Engaging people, making friends, building relationships, new rhythms, new schools, lives transformed, pastoring a church, worship services, graphics, marketing, promotion, events, programs, and so much more. These are just a few of the things that a pastor wrestles with as they engage the city that God has called them to spend the rest of their lives in and pastor His church. The pastor has no shortage of things to direct their attention to when dealing with the inner workings of a church, but too often the focus is not directed in the right place.
Shepherding a church is one of the things that keeps the pastor awake at night. There are questions as to the timing, the process, the “model,” and ultimately many others regarding how God will provide for all of it to happen. In the midst of all of those questions, the pastor has to be sure not to ever let distractions take away from what God has first called them to: engaging the city. When you look at the call of people all throughout the Scriptures, God calls them to cities. God does not call them to the platform of themselves, but to the cities where people reside. The pastor is either platforming themselves, or platforming the Lord, but never in between. Paul’s entire focus of planting was based on the city. We have letters to Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and so on, thus showing the importance on cities.
In the day we live in, where social media, marketing, and platforming seem to rule the day, this focus on the city can quickly get lost. The pastor wants to establish credibility, wants to “establish” themselves as someone that is trustworthy and looking to the best interest of others, and wants to prove themselves capable of being able to plant a church and lead people. These are all great things. These are things that aid in planting a church. These _are _things that help the pastor reach people. But these are not the things God calls us to when He calls us to pastor a church. God calls us to a city. God calls us to reach a city, love the city, serve the city, understand and learn all about the city, and to become so ingrained into the city that people cannot determine whether we’re from there or not.
Although I’ve clearly hammered the focus on engaging the city enough, I feel like I need make one point of clarity also. Not only is the pastor called to a city, he’s specifically called to a community and neighborhood before the overall city. Acts 17:26-27 puts it this way, “From one man he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries where they live. He did this so that they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”** God has called us to a neighborhood and a specific street so that those around us came place their faith in Jesus. THAT’S engaging a city.
You see, just earlier in Acts 16, Paul enters the city of Philippi. When arriving there Paul goes straight to the river. The river was the source of life in ancient times. People gathered there all the time and Paul went there to engage the city and begin making disciples. There were God fearing Jews at the river, including Lydia, who heard the message of Jesus and “the Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying” (Acts 16:14). Lydia gives her life to Jesus and she and her whole family were baptized. Paul didn’t start the church, then begin making disciples, then engage the city, but Paul engaged the city, made disciples, and out of those two things, the church was birthed.
Somehow, in 2019, as we see churches planted all throughout the U.S. and world, we see more of an emphasis on planting a church right away to invite people into the church. In some parts of the country, this can certainly work, but in working with the largely unreached cities in North America, one cannot invite others into something that they do not think they need. Therefore when someone moves into a town, crafts a great logo and marketing package, and then starts inviting them into their church without engaging the city and serving them above all else, the planter will waste a lot of relational equity with the community, as well as resources that will, honestly and literally, be thrown away. We even see established churches that desire to change their marketing to reach people before engaging their community effectively.
Pastoring a church is hard enough as it is, but starting with the above approach, it’s even more difficult. Engaging the city though, although a much longer approach, gives the pastor needed time to build relational equity that sets the church up for long-term success. Serving a city with no ask behind it is weird to those that don’t follow Jesus. And although it’s “weird” to them, there’s something about it that is refreshing. In our own experience, our community still cannot figure out why we served them a year and a half before our church started. They’re intrigued by why we had no “ask” for them while serving an event. They’re fascinated that we wanted nothing in return from them for serving them the way we did. It’s because when you love a community, when you exegete it, when you pray for it, when you build relationships in it, you want nothing more than to see lives changed by the way the gospel is being lived out, not solely by a church community that is meeting on Sundays. Our desire for our community was that if we had to close our doors in 10 years, that our community would weep not because they don’t have a place to gather, but because they don’t know how certain things would get done in the community.
Although it seems like common sense, I must also add that being called to a city, doesn’t mean that you simply pastor anywhere in that city. For instance, my context is in Denver, CO. And although I live in Denver city limits, I’m not called to reach all of Denver. The community I’m currently in, Stapleton, must be reached before Denver is reached. Often times you can see pastors in a city, and they live in an area that is 15-20 minutes or more away from where their church is located. I’ve found that it’s impossible to reach a city this way and in contexts where people have no relationship with Jesus, they’re not traveling 20 minutes to engage with your church community. Start with your street, your block, your neighborhood, and your community, not just your overall city.
So how can you practically engage a city? Great question.
1.Be an expert on your community.
You’re not just a pastor when you enter into a city to pastor a church, you’re now a community leader. When you think of yourself in this manner, there’s pressure to know all that is going on. You should know your community better than most. What are the demographics, statistics, history, and needs. Who are the local leaders and persons of peace. Engage your city, learn your city, exegete your city, and become and expert of your city.
2. Start with the local felt needs.
The community we’re called to has an average age of 33.4, with close to 2 kids per home. The community is the wealthiest zip code in Colorado, and 43% of the people have a Masters or Doctorate level degree. Although there are many “needs” in the community, the one place we know there is a need is with kids, school systems, and marriages. For us to engage the city, it would be through one of those avenues. We started with the schools in the community, and out of those relationships, we were asked if we would use one of their schools to worship in and the principle ended up giving her life to Jesus. What are the local needs to your specific church community?
3. Invest regardless of the return.
Whatever you do, don’t make the ask in the beginning. When you serve, fight every inclination you have to ask for something in return. If you love the city, then you’ll serve it without any return. This shows them that you’re there for the community, and not just in it. When the pastor is for something, then they don’t have to have an invite card to their gathering, their event, or anything else, but simply their life. Serve the community to serve it, to show love for them, and ultimately to display the love Jesus has for them. You will have a return when you focus this way, whether in heaven, or through a community that sees you as a leader that is there for them no matter what.
Church planter, pastor, and leader: Engage your city, make disciples, then start your church.