Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The City Church Revisited

One of the posts that has attracted the most comments on Love Each Stone was a guest post, entitled The City Church, by Paul Grabill. There are many misconceptions about the City Church, including the idea that it eliminates the need for individual congregations, and denominations. Grabill, who blogs at Beside the Point, is pastor of the State College Assembly of God in State College, Pennsylvania. As such, he obviously believes in the value of the local congregation, as well as in denominational cooperation.

Christian Unity: Local Movements & Congregational Implications is a paper Grabill wrote fleshing out the concept of the City Church, and proposing some practical steps for putting it into practice. As a conservative Baptist, I, evidently, have a few doctrinal differences with Grabill. Frankly, there are a few things he says in this article that make me a bit nervous, especially when he uses terms like ecumenism and liberalism, and talks about building bridges to Catholics.

Don’t worry. I’m not on the verge of selling out on such matters as the inerrancy of Scripture, justification by grace through faith alone, or believers baptism. It’s just that, in addition to these, I also have a conviction that we, as Southern Baptists, are not doing all we could and should to work towards the unity of Christ’s Body for which he prayed in John 17. And it doesn’t necessarily mean compromising our convictions on other key doctrines.

In the interest of seeking to be as obedient as we can to Christ’s commands, and making "every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3), I urge you to carefully read what Grabill has to say, and prayerfully consider whether it is line with what Christ would want of us as his children.

Another article along the same lines I highly recommend is Shopping for the Right Church, by Nathan Pitchford. It is well worth the read. Please take the time to read the whole thing and take to heart what it says as well.

For some more practical examples where some interesting progress is being made along these lines, see also:

Mission Houston
The Katy Church
Why a "City Church?"
Church Planting Manifesto


Paul said...

Thank you for your kind post, David.

It may help to clarify a few things:
1. I wrote this piece to a more liberal organization than I am accustomed to deal with. That year, I think I was the only denominational evangelical that received a grant. I think that has changed since then. I am certainly no fan of modernist ecumenism. Besides, it has failed miserably.
2. I believe the City Church movement is and must remain evangelical to its core. That being said, I think there are born-again evangelicals in non-evangelical denominations. I do want to be in unity with them.
3. I believe the City Church movement is driven by biblical fidelity. I must frankly say that evangelicals that have no interest in unity lose most of their credibility with me when they say that they hold a high view of Biblical authority. I don't believe them. I find it most fascinating that many of them will unite with the world to fight a national war, but won't sing "Amazing Grace," while standing next to me.
4. I believe the concepts (to which I ascribe) of 'local church autonomy' and 'plurality of elders' are biblical, but *must* be interpreted in the biblical light of "there is only one Church" in any given city. Sectarianism is unbiblical, and may even be heretical. The status quo is impossible to support from scripture, but God has been most gracious with us. Praise God for that.

As before, I'll be happy to interact with anyone who sees it another way.

David Rogers said...

Thank you Paul for this clarification. From our previous interaction, I was confident that what you have written here in this comment really was your view on this. I made the comment on ecumenism and liberalism, though, knowing my audience, and the red flags those references might wave.

As you state your view here in this comment, I am happy to say I am in total agreement.

Russell M. Minick said...

In a small Chinese city we had this challenge among Christians. Governement 3-Self church, Dutch Pentecostals, some American 5 point Calvinists, some Singaporean Mennonite/Baptist/Charismatic mix, and a a few other varieties for spice. Because it was an effort to reach as of yet unreached tribes/nations/peoples, we took the issue of John 17 unity very seriously. In work and worship there is a degree of resolution possible. The question for unity was to be God-centered in our unity, or more specifically, Christocentric in our Spirit Filled focus on exalting God. Everyone was able to worship together from time to time, to work on various partnerships, etc. Discipling and starting new churches has been a bit more of a challenge, but again, there is more than enough work to be done. We don't need Solomon bringing out the sword for every new babe in Christ. In our small setting we have all learned to duly treasure our distinctions in humility because we have been blessed by how God has used people who love him (they just don't explain him as well as WE do ;-)

David Rogers said...


Thanks for your contribution to this discussion. Your experience and wisdom adds a new dimension that is enriching and appreciated.

Paul said...

David, what a joy it was to come across your blog about a year ago or so and discover that you had been thinking deeply about the same subject with which I've been wrestling for 10 years. I absolutely love the name of your blog. I wish I had thought of it.

I have a question to pose, and have decided to do it publicly and on your blog. If you'd rather do this offline or on my blog, please let me know.

