Centers of Influence: Singing the Lord's Song in the Cities

by Gary Krause

The year he turned 68, senior Adventist pioneer Elder Stephen Haskell and his wife, Hetty, went to the mission field. Not Asia. Not Africa. Not South America. They went to the heart of New York City. After living almost all their lives in the country, the Haskells moved into an apartment just a couple of blocks from the southwest corner of Central Park. Haskell marveled at the metropolis they now called home. “In this city there are some buildings over thirty stories high,” he wrote. “In the building where we live there are fifty-three families. The building is seven stories high, and two elevators run night and day.”[1]

The Haskells had moved into a landmark apartment building, the Windemere, in a neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen. The apartment complex was built to help accommodate the rapidly growing middle class of the 1890s. It was noted for its cutting-edge technology, such as the telephone and hydraulic elevator.[2] But Elder Haskell feared they might be forgotten in this urban jungle. “Do not let our brethren forget to pray for us,” he wrote in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. “Do not forget the address. It is 400 West 57th St., New York City.

Haskell was discovering that urban areas can be a dislocating experience. While surrounded by millions of people, you can still feel lost and alone. Easily forgotten. It was an experience familiar to the Jewish exiles to Babylon thousands of years earlier. They felt alienated—physically, emotionally, spiritually. They lamented their lost homeland and cried out, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4, KJV).

This is a missiological question that echoes through the centuries. How do we sing our Lord’s song in the strange territory of the city, where many of us don’t naturally feel at home? How do we even begin an Adventist witness in megalopolises that loom like threatening Goliaths over the mission landscape?

One thing is certain. We don’t have the luxury of just sitting around thinking about the question. In 1909, more than a hundred years ago, Ellen White wrote: “We are far behind in doing the work that should have been done in these long-neglected cities.”[4] Today the world’s urban population is 13 times greater than when she was writing.

How did Mrs. White suggest we sing the Lord’s song in the cities? She had a vision for establishing ministry centers in every city around the globe. She called them “small plants,” “Christian missions,” and “centers of influence.”[5] These urban centers would serve as platforms for church members to follow Christ’s method of ministry—mingling, showing sympathy, ministering to needs, winning confidence, and bidding people to follow Him.[6]

God basically told the Jewish exiles in Babylon to forget about going home. He told them to settle down, build houses, plant gardens, marry, and seek the shalom of the city. “But seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for its welfare [shalom] and you will find your welfare [shalom]” (Jer. 29:7, ESV). Shalom is a rich Hebrew word for blessing, peace, prosperity, welfare. And God was giving them an urban mission—to bless Babylon. Their task was to work and pray for its shalom.

Centuries later, Jesus worked for the shalom of the towns and villages where He ministered. And today, in following His method of ministry, we can also be a blessing to the cities. In fact, according to Ellen White, this is the only method that will bring true success in ministry. As we follow Christ’s incarnational ministry in the cities, we will “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15, ESV). We will relieve the poor, care for the sick, comfort the sorrowing and bereaved, teach the uneducated, and counsel the inexperienced. “Accompanied by the power of persuasion, the power of prayer, the power of the love of God,” says Mrs. White, “this work will not, cannot, be without fruit.”[7]

Ellen White commended the church in San Francisco for putting this method into practice. Just a handful of believers, they followed Jesus’ example and worked for the shalom of the city. They operated a vegetarian café, a small school, and a “working men’s” home. They ran treatment rooms, classes on healthful living, and homes for orphans. They nursed the sick, helped people find jobs, distributed literature. They visited people’s homes, held public meetings, and, as though they weren’t busy enough, also operated a ministry to sailors on the San Francisco waterfront. No wonder Mrs. White dubbed this wholistic ministry a “beehive”—a place of nonstop activity for the kingdom. It was a model she longed to see repeated in every city.

Urban ministry beehives can be emotionally and physically taxing. So, not surprisingly, Ellen White also recommended establishing what she called “outpost centers” in rural locations, where those involved in urban mission could retire to be spiritually and physically refreshed and revived. These rural centers could also be used to bring other urban-dwellers to experience physical and spiritual renewal.

When Ellen White wrote of “centers of influence,” she had in mind things such as vegetarian restaurants, reading rooms, lifestyle education classrooms, and treatment rooms. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the service and ministries are, as long as they are connecting to human need with the goal of showing God’s love in practical ways, and introducing people to the Savior. Centers of Influence are launching pads to start new groups of believers.

Today around the world we see hundreds of different kinds of urban Centers of Influence being established. They include vegetarian restaurants and cafes, immigrant centers, music studios, counseling centers, health food stores, second-hand shops, and “English as a second language” schools. They may look different in different places, but they share a common purpose—to put Christ’s method of ministry into practice and lead people to Jesus.

To learn more about urban Centers of Influence, visit and

[1] Stephen Haskell, “The Bible Training School,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 12, 1901, 739.

[2] Jennifer Lee, “New Owner to Repair a Once-Grand Landmark,” New York Times, May 21, 2009,

[3] Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 9, 1901, 448.

[4] Ministry to the Cities, 26.

[5] Ibid., 49, 145.

[6] See The Ministry of Healing, 143.

[7] The Ministry of Healing, 144.