The past decade has brought a heavy focus on planting churches in urban centers, particularly in global cities. This is a welcome emphasis for two reasons. First, church planting is at the heart of God’s mission. It is one of the main ways God grows his church (Eph. 3:7-11). Second, the world is rapidly moving toward urbanization. So while we need more churches in every place, we especially need them in the world’s fast-growing cities.
Yet the excitement of what cities have to offer by way of dining, coffee shops, and cultural experiences has fooled many church planters into believing that they love the city. The harsh reality is this: cities are fast-paced, cutthroat, lonely places. And these qualities only add to the devastatingly hard work of planting a church in secular contexts.
Some Soil Is Harder Than Others
In the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1–23), Jesus described different soils, each representing various levels of receptivity to Christ. Although anyone’s heart, anywhere, can be hardened to the gospel, certain contexts have proven harder than others when it comes to evangelizing people with the good news of Christ.
The secular setting of global cities, for example, can form a hardened path that seems to resist the seed of the gospel such that its fruit-bearing potential is quickly eaten up by passing birds (or rats). And in places like Western Europe and the US, post-Christian secularism combines with relativistic pluralism to create especially hard soil. In places like these, people assume they understand Christianity without having encountered the full truth and beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
None of this means that hope is lost, of course. But it may mean that planters need to adjust their expectations and their methods when planting churches in secular cities. Toward that end, I have found the following habits essential to the health and growth our church in some of America’s hardest soil.
When my family and I moved into the heart of Washington, DC, we did so with a focus on reaching non-Christians in our city. We didn’t just want to set up a safe harbor for transient Christians who were only passing through. We wanted to invest in relationships with the hope that Jesus would save our neighbors.
Many of our closest friends had never met a pastor before, been in a church, or had any perceived need for a Savior. Yet they all had strong opinions about Christianity built heavily on broad, negative stereotypes. It takes a long-term commitment to love people to undercut those assumptions and till the hard soil so the seeds of the gospel can penetrate their hearts.
We found people in DC to be much more open and curious than we expected, but real breakthroughs have taken time. Five years into living on our current block, for example, after years of faithfully hosting and loving our neighbors, one of them told me, “I don’t have any real connection spiritually, but I know that a time is going to come when I need something, and I’m going to come to you then.”
Be a Learner
Every city has a unique history. One of the primary jobs of a church planter is to be a missiologist of the context where God has placed him. In other words, learn your city. Get familiar with its quirks. Observe people’s passions and fears. Learn to speak into the nuances of real arguments of real people. That way, you can move past textbook answers and memorized presentations. Look for opportunities to connect all of it to Jesus, just as Paul did in Athens.
For me, this meant learning the language and nuances of partisan politics in the nation’s capital. My job as a pastor is to expose and dismantle the partisan narratives, get underneath what’s happening, and preach biblical truths—not for partisan ends but for the sake of worshiping the true King Jesus.
Preach Justification and Pursue Justice
The church has one mission, and that mission includes both proclaiming good news and doing good works (Matt. 28:18–20; John 15:12; Eph. 2:8–10; Titus 2:11–14; 1 John 3:18).
Unfortunately, it is easy for a planter to focus so much on works of justice that he sidelines the proclamation of that gospel. It’s just as easy for new church plants to neglect good works entirely. Instead, we must keep the gospel as our foundation while working for justice in the world as both a vital outworking of the gospel and a sign of true faith (Jas. 1:22; 2:14-17). We can’t separate the pursuit of justice from the grace we receive through justification by faith. In fact, the former can only truly flow from the latter.
When it comes to good works, however, there is no need for church plants to reinvent the wheel in the pursuit of justice. There was already great work happening in our city, for example. So our church got involved in helping organizations that have been here for a long time. Working alongside them has been much more effective and fruitful than creating our own initiatives. It also helps us maintain the right focus and priorities as a church.
Pray for God to Work
Last, never forget that we preach the gospel to people who are spiritually dead. Our arguments and approaches, no matter how carefully nuanced and constructed, cannot raise the dead to life. Only the Spirit of God can do that. So we must turn to God in prayer, pleading that he might use us, in all of our weakness and uncertainty, to breathe life, hope, and peace into the lives of the people around us.
Even though secular cities can be hard soil, the good news is that the Spirit of God can till the hardest of clay. And if planters have a long-suffering commitment to do the hard work of cultivating, planting, watering, and praying, they need only wait on God to give the growth (1 Cor. 3:7).
Bill Riedel is the founding and lead pastor of Redemption Hill Church in Washington, DC. He was trained at Trinity International University (BA) and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (MDiv) and has served in ministry since 1998. He serves in Acts 29 as the DC area director and on the Acts 29 North Atlantic leadership team, as well as the board of the Eastern District Association of the EFCA. You can follow him on Twitter.