While it seems to me that the biblical argument for the City Church is an exegetical slam dunk (I haven't yet heard a serious biblical argument against it), yet the pragmatic argument is difficult, to say the least.

Here I don't mean the pragmatics of "where do we go from here" to achieve more functional, visible unity, I mean the pragmatics at the core of the argument.

Here's the tough question, it seems to me: While denominationalism is certainly unbiblical (particularly in 1 Cor 1 and 3), yet there seems to be no way of refuting the historical fact that denominationalism in a free market religious environment (we have perfected this in America, as argued in "The Churching of America" by Finke and Starck) has produced some of the most vibrant Christianity the world has known since the first 3 centuries. As recently as 4-5 decades ago, there were an abundance of anathemas in the air--Protestants toward Catholics, Baptists toward Pentecostals, etc., etc., but most all were growing.

For illustration, could anyone seriously argue that any (pick one) NFL team would be better if they didn't have serious competition that they faced week in and week out? Yes, there are winners and losers, but they all get better in the process (like the Williams sisters in tennis). Would we have Wal-Mart without free market competition? The illustrations abound.

So, how do we respond to someone who says, "Okay, so denominationism is not biblical, but it has proven to work and has produced the greatest missionary movement that Christianity has ever known?" What model can we hold forth that appears to have more of God's blessing than the nearly cut-throat American religious competition we have known for 250 years?

BTW, if you want to engage this and choose to remind me, I have an even deeper question than this that I haven't been able to resolve regarding the City Church movement.

David Rogers said...


Yes, indeed, you ask a very relevant and difficult question. I don't have any definitive answers, but here are few thoughts that cross my mind.

It would appear to me that authentic Christianity thrives best when it is not in a position of a comfortable majority. Also, it seems to me the truth seems to win the day more convincingly in the context of a "free market" of ideas than it does playing with a "home-field advantage." This seems to me to match up with what Jesus said: "small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matt. 7:14).

Unfortunately, many so-called "unity movements" throughout history have degenerated into movements of power, control, and squelching dissent. On the other side of the spectrum, though, those who have attempted to loose themselves from the restraint of God's revelation in Holy Scripture have ended up with a bankrupt, powerless religion that ultimately has little appeal to those who are hungry for something more.

At the same time, I am encouraged by some of the reports I hear coming out of China, in which, in many places, the believers seem to be experiencing a practical unity beyond what we know in the West, and, at the same time, dramatic numerical growth and vibrant faith.

Since I have not been there to observe this personally, though, I realize I may tend to be a little overly idealistic. Maybe Russell, or someone else with first-hand experience in China, could shed a little more light on this.

Russell M. Minick said...

By 1950 the missionaries were out of China. Waves of persecution hit in varying degrees. After Mao died and Deng Xiao Ping established control, the insanity of the Cultural Revolution subsided enough for people to quietly open up to one another. The gospel seeds that had been dormant sprang to life. People began to connect, at great risk, and the joy encountering a brother in Christ was overwhelming. Like David said:
"It would appear to me that authentic Christianity thrives best when it is not in a position of a comfortable majority"
Christianity was thriving and the stories coming from that time, I have collected some personally, are the kind that 2Pt2 type TV ministries work hard to fake.
Then came denominational support. Specifically arrangements were made for the growing network of unified Chinese brothers and sisters to head to southeast China and have secret meetings with various outside denominations. The result? mixed.
The story that stood out to me was that everyone received some form of blessing/gift from the outsider and the promise of more... IF.
On the train ride home (and this may be revisionist history oversimplifying) denominations where born as people compared cameras, radios, books, etc. that had been given and their new found loyalties.
What has followed is massive increase in “free market options of Christianity.” Now there are lots of varieties, some who will not work together. Tongues vs. no tongues is one issue, but so is Crying. "How can you be saved if you haven't wept tears of repentance?" Nothing against being broken (ptl), but making it not only a sign of fellowship but an actual evidence of salvation?? It just keeps going.
My worst personal experience was a brother who started an unregistered church that was growing in a very troubled area (drugs, prostitution, random executions...border town nightmare place). Anyway, the local government church(3-Self) actually turned in the secret meeting place of the other church (Baptist) to the police. There reason? They did not want to have to 'compete' with a dynamic ministry when they already had the monopoly. (in gratitude the cops gave the snitch church the bibles, chairs and fans from the busted church).
The direction on a broader level is toward factions, but some still exhort genuine humility (humble as in, being faithful doesn't include being a master splinter picker).
To be fair, the investments of various denominations, before and after Mao, have contributed in many great ways. The fact that we sometimes turn against one another is unfortunate, but certainly just part of the story. Many networks have received training from various denominations and have learned to be Berean in their discernment.
The challenges continue but the momentum that has continued from the formative years (for the Chinese and for missionaries) means that it is a relatively exciting and positive Christian movement. A Paul rebuke of a Peter for being too narrow has to happen from time to time, but the Acts of the holy Spirit continue to unfold.

