“And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left?” (Jonah 4:11).
I recently spent the day in a notoriously violent, drug-infested, and gang-controlled part of Los Angeles. We were actually involved in an outreach there. The outreach went well, and the people in the community were glad that we came and did what we did. On a couple of occasions, we had the opportunity to ask some of the local people what they thought about what we were doing and if anyone else did anything like it. They all responded in pretty much the same way. “Yes, others have come bringing food, clothing, and fun for the kids for the day, but nobody stays.” That answer really struck me. What they seemed to be saying was that although they appreciated the food, clothing, and entertainment, they needed more than that; they needed relationships, friends, examples, and role models, people who would come and invest their lives in the community.
This was very interesting because I was feeling the same way as I watched and participated in the events of the day. As well as things went with the outreach, I walked away thinking to myself, “If this is all we did—the food, clothes, music, and even the gospel proclamation—we have done very little to help this community.” It was then that I once again realized how essential a local church is to the true evangelization of a community. The most important thing about this outreach was that it was birthed out of a church located two blocks from the housing project in which we did the outreach. We could point the folks to the church for follow up and discipleship, and we could depend on the church to carry on the outreach by faithfully teaching God’s Word and having a loving, caring presence in the community.
The local church is the key to reaching a community with the gospel of Christ. It is true that sometimes people come to faith in Christ without the assistance of the church collectively, or even, in some cases, without any involvement with individual Christians. But what does not happen apart from the church and the involvement of other believers is discipleship, and discipleship is what being a Christian is really all about. In the neighborhoods like the one we were in, people need to be led to Christ and then brought to maturity in the faith. That takes a lot of time. We have to teach them the Bible, model Christian living, and show them patience, love, and grace. Sometimes we have to teach them basic life skills and improve their education in areas. If you read the biographies of well-known missionaries, you will see that they quite often did all those things. We are living in a time when many Western cities have areas that socially, culturally, educationally, and economically resemble, to a certain degree, the mission fields of the third world. This is where I think the idea of being “missional” is important to our understanding inasmuch as it refers to approaching our own culture as missionaries.
In places like the inner cities of Los Angeles, London, or any other place with a similar social situation, we need church planters. We need men who will go back to where they grew up, like my friend Jose from Watts, or like my friends from South London: Efrem, Robert, and Patrick. These men have chosen to stay in the neighborhoods they grew up in and work for the good of the community by establishing strong churches.
Obviously, not everyone is called to church plant, and not everyone is called to church plant in the inner city, but we can all do something to help get the gospel and the presence of Christ into these desperately needy communities. Pray about how the Lord might direct you and your church to bring the influence of Jesus into these places, for apart from Christ and His redemptive power, there is no hope in the city.
One last thing: We are putting on a church planting conference this October and would love to have any of you who are interested in church planting join us.