by Gerson P. Santos

I was standing at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan, waiting for Justin. I’d met him a few weeks earlier at lunch after church service. He had been sitting at the other end of the table, and I hadn’t had a chance to talk much with him. I needed to leave the lunch for another appointment, but, noticing he wanted to continue the conversation, I gave Justin my business card and invited him to contact me in two weeks when I returned from a trip. When he did, we made plans to meet in front of Bloomingdales. (I wouldn’t meet someone there if I had my wife, Leila, with me—we would definitely be late for the appointment.)

After greeting each other, Justin and I walked a few blocks to the restaurant. Born in India, he had accepted Jesus as his Savior a few years earlier while still living there. In New York, between work and graduate studies, Justin had been “church shopping” for a while. He had developed friendships in several communities but was still looking for one to call home. We entered Yuva Frontier Indian Grill and found a quiet corner to sit. He asked what I wanted to eat, and I told him I needed a mild vegetarian meal. “No problem,” said Justin, “they can do that; a lot of Americans visit this restaurant.” He was correct. As I looked around, I noticed that the waiter and my new friend were the only Indians in the restaurant.

I’ve been thinking about that. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful surprise to visit our churches and see more visitors than members? I guess that Indian restaurant has been very mission focused, successfully sharing Indian cuisine in the American society. From all reports, those Americans eating at the restaurant weren’t just converts—many were repeat customers. They were Indian food disciples. In a way, this urban restaurant was doing a far better job than many Christian churches that only gather the saints together each weekend, with little concern about reaching out to their community.

As we look at the challenge of mission to the cities, we can’t continue with business as usual. If we’re serious about following God’s call to the great urban areas of the world, then our focus must be outward rather than inward, and we must build disciples, not just conduct baptisms.

The call to make disciples

“There are many Seventh-day Adventists who do not understand that to accept the cause of Christ means to accept His cross,” writes Ellen White. “The only evidence they give in their lives of their discipleship is in the name they bear. But the true Christian regards his stewardship as a sacred thing. He perseveringly studies the Word, and yields up his life to the service of Christ.”[1]
Today many people—Christians and non-Christians—believe that you can be a Christian without being a disciple. In fact, little attention has been given to the main goal of the Great Commission, which is to “make disciples.” Are we taking Jesus’ words seriously? Do we have a disciple-making strategy for urban areas? If we do, is it working?

As we follow Christ’s method in urban areas, our goal is to not only have people become church members but to have their lives transformed—to be disciples who make disciples. Ellen White says: “The object of the Christian life is fruit bearing—the reproduction of Christ’s character in the believer that it may be reproduced in others.”[2] It’s not enough to use our outreach ministries as “bait” to attract people to church and then tell them something like, “Sit down, behave, and don’t do anything wrong.” We have a higher calling. What does discipleship mean in your church? What are you doing to help people mature in their relationship to Jesus?

It’s easier to do what we call evangelism than it is to make disciples. You can give your personal testimony and lead someone to Christ in just a few minutes, but it takes years to make a disciple of someone. In reality, discipleship happens throughout our lifetime. We never really stop growing in our faith. Writes Ellen White, “When in conversion the sinner finds peace with God through the blood of the atonement, the Christian life has but just begun.”[3]

Unfortunately, often we think of evangelism as a public event conducted by an expert whom we call an evangelist. The biblical view of evangelism is more than an event—it’s a process, something that is ongoing. What if it could happen in urban offices, workshops, universities, schools, homes, and sporting clubs? What if it were happening every week? What if every church member were doing it in their own style, using the gifts God has given them? What if it were adapted to local culture? What if it were personal, real, and natural? The Great Commission was not, “Go and make converts,” but rather, “Go and make disciples.” In many ways we’ve done a great job at reaching lost people, but perhaps we’re not doing so well in the area of discipleship—facilitating the process of maturing in Christ.