David Rogers said...


Thanks for sharing your insights. I don't think they provide any definitive answer for Paul's question, but do add some very interesting thoughts to the mix.

I would be interested to know if you have any personal experience with the Back to Jerusalem movement, and how that has served to unify groups that were previously not so unified.


You've really got me thinking about this. I wonder if somehow your post on Penn and the Pilgrims fits in here. Penn seemed to allow for more of a "free market" approach.

I have also noticed that, in Europe, vibrant Christianity seemed to thrive better under Communist persecution than it has in contexts dominated by a state Church, be it Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or even Protestant. I know, for instance, the largest Baptist unions in Europe are in Russia, Ukraine and Romania. Also, from what I understand, previous to the fall of the "iron curtain," the percent of true evangelicals in East Germany was almost double that of West Germany. It seems to me that state Church beauracracy is a pretty serious impediment to the growth of vibrant Christianity.

Paul said...

I agree, David.

What concerns me is that the "American Christian Heritage" movement seems to be arguing for some kind of moderate establishmentarianism, which is precisely what the founders wanted to avoid, and indeed was an absolute disaster in Europe.

I agree that we are at our best when we are a peaceloving, yet spiritually astute and assertive minority. Christianity is a spiritual resistance movement, which Jesus expressed in Luke 13:32.

If persecution is necessary to get the American Church back to where it needs to be, I wonder what that scenario will look like.

Will be regain our sanity and restore our semi-apolitical stance (particularly the premillenialists among us)? In such a scenario, the country-club Republicans may turn on us because we are no longer useful Uncle Toms to them.

Or, will the disasterous policies of the present administration bankrupt the nation so that the majority of the nation blames us for leaving our principles behind, unequally yoking ourselves with the neo-cons, and leading the nation into a non-just war in Iraq (the Babylon Trap, as I call it)? In such a case, we could be blamed as the Jews were in Germany after World War I.

Both could be ugly, but I would prefer the first option, when we are persecuted for doing the right thing. In the second scenario, we would be suffering for our collective sin.

Any thoughts, David or others?

Russell M. Minick said...

Paul wrote:
{So, how do we respond to someone who says,
1."Okay, so denominationism is not biblical, but it has proven to work and has produced the greatest missionary movement that Christianity has ever known?"
2.What model can we hold forth that appears to have more of God's blessing than the nearly cut-throat American religious competition we have known for 250 years?}
My answer: To the degree that denominations were formed because a group was so excited about the Lord they weren’t going to wait for everyone else to agree, genuine contribution has happened. Denominations are the labeling of the group that got on with their particular convictions. To paraphrase one who separated with brothers to follow after God: as for me and MY HOUSE, we won’t wait for you, we’re following the Lord as best we can.”
Example? Baptists in early American history did not wait on winning the discussion of free church, they just went and preached even if it meant they got called names and beaten by other Christians who were setting up their own state churches (after fleeing from ones that had abused them in Europe). Pentecostals (broad use of term) did not wait for approval to explore experiencing the Holy Spirit in empowered sanctification (and signs) they just went for it. The Bad? Arrogance and error by working hard to justify what we were doing for God. The Good? Useful experiences of genuinely pursuing after God bravely. That is why we are against denominationalism (as in the arrogant justification of “I did it MY way” but grateful for work done by various people loyal to various denominations “We really experienced God and have something to share about what we have learned…”
2. Back to Jerusalem is a good, not perfect, model of God’s blessing. The vision is about 80 years old and has played a significant part in the Chinese church emerging from communism with less denominationalism than more. There are problems, especially as power and prestige get associated with B2J (Back to Jerusalem). Again, the arrogance of lording a movement, even a missions movement, is what makes things sad and sickening. The humility of being more focused on releasing the good news of the Lordship of Jesus is when the best happens.
I have seen different sects/networks/denominations (?) in China overcome lesser issues. However, it only happens meaningfully among cruciform brethren. When Christians really take personal risk the pettiness tends to be much easier to differentiate than when you are in a board room looking at budgets and power point presentations. Getting together with people laying down their immediate comfort for the cause of people knowing the biblical Jesus of the cross and resurrection makes the denomination questions seem faint. When I am with someone who has risked physical torture to get training on how to reach out to muslims, I am not all that worried about his FORM of prayer, I am more interested in his manifestation of prayer: boldness to humbly take up his cross.

