This post is part of a “chain blog” begun by Alan Knox here.
Charlie Wallace chipped in with the second contribution here.
This post is the third in the chain.
I have previously posted on this topic, or others related to it, on various occasions. I will attempt to avoid repeating what I have said on those other posts here.
The Practice of Unity on the Mission Field
The City Church, a guest post by Paul Grabill
Ministerial Ethics and the City Church
Ministerial Ethics and the City Church (part 2)
Baptist Associations and the City Church
Wolfgang Simson, the City Church, and the IMB
The City Church Revisited
Thoughts from Philippians on the City Church
The One True Church
In my thinking regarding the “city church,” I have been influenced by four or five different things. First, and most important, my study of Scripture. Next, my experience growing up in the United States in the context of several different Southern Baptist congregations, and the general ecclesiological milieu of the United States that has been significantly shaped by denominationalism, local church autonomy, and individualism in general. After this, I would point to 10 years of missionary experience in the region of Extremadura in southwest Spain, in which I observed and participated first-hand in a region-wide fleshing out of much of what I understand the New Testament “city church” to embody. Then, other experiences in other parts of Spain in which the particular dynamics of the collective Body of Christ have not been quite as conducive to the same sort of dynamics I experienced during my time in Extremadura. Finally, I have been influenced by reading from fellow believers, both in books (most notably, That None Should Perish, and Prayer Evangelism, by Ed Silvoso; and Houses that Change the World, by Wolfgang Simson), and in interaction through blogs (most notably, with Paul Grabill).
All of this has led me to conclude that a more biblical practice in regard to the “city church” is not only possible, but something towards which we, as members of the Body of Christ, ought to give diligent effort in promoting. At the same time, I am painfully aware that there are very significant roadblocks that stand in the way of seeing this come to place in any meaningful fashion.
1. One obvious and major roadblock is that of doctrinal differences between individual believers and separate congregations of believers. As I see it, at least at a certain level, there are certain beliefs and practices that, although within the realm of generally agreed upon evangelical orthodoxy, are incompatible with each other with respect to certain aspects of church life. One of these is the practice of believers baptism. Another is the role of women in ministry.
If, for example, one group of believers is convinced that only adult believers should be baptized, it would be a violation of their conscience to be involved, in one way or another, in the sponsorship or advocacy of infant baptism. It would also, for example, be difficult for those who are convinced that Scripture does not allow for women to function as elders in the church to participate fully in a “church” that recognizes women as elders.
My experience, however, has been that it is possible to maintain fellowship at a deep and meaningful level with other believers on a local basis, without, at the same time, necessarily having to compromise on issues like this. This requires that “local churches” or “congregations,” as we traditionally know them, continue to exist and faithfully carry out the doctrinal distinctives each one feels Scripture demands of them. It involves, at the same time, though, “agreeing to disagree” with believers from other groups, or who interpret Scripture differently, in order to accomplish other objectives.
In this sense, I should clarify that the “city church” I am talking about here does not entail the dissolution or organizational merger of existing “autonomous” congregations, nor necessarily of denominational groupings. It is not so much of an “either-or” thing as it is a “both-and” thing. I also believe that the doctrinal basis of fellowship within the “city church” should be generally recognized evangelical orthodoxy. Basically, all those groups whose teaching would lead its adherents to be truly “born again” would be included. Those that teach a “works-based” salvation, or who are defective on basic evangelical essentials, would not.
2. Another roadblock to a successful “city church” dynamic is the overall size of the believing community in a given area. In Extremadura, for example, the total number of evangelical believers is around 1,500 people (of which approximately 1,000 belong to the gypsy ethnic minority), among a total population of about 1,100,000. The size of this group, and the extreme minority status of evangelicals at large in the community, in my opinion, helps to create a favorable atmosphere for the development of a successful “city church” (or actually, in this case, “regional church”) dynamic.
In Madrid, however, where the evangelical community and overall population are both much larger, it is much less practical and more difficult to maintain the same dynamic as in Extremadura. I am aware of several different initiatives in Madrid to bring believers of different congregations and denominations together for fellowship and cooperation in ministry. But it has proven much more difficult to gain the active participation of such a wide representation of the Body of Christ in these activities as it was (and continues to be) in Extremadura. Although there are other factors involved, I believe a primary reason for this has to do with the physical size of the group.
In order to get around this roadblock, I believe it is helpful to break down “city church” functional units into smaller geographical and/or numerical groupings. Actually, I have been involved in a joint monthly prayer meeting with believers from various backgrounds and affiliations in a one specific quadrant of the northeast part of the Madrid province that, while not yet functioning as a full-blown “city church,” does seem to be doing a great job of incorporating some of these same dynamics.
