, Bethany, Jericho, Jerusalem, etc.). The passion of the Lord for the city of Jerusalem is undeniable in his words of Luke 13:34, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!"
  
B. The Early Church understood "the church" in three distinct capacities.

    

1. The Church Universal: the entire community of believers in Christ through all ages, in diverse cultures and nations of whom each believer is a part but which does not have opportunity to gather together at one time (see Mt. 16:18; Ac. 9:31; I Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Eph. 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32; Phil. 3:6; Col. 1:18, 24).
 
2. The City-Church: the visible, interrelating, localized (within the same geographical city) community of persons who believed in Christ and periodically gathered together to fulfill mutual functions as believers. See for example, the church in Jerusalem (Acts 5:11; 8:1, 3; 11:22; 14:27; 15:4, 22), the church at Antioch (Acts 11:26; 13:1; 15:3, 30) the churches in Iconium, Lystra, and Pisidian Antioch (Acts 14:21-23), the church at Caessaria (Acts 18:22), the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17; I Tim. 3:5, 15; 5:16, 17), the church in Cenchrea (Rm. 16:1), the church in Corinth (I Cor. 1:2; 11:18; 14:23; 2 Cor. 1:1), the church at Philippi (Phil. 1:1; 4:15), the church at Laodicea (Col. 4:16; Rev. 3:14), the church at Thessalonica (I & 2 Thess. 1:1) the other churches of Revelation (Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7) and other churches (Gal. 1:2; 3 Jn. 1:9, 10).
 
3. The House Church: believers of a particular geographic area/city who frequently gathered together in homes of other believers (Acts 12:5; Rm. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philemon 1:2).
 
Twentieth-century western Christianity has been quick to acknowledge both the church universal and the modern house/local church in Scripture but has given little or no attention to the city-church in the New Testament - that church which is referred to more often than either of the other two distinct church entities.

    

C. The Apostles viewed the city-church as the central representation of the Body of Christ in an area and division of that city-church as a sign of immaturity and defeat.
 
By far the largest body of references to "church" in the New Testament refer to the local city church (see 2.B. above). Most of the epistles were written either to all the saints of a city (Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2) or to the city-church there (I & 2 Cor.., 1 & 2 Thess. and the churches of Revelation 2 & 3). When unity upon that city-wide basis was threatened by factions who followed various spiritual leaders, Paul is forced to speak to them as "worldly, mere infants in Christ" (I Cor. 3:1).
 
Jesus himself prayed specifically for the unity of all those who would believe on Him through the testimony of his disciples and indicated that such unity would be a powerful apologetic to a watching world (Jn. 17:20-23).

Despite that, the twentieth-century western church has largely dismissed the call to any form of unity of local house churches into a larger city-church model based upon some of the following practical and theological objections.

  

III. Answering A Few Theological & Practical Objections to the City-Church

  

A. We will lose our biblical orthodoxy and faithfulness.
 
In calling for city-church unity, we are not asking any single local church to sacrifice its theological distinctives. Unity is not about uniformity. The concept of the universal church indicates that Jesus is ultimately building only one church - that Church which includes a multitude of individual congregations, house churches, city churches and every true believer around the world. Paul defined the parameters of entrance into that church in I Corinthians 1:2 when he said, "...all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours." This level of church obviously has the highest level of diversity with the lowest level of theological uniformity.
 
As we move to the smaller sub-units of the Church Universal, each step takes us in the direction of less diversity and greater theological uniformity. A biblical example of this is certainly the difference between the church in Antioch and the church in Jerusalem in Acts 15. Jews from Jerusalem were trying to add to belief in Jesus Christ the Jewish rite of circumcision as requisite for salvation. In essence they were seeking to enlarge the sphere of "core orthodox doctrine" required for entrance into the church beyond the boundaries required by God. On the other hand, in regard to cultural/religious customs that were matters of preference (personal or corporate), the church in Jerusalem gave advice but never insisted on conformity to their practices in order to enjoy fellowship (Acts 15:28, 29).
 
So, to the question, "What is the primary basis of our theological unity?" we would answer, "The genuine apostolic, orthodox, biblical faith in Jesus Christ necessary for salvation and as set forth in the Scriptures (see I Cor. 1:2; 15:3-4; Acts 16:31; Gal. 2:2). Upon that basis rests the broadest level of unity among the people of God.
 
From there we move into what could be termed a secondary level of unity - those doctrinal issues which do not define the core of the salvation gospel but are important for Christian living. These would be essentially theological approaches and preferences outside of core orthodoxy which define the theological boundaries of any given denomination or church (such as pre-tribulation or post-tribulation eschatology, dispensational or covenant theology, differing theologies of ecclesiology or the gifts of the Spirit, etc.).

Moving yet further away from issues of core orthodoxy we come to a third level of unity and diversity, namely those issues which are not core orthodox doctrine of salvation nor explicit scriptural teachings but rather issues of tradition and preference.
 
Examples of this in the New Testament were the cultural and religious differences that existed between a predominately Jewish church (Jerusalem) and a predominately Gentile church (Antioch) as seen in Acts 15. Today it might manifest itself in styles or traditions of worship, in extra-biblical codes of conduct or dress, in differences of ministry methodology, etc.
 
If the previous three levels of unity are thought of as concentric circles, it becomes evident how sectarianism can easily develop within the people of God. By simply expanding the size of one's "core orthodoxy" required for fellowship with other believers, one includes more and more secondary and tertiary level issues into the realm of 'required core orthodoxy'. The effective result of this is to exclude from fellowship all those who do not agree with one's given theology within one's defined realm of core orthodoxy.