So, I am grateful to be a Southern Baptist because I have found in history and in experience that there are some great ‘cruciform’ SBs. I believe God lead me to learn from SBs and the fact that I can read the Word cover to cover and be encouraged to learn more from God (not reign it in) is why I am still SB.
Do I know AGs with similar testimony? Yep. Would I want to be part of a city church with them? Yep. Would we choose to have different local teaching/discipling churches because of how we understand some key issues? Yes. Who is right? God knows and will judge both of us. I am sure they get some stuff wrong and my church gets some stuff wrong. The problem is I can’t see what I am getting wrong. So, in humility I ask God to correct me (directly or via my distinct brothers) while I preach my convictions with full integrity (not arrogance).
That is how I can continue gracious debates over 5-fold vs. more than 5-fold, to forbid tongues/demand tongues/or not focus on tongues (love is even better 1Cor12-14). I don’t have to become moderate, abstaining on all the practical and significant difference. I weigh in.
But I also don’t have to be a Bull Dog. My point is that God is love as defined by the life/death/life of Jesus the Messiah. Ripping a ‘competing brand name’ to shreds hardly legitimizes my brand of manifest love! How do we know who is orthodox? They proclaim Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh and they live his form of love for and with the brethren!
(2pt2 etc., John’s epistles show that John 17 is for people who submit to Jesus as Lord, not for people who use Jesus for anti-Christ purposes)
That is how I would start to answer the question someone might ask.

Paul said...

If only everyone saw it the way you do, Russell...

David Rogers said...

Paul & Russell,

I am in agreement with both of you. That makes three of us. I wonder what anyone else thinks. :)

Steve Sensenig said...

I haven't read every word very, very closely, but I am pretty sure that I'm in agreement with Paul in his comment that he wishes more people thought like Russell.

Shall we start a denomination of Russellites?

Just kidding! ;) But seriously, it's always encouraging for me to hear others speak toward unity. I'm usually/often on the "outside" of the SBC discussions, but ones like this continue to encourage me.

Paul said...

David, let me further explore your 11/24 comment:

1. I am thankful to God to have grown up in a disestablishmentarian nation. Established religion has all but destroyed Europe spiritually.
2. I am thankful that William Penn modeled the free market of religion that flourished in America. We need to be honest in saying that the "religious freedom" that the Pilgrims/Puritans sought was only for themselves, not for Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson and others.
3. Christianity was born and bred in a hostile environment, however
4. America, historically, has not been very hostile toward Christianity in general, except that the prevailing culture (post-Puritan) has tended toward Unitarian Universalism (as seen in the conservative version of UUism, Freemasonry) and has focused largely on Mammon.
5. So, freemarket competition provided a substitute for open cultural hostility, as experienced by the Early Church. In ardent denominationalism, all those other denominations got lumped in with "the world," along with the concurrent anathemas.
6. Deeper sectarianism of all varieties promoted this tendency to the extreme, thus Landmarkism among Baptists; UPC ("we're the only ones going to heaven") among Pentecostals; rigid Russellites, etc., etc.
7. The heresy of such movements was seen by many leading evangelicals. Whereas the unity movement of the early 19th century devolved into Russellite sectarianism, the unity movement of the early 20th century set clearly defined boundaries of orthodoxy so as to get as broad agreement as possible.
8. The problem today is that much of the present "unity" among evangelical/orthodox believers is now motivated by politics--Baptists following Presbyterian Kennedy; Reformed following an Wesleyan/Arminian psychologist; Protestants following a man married to a Catholic woman who may have extrapolated from that relationship to draft Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
9. So, the free market competition is breaking down--most levelheaded believers don't think most other evangelical/orthodox believers are lost, so here is my concern (this goes beyond the pragmatic concern I expressed before):
10. Are we finding ourselves backing into the American universalist ethos? Are we losing our passion for lost people (and not growing as a result)? Is lostness now defined in some kind of political way, so that the salt has totally lost it's saltiness? Do we need another set of tracts like the Fundamentals in the early 20th century to reestablish firm doctrinal boundaries or do we proceed in this theologically mushy and politically charged environment in which we find ourselves in the U.S.?

Sorry for the length.

David Rogers said...


Thanks for joining in the conversation. Although I do have a particular interest in discussing certain issues from a distinctly Southern Baptist perspective, I think people like you and Paul add a great dimension to the discussion, and I am grateful to have you here.

David Rogers said...


You have obviously put a lot of thought into this. And everything you say here seems to make a lot of sense to me.