Christ’s method alone

Building loving relationships is an essential part of any mission work in urban areas. In the beginning, the first man and woman started out in a perfect relationship with God (Gen. 1:27, 28). Sin broke that relationship, but Jesus came to heal and restore—and that restoration will be completed at the end of this world’s history (Rev. 21:22). Ministry is joining with God in the work of healing all these areas of brokenness. We need to learn from Christ how to apply a healing touch to broken people. “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’ ”[4]

This comprehensive approach to outreach is not only based upon a specific formula, but it also accords with several statements where Ellen White says that evangelism is not merely the proclamation of a message. She says, for example, “Preaching is a small part of the work to be done for the salvation of souls.”[5] We need to live the gospel in a practical way. “The world will be convinced, not by what the pulpit teaches, but by what the church lives,” she adds. “The minister in the desk announces the theory of the gospel; the practical piety of the church demonstrates its power.”[6] Again: “The cities are to be worked, not merely preached to.”[7] The effectiveness of any outreach initiative has to be understood within the paradigm of Christ’s method, which is person oriented rather than production oriented.

Discipleship and urban mission

The mission field has moved to the city, and we as Adventists need to respond to this opportunity. The Bible tells us that human history started in a garden but assures us it will finish in a city. More than a hundred years ago, Ellen White wrote: “The work in the cities is essential work for this time. When the cities are worked as God would have them, the result will be the setting in operation of a mighty movement such as we have not yet witnessed.”[8]

Today’s global population is more than four times larger than when Mrs. White wrote these words, and the global urban population is 13 times greater. Should we not also be concerned?

A recent Harvard study shows how urban culture transcends borders. Marlene Towns writes of the challenge anti-Western sentiment poses to businesses and other organizations wanting to work in certain areas of the world—particularly the Middle East and parts of Asia. She points out that many young adults in these regions closely identify with American urban youth culture—the world of hip-hop and rap music. According to her research, among Chinese undergraduates, this familiarity and identification “may mitigate hostility” toward America, and may actually make them more willing to buy American products. She calls this “good news for companies interested in extending their global reach.”[9]

Although we as the Seventh-day Adventist Church are focused on extending our global reach, and our church was birthed in the United States, we are not selling an American product. However, the message is clear: world population may be growing exponentially, but in a sense the world has shrunk. Information today spreads at the speed of light. And as this gospel of the kingdom is preached and demonstrated in urban areas, we will increasingly see it transcending borders and cultural barriers. The urban environment brings people together not only in physical space but also through the connections of social and other media. The harvest is ripe.

The challenge of urban mission

As we look to the large cities of the world today we realize the complexity and diversity of these urban centers. “Most of the traditional ways of implementing Christian mission will not work effectively in the urban context.”[10] Small-group ministries and church planting are extremely effective to make disciples and to fulfill God’s mission. Especially in the cities, they give opportunity for creativity, innovation, and adaptability that are indispensible to reaching out to a diverse community. “Churches are to be planted,” writes Ellen White. “No great centers are to be established, as at Battle Creek; and yet there will be some important churches raised up, and meeting-houses provided in large cities, favorable to accommodating the believers in [that locality]. There should not be a call to have settled pastors over our churches, but let the life-giving power of the truth impress the individual members to act, leading them to labor interestedly to carry on efficient missionary work in each locality.”[11] The Bible doesn’t describe the church as a building. It always refers to the church as a people—God’s people, in Christ—sent by the Spirit to live a life of complete surrender to His service.

When Ellen White presented the challenge of the cities, she mentioned the need to “establish new centers of influence wherever an opening can be found. Rally workers who possess true missionary zeal, and let them go forth to diffuse light and knowledge far and near.”[12] These centers connect the church to the community. They can feature a wide variety of activities such as lifestyle education, treatment rooms, bookstores, reading rooms, restaurants, literature ministry, lectures, small groups, instruction on preparing wholesome food, and much more. The activities of each center will vary, depending on an accurate assessment of local community needs.

The General Conference is working to revitalize Ellen White’s concept of Centers of Influence and to establish a network of self-sustaining Life Hope Centers in key urban areas around the world. Life Hope Centers are an integrated evangelistic outreach. They provide an opportunity for everyone to be involved in ministry using their unique gifts.