In the States, the complexities involved with this are multiplied many times over, with the huge amount of evangelical believers and congregations present. In spite of this, I am aware of several initiatives within the States that seem to be making some real good headway in relation to this.
3. Another significant roadblock is that of ethnic and racial divisions. Even in Extremadura, as I alluded to earlier, there is a significant divide between gypsy and non-gypsy evangelicals. The gypsy culture has some very specific idiosyncrasies that make it difficult for them to participate in something like a “city church” with non-gypsy believers. Some of this has to do with matters of taste and cultural preference, such as styles of music. But some has to do with deeply embedded social mores, involving things like gender roles, and leadership dynamics. There are also several important doctrinal issues that complicate things even more.
More and more, though, throughout Spain, with the arrival of many believing immigrants, and the subsequent establishment of many predominantly immigrant congregations, the ethnic and racial barriers to a meaningful practice of “city church” continue to grow, and are delineated less specifically along the gypsy/non-gypsy divide.
In the United States, race and ethnicity is one of the most blatant factors inhibiting a greater practical unity among the Body of Christ. If we are honest, though, we must come to grips with the fact that it is not quite as simple as Rodney King saying “We can all get along” or everybody joining hands and singing Kum Ba Yah. There are serious issues that must be broached, and forgiveness and reconciliation that needs to happen at a very deep level.
In spite of these very real and challenging difficulties, though, we were able to experience some wonderful times of joint fellowship between gypsy and non-gypsy believers in Extremadura, including occasional joint worship services, and joint participation in the March for Jesus. In the United States, there are many efforts at racial and ethnic reconciliation that could be cited as examples. Recently, I am especially encouraged by the reports coming out of Jena, Louisiana, and the city-wide revival that appears to be taking place there. All in all, though, to talk about the “city church” and greater unity in the Body of Christ, and neglect to work diligently towards greater unity along racial and ethnic lines is, in my opinion, sheer hypocrisy. I see this as very much a priority issue.
4. A final roadblock toward a positive practice of the “city church” that I would like to point out here is one that may come as a surprise to many of my readers. This roadblock has to do with certain expressions of the “simple,” “organic” or “house church” movements.
Among Southern Baptist International Mission Board workers, undoubtedly many have first been exposed to the whole idea of the “city church” through the writings of Wolfgang Simson. Simson is a leading advocate for “house churches” and proponent for the “city church.” Personally, I am intrigued and attracted by much of what Simson and others with similar ideas have to say. However, I have picked up on a certain tendency by many to disenfranchise, as it were, the “traditional” church as an important part of what God is doing in the world today.
I am firmly convinced of the extreme value of small communities of believers for the practice of solid discipleship and the various aspects of “one another” ministry reflected in Scripture, which is such an integral part of what church is all about. I also agree with a good deal of the thesis of Frank Viola and George Barna regarding the intrusion of pagan practices down through history into institutional Christianity.
However, if we take seriously what Jesus, and the Bible in general, teach about the unity of the Body, I don’t think we can just “write off” 2,000 years of Christian faith communities that have represented, in many times and many places, the vast majority of born-again believers with whom we will one day gather together around the throne of the Lamb. Although I think that “institutional Christianity” in general could benefit much from taking to heart the majority of the values and ideas being proclaimed by the “simple church movement,” I am convinced that a true, Christ-honoring practice of “city church” will necessarily embrace more than just the collective “house churches” of the city. And, it will not be primarily a “house church” thing; at least not in the initial stages.
This is quite simply because the “city church,” by definition, embraces the entire Body of Christ in a given locality. And, at present, in most places around the world, the entire Body of Christ is made up primarily of fellow believers who are part of so-called “institutional churches.” In order for the “city church” to function in the way I believe Jesus intends it to function, I believe that those on all sides of this issue must mutually embrace each other, and accept each other as full-fledged members and equal participants. This may be a challenge to some who are more radical in their convictions. But, I believe, in the long run, it will bring more honor to the name of Christ, and bring us further along in the advance of the Kingdom of God on Earth.
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Alan Knox, City Church - A Chain Blog
Charlie Wallace, City Church: Meeting
David Rogers, Roadblocks on the Path to City Church
Steve Sensenig, The Major Roadblock to a City Church
Paul Grabill, The Resurrection of the City Church: Who Will Move the Stone?
Jon Amos, A City Church Thought Experiment
James Goetz, The Restoration of the City or Locality Church and Apostolic Leadership
Alan Knox, Unity and the Church in a City