On a side note, did you mean to say "Campbellites" instead of "Russellites"?

Back to the main line of thought, from what I have read of the The Gospel Coalition, they seem to be seeking biblical unity, without compromising on essential doctrine. I am not sure, though, how many of the participants come from a Pentecostal background. I would be interested to hear your perspective on The Gospel Coalition.

Paul said...

David, yes. Sorry to all Campbellites. For some reason my brain fixated on the previous funny to Russell, and didn't move. There is a world of difference between Campbellites and the real Russellites.

Wow; I think I'll try to avoid theological analogies to my brain dysfunction there.

David, I am generally in support of the Gospel Coalition, since I have grave concerns about parts of the Emergent Movement, but I see it as largely an in-house Reformed debate, although mainstream pentecostals are not unaffected by it.

I'm pretty conservative, theologically. For instance, I stopped using Nooma videos a couple years ago.

Furthermore (partly in response to Volfan on Sbcimpact), for me to stop pursuing biblical unity because the liberals got there first and largely abused the concept makes as much sense to me as starting to smoke because the Mormons teach against it.:)

Paul said...

David, let me pose yet a third question, if I may.

Since we have introduced the issue of established religion vs. free market, let me ask what the effect on unity is when there are counties in the Deep South where upwards of 75% profess to be Southern Baptist? Is it a de facto establishment environment?

David Rogers said...


Very good question. I think that may be one reason for some of the resistance to unity among some Southern Baptists.

On a side note, it is interesting to me, the difference in the way the RCC relates to other faith groups in contexts where they are in a clear majority (such as Spain) and contexts where they are in a minority (such as India).

Paul said...

Isn't it a shame when the primary factor of how we relate to one another is not God's unchanging Word, but the vississitudes/pragmatics of perceived earthly power?

One of the good things in State College is that the 2 largest evangelical congregations are committed to the unity movement. My understanding from others that the largest congregations often opt out.

David Rogers said...


Yes, indeed, it is a shame.

It is interesting to me, as well, that the best example of this type of unity I have personally experienced was in the region of Extremadura, in southwest Spain, where evangelicals are just 0.05% of the total population (600 out of 1.1 million).

Paul said...

David, I almost deleted my last not-so-humble posting, but now your response would not make sense if I did so.

Let me say that the Christian unity movement in State College has much to be desired, for sure. I'm just happy when we are getting a few things right.

Brent said...

Here is my quick thoughts after speed reading the thread:

When we go around proclaiming under a label, rather than the cross...pride and subsequent division happens. Every time I get on a blog or site, the authors always advertise their labels ie: Calvanist, Armenian, tongues, no tongues, on and on...until the unity in truth and Spirit can't happen because the foundation has been set in stone and the defenders are on the wall with sword in hand. The defenders aren't defending against heresy...it is for their 'label'. To sum up where I would take hours to peck it out with two fingers is this:

Proverbs 22:10 (KJV)
"Cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out; yea, strife and reproach shall cease."

If under those labels, we scorn those who have a different understanding than we do at this very moment in time...we only cause contention, strife and reproach to His name and those who are named by His grace under His banner.

When the face of the labels have the appearance of pride with a constant drum beating...it isn't of the Lord. I have some more thoughts on this, and in no way saying that we shouldn't defend certain biblical teachings that appear so clear to us, but... here is a little word picture to to keep it in the right spirit...
I picture the most terrible bloody cross that was ever erected, the very one that our flawless Lord suffered and died on...now place yourself under that very cross, and being splattered by His blood that He heaved and tried to breath in one more breath under the weight of my sin, two being scorn & pride. He poured out that blood alone for you and me...and those other called out ones...now picture yourself preaching His 'whole council' while covered in that suffering blood, then our labels will fade and the absolutes of His grace shines and our positions under that scene become weak and HE ALONE BECOMES STRONG!
Holy God- forgive our contentions with one another and help us to be more like you, full of grace and mercy...even when we could be the lion and maybe justified in it.
Love and passion, may it never remain dormant!
Love brothers, without giving in on truth!
From one of His bloody children, trying to die to 'my position' and hoping for more of His.

David Rogers said...


Thanks for your illustration and exhortation. I think it is important that we are careful to not, in the name of unity, exclude those who have a different view of unity, just because they have a different view. How ironic that would be! Yet, that is precisely what has happened on various occasions in history.

Reminding ourselves that we are all covered with the same blood does indeed help us to keep a proper perspective.

David Rogers said...

A tribute to our departed friend Paul Grabill


David Rogers said...

Paul Grabill, His Life and Legacy