The Great Commission is our mission

A few months ago, while waiting at an airport for my next flight, I spoke on the phone to my wife, Leila. “It’s snowing again,” she said, “and you’re not home to shovel the driveway.” It feels good to me to be missed after a few days away from home! It was an unusual winter in New York, with record levels of snow, defying the long-range weather forecasters. Of course, it’s hard to accurately predict snowfall several months in advance. For the past 10 years, 60 percent of one weather company’s forecasts for seasonal snowfall were inaccurate.

But I have an explanation. I credit the snow to Fusion. Fusion is a new Adventist church plant in the Bronx, a borough in north New York City. Before they celebrated their first anniversary, the members were already operating several ministries in the community. One of them was a snow ministry. They would pray for snow and then go into the neighborhood with shovels to clean up sidewalks and driveways. When people asked them why they were doing this, they answered, “Because Jesus loves you, and so do we.” No wonder we had so much snow last winter! This year I’ve already told them, “Please find another kind of ministry and pray for something else.”

But we need more Fusions—missions to urban communities. Going in mission is not an optional extra—not just an upgrade for the “mature disciple.” Going in mission is fundamental to the journey of discipleship. As soon as we start following Jesus, we should view ourselves as missionaries. As Ellen White wrote, “Every true disciple is born into the kingdom of God as a missionary.”[13]

In working for the urban community, the church doesn’t lose its identity, it strengthens it.

Leila has been very dedicated as a multi-grade teacher, trying to keep high academic standards and also to establish an environment to facilitate discipleship in her classroom. One day, Sammy, one of her fifth-graders, came to her and said, “Let me tell you about my ministry.” It’s rewarding to see how real disciples can integrate in their daily lives kingdom principles and turn their lives into full-time ministry.

Christ gave His commission to His disciples (Matthew 28), and then, just before His ascension, He told them they would be His witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the globe (Acts 1:8). They were to go everywhere, but the work wasn’t to stop with them. “The Saviour’s commission to the disciples included all the believers,” writes Ellen White. “It includes all believers in Christ to the end of time.”[14] She says that the command to go into all the world should not be lost sight of.

We are called upon to lift our eyes to the “regions beyond.” Christ tears away the wall of partition, the dividing prejudice of nationality, and teaches a love for all the human family. He lifts men from the narrow circle which their selfishness prescribes; He abolishes all territorial lines and artificial distinctions of society. He makes no difference between neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies. He teaches us to look upon every needy soul as our brother, and the world as our field.[15]

One morning as Leila and I were having breakfast, our granddaughter Sophia called us on FaceTime, which allows us to see each other as we talk on our cell phones. The first thing she did was put her index finger before her pink bright lips and whisper, “They’re still sleeping, don’t be loud.” After a quick chat, she stood up from her bed. “I’m gonna have breakfast also!” she called and ran to the kitchen. Milk, apple puree, cereal. And then she said, “Grandma, you should have this cereal, it’s really good. It’s magic, the milk turns pink.” Then she explained, “There are some little strawberry pieces that make the milk pink.”

I want our churches to be “magical” like that. Some ordinary Christians get involved with new Christians. Following Jesus’ methods, the Holy Spirit blends them all together, disciples and visitors flourish, they become like Jesus, and they impact their cities. It should be like that. It can be real, not magical.

[1] Reflecting Christ, 287.

[2] Christ’s Object Lessons, 67.

[3] The Faith I Live By, 117.

[4] The Ministry of Healing, 143.

[5] Christian Service, 68.

[6] Ibid., 67.

[7] Ministry to the Cities, 95.

[8] Medical Ministry, 304.

[9] Marlene Morris Towns, “How Urban Culture Transcends Borders,” Harvard Business Review, March 2014.

[10] Monte Sahlin, Mission in Metropolis: The Adventist Movement in the Urban World (Lincoln, NE: Center for Creative Ministry, 2007), 3.

[11] AU Gleaner, January 8, 1902.

[12] Testimonies for the Church, 9:118.

[13] Christian Service, 9.

[14] The Desire of Ages, 821.

[15] Ibid., 823.