Recently I have had to reconsider the approach to urban evangelism, because of invitations for campaigns in two metropolitan areas.

Many of the things a mass evangelism campaign would have going for it in a smaller or medium-large city are absent in the largest cities. No personality (excepting Billy Graham) has the same drawing power he would have in a smaller place; publicity is fantastically more expensive, yet less effective in creating awareness; the campaign tends to get lost in a myriad of events, both religious and secular, competing for people’s time and interest; costs of organizing are greater, yet the supporting Christian community is a smaller percentage of the total population.

After much thought and prayer three conclusions came to us:

1. The immensely multiplied problems of big-city evangelism must not make us back off from tackling it, if God so leads (God’s Word to Jehoshaphat in Second Chronicles 20:15 turned up in a morning Bible reading during the period we were considering the invitation: “Fear not, and be not dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s”).

2. Evangelism in the big city forces us to take seriously those basics that undergird New Testament evangelism. An evangelistic campaign in a smaller community might appear to “get by” lacking the power of the Holy Spirit, united prayer, the witnessing laity, the caring fellowship, if given enough personality, money, and organization; but such factors would be much less likely to give the appearance of “success” in metropolitan areas.

3. The courage and imagination with which we venture on urban evangelism may well determine the future effectiveness of all our evangelism; the raw need that shrieks at us in the large city puts us in a corner, forces us to face desperate spiritual realities that underlie every evangelistic situation but may be camouflaged elsewhere.

It is in the big city that the evangelistic battle will likely be won or lost. By 1980, it is estimated, 90 per cent of all Americans will live in great strip cities. A church that cannot effectively relate its Gospel to urban man is probably due to decline and become extinct.

A city-oriented strategy is directed by more than demographic shifts. Although we blandly assume that the Bible is hung up on sheep and green grass, these rural metaphors are balanced in the Bible by compassion for the city. Our Lord chose Jerusalem as a prime target. It is recorded that he wept twice: once over the death of his friend, Lazarus, and once over the death of the city that rejected Him. Paul based his missionary strategy on the key cities of his day. He chose to stay two years in Ephesus as a sounding board from which the Gospel could spread through the surrounding province. He had a restless longing to declare in Rome, the nerve center of the day, the same message he had made known in Jerusalem and Athens. John saw God’s future order coming down from heaven not as a garden but as a holy city! If only we could learn to reread our Bibles with contemporized eyes, we might overcome our tendency to assume that God’s work can be seen in the Grand Canyon but not at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

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While thinking about the city I felt led to call several men who minister in New York City. Crossing age, denominational, and racial lines, they hold a common commitment to evangelism in the city. Each gladly shared off-the-top-of-the-head-and-heart reactions to these questions:

1. What do you see as the greatest area of need in urban evangelism? Answers varied from “the whole mass of lonely people” to the “hard-core ghetto resident.” Obviously, no generalization would be completely valid, but they agreed that the most needy areas were minorities in the inner city. Two men, independently, said they were shifting their focus from the teen-agers to the “little people,” the pre-teens. Another targeted both the inner city and the university as having strategic priority.

2. What is your biggest frustration or obstacle? “The lack of social glue,” replied a downtown minister. “It’s a full-time job to create any kind of network to reach people.” “Instant confrontation” and the “tremendous turnover,” said another. “You have no second chance with people.” Inner-city workers immediately pinpointed the institutional church as the biggest obstacle. “The institutional church is taboo to the younger generation,” said a youth worker. “My biggest holdback is trying to separate Christ from Christianity and Christianity from Western culture.” Others agreed, assessing blame both to “the myriad of storefront ‘bless-me’ clubs which don’t want the junkies down the block to come in and contaminate them,” and the Christians who, having fled to suburbia, “come in one day a month to paint the ghetto and whitewash their consciences.” On paper these indictments sound bitter. But they came from burdened, loving men, who for all their weariness and occasional frustration seemed to agree that the present revolutionary ferment in the city “is a perfect opportunity for preaching the Gospel, when people have come to the end of their resources.”

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3. To what would you assign priority? Specific answers varied from an emphasis on “home churches” combined with use of “mass media” to a massive system of education to take advantage of parents’ concern for their children’s schooling and at the same time relate them to Christ. But basically all agreed that: (a) Christians are depressed and need to recover confidence in their Lord and radiance in their lives; (b) the urban church needs to redefine its mission, to reshape its structures around the needs of people, so that its verbal witness comes from a platform of action, “involvement but not entanglement,” with the world. “Our greatest need,” one minister commented, “is a balanced diet of love for all people. We need to devise some way of communicating the Gospel in as many languages as possible to as many publics as possible. But the key is whether people get the idea: This man believes what he’s saying and he’s concerned about me.” “It’s not until love is felt,” said another, “that the message is heard.”

In The Urban Crisis David McKenna throws out this challenge: “Maybe evangelical Christians should muster their forces to take on a strategic city in the United States and win it for God.” Perhaps this is the year to take such a suggestion seriously. The September U. S. Congress on Evangelism could be a divinely timed launching pad for such an effort. The Key Bridge Consultation, which is calling U. S. evangelicals to cooperate in a nationwide evangelism drive during 1973, might be the appropriate vehicle to zero in on one city as a demonstration of what can be done.

That the task might prove difficult, exhausting, even impossible for man is no reason not to obey if God is saying: Do it!

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