"Christian cults" develop when "core orthodoxy" envelopes all three levels of belief, effectively excluding all others who do not share one's entire belief system.

In summary, to require anything more than the historic apostolic orthodox doctrine of salvation in order for there to be a common ground of theological unity between God's people is to move in the direction of sectarianism and isolation. But to limit the required core orthodoxy to the historic apostolic message of salvation by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is to enable a foundational minimum ground of unity without sacrificing orthodoxy.
 
B. We will lose our local church autonomy.
 
But what of functional unity? What does it mean to walk together functionally as unique, different local churches within a city? Won't there be a loss of local congregational autonomy and in increase of multi-church conformity?
 
Let us state that genuine biblical unity does not require some increased control by a centralized leadership nor decreased diversity in the local expressions of the church. Ephesians 4:1-6 makes it clear that there are certain foundational truths around which the body of Christ in a city can enjoy functional unity and relationship. That passage goes on to express that such unity is to take place within the context of great diversity of expressions/gifts of God's multi-faceted grace (Eph. 4:7-16). We acknowledge the right of each pastor, congregation or denomination to think differently and hold to differing points of theology. But diversity cannot become a justification for functional disunity.
 
It is not common events, projects or methodology that forms the basis of our functional unity but rather the uniting of the Church around a common goal. Events and strategies do not become ends in themselves but rather steps along the road toward a continually ongoing mission of reaching every person in this city with the gospel of Christ.
 
Such unity is closely related to our common theological ground of unity (salvation in Christ Jesus) but focuses now upon the human side of the equation - the Great Commission and the need of every human being for the gospel. As such, it conforms to the purpose for which Jesus prayed for our unity in John 17:23 - "...to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (see also Eph. 4:12, 15, 16 & Philemon 1:6).

The unifying factor here becomes the end result of seeing the Lord glorified through united obedience to his disciple-making call. At the same time it respects and maintains the diversity God designed for his Church in the outworking of that common goal (see Gal. 2:7-10).

   

IV. Practical Applications of the City-Church Ministry Model

   

Finally, consider briefly what such a city-church paradigm of ministry could look like for Spokane. A unity-based paradigm of ministry to the city would, above all, seek God's vision for this city as a whole and would develop a missionary strategy true to the gospel while at the same time encompassing all elements of the true church - "reaching the whole city with the whole gospel through the whole church." Following might be several points of affirmation which could be used as a point of departure for the development of such a ministry by the Church of Spokane.

   

There is only one Church of the Spokane area and it meets in many identifiable locations as local churches.
 
The Corporate witness of the Church is enhanced when pastors and people affirm one another and serve the church and the lost world together.
 
The Body of Christ should continue to grow so that everyone in the Spokane area is given opportunity to become a follower of Christ.
 
When one congregation prospers, the Body of Christ is strengthened. When one congregation suffers, we all hurt. The mobilization of local congregations best facilitates evangelism and discipleship and reflects the unity of the Body of Christ.

Servant ministries and mission agencies are valuable expressions within the Body of Christ and congregations are encouraged to partner with them.
 
As the Body of Christ, we are compelled to respond to the spiritual, emotional and physical needs of our community.

    

Studies by George Barna indicate that "only 3 percent of the churches in this country consistently work in cooperation with nearby churches that have similar missions or strategies toward jointly accomplishing their goals." What might be the impact upon the Church of Spokane and the city as a whole if we were able to see functional unity between a significant majority of the congregations in this city as a result of a mobilization effort led by the spiritual leaders of the city?
 
With over 80 percent (340,000+ residents) of Spokane County's population not in church on a given Sunday, there is certainly sufficient compelling reason for the church to give serious attention to its corporate witness in the community. If the Great Commission is to become reality in our city, it will require far more than any one church or denomination can possibly address.

Other cities in the United States and abroad have made great strides towards entering into an ongoing, mission-driven, gospel-oriented city-church approach to their communities. Though many of these city-church ministry efforts are relatively young, their impact has been significant.
 
For instance, in Colorado Springs, Colorado nearly one hundred congregations are actively and regularly working together to blanket their community with the gospel. Church attendance has risen by almost one percentage point every year (3,500 people) and the number of growing, vital congregations has increased from 10 per cent to 50 per cent of the congregations.
 
At regular intervals the pastors of these congregations gather to strategize and make assignments for such city-reaching spiritual enterprises as praying for and evangelizing every school, every neighborhood, every household, business, etc. No longer is church growth happening primarily through transfer of existing sheep; dozens of congregations are growing through new spiritual births, some 3500 active, new believers a year.

   

Conclusion:

   

While the pastors of Spokane are not the only shepherds of God's church here, we are key influencers in the church. Many will follow our leadership. As fellow pastors we appeal to each of you to seek the mind and heart of God regarding the unity of His church in Spokane. Then we invite you to take the necessary steps personally and with your congregations in order that together we might see the fulfillment of God's ultimate purpose (to fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory, Hab. 2:14) and His immediate vision (to establish the fullest expression of the presence of Christ everywhere) throughout the world.
 
We believe it is time for the whole city to be transformed by the whole gospel through the whole church. Let us together call upon the Lord Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, to make this a reality in our day, in our lives... right here in Spokane.
 
Prepared for A Transformed Spokane (Mission Spokane) by Pastor John S. Repsold, former pastor, Fourth Memorial Church, Spokane, WA

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