The Role of the Church in the City

Rick McKinley, the pastor of Imago Dei, began the day with a reflection on the role of the church in the city and in culture. He based his comments on Lesslie Newbigin’s work, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, which presented the argument that the gospel is always expressed within a culture. Our cultural forms influence the way we understand the message of Jesus and how we choose to practice the gospel in our time.

Rick suggested that there are at least three ways that God uses the city and its cultural context to change the church. First, it affects our understanding of truth. Questions that arise in culture help church people discover and refine what they believe about the gospel and the best way to talk about Jesus in the community. Pastor Mckinley believes that the Christian church, broadly speaking, has a tendency to simplify the questions and the answers without admitting that many of the issues we face are very complex and require significant thought and discussion. Christians want to reduce the truth down to a few simple statements; if you can hold to these five or six things, then you can be sure that you have the right answer!

The city, he said, has a tendency to think and act in a way that is “authentic.”  The people of the culture and city are waiting for Christians to respond in transparent ways to the issues of the day. For Pastor McKinley, Christians must answer the question “How does the biblical revelation speak to culture in a way that is loving but truthful?”

Second, the city can and should affect the identity of the church. The goal of every Christian church should be to participate actively in the life of the city and culture. “We are the city – shape it for the glory of Christ.” Pastor McKinley passionately argued that the church is being sent into the different sectors of society to announce the reign of God.

Third, the city and culture should teach the church humility. Rick noted that it is too often the case that a competition ethic exists in the church. The church exists for itself and the pastor exists to build the church. Churches, parachurch ministries and Christian universities do not see each other as partners but as competitors for scarce resources needed to secure the appropriate place for each organization in the culture. Rick believes that the fact that there are 1.9 million people in the broader Portland area in great need of the message of Christ should force the Christian community in humility to work together for the kingdom of God. The appropriate reaction to the work that needs to be done is humility. What can the church and ministry do together to meet the needs of the community?

The more effective understanding of the church, according to pastor McKinley, depicts the church as existing for the world, with pastors who equip disciples, and disciples who live in the public square announcing the reign of God. The culture needs to see what the church will serve without any benefit to our organization. (We will not call youth to a pizza party and then have an invitation.) The grace (and truth) of God is what we provide to the world. “Your city and culture are not something you are trying to fix but something that will call you to your knees to clarify your own commitment.”

I resonated with Pastor McKinley’s message. Most of us agree that we are living in a post-Christian age and, as a result, we have to live and think differently about how we interact and speak into our culture. The Christian university is poised to have a more significant role in this task than we have had in the past. Our primary task is to prepare young (and older) people to clearly understand their gifts and vocational “calling” and then to live out that vocational call in the culture.

One of the best things about the Q Conference is that it is bringing ministers, vocational leaders and university people together to talk about how we can work together to announce the kingdom of God to our culture in this time.  At George Fox University, we are preparing the next generation of leaders for the Church and our culture. In that context, we want to explore ways that we can partner with Pastor McKinley and other churches, other universities, and leaders in our community to prepare effective disciples who will speak into our communities.

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