Together for the City
The following excerpt is from Neil Powell and John James’ new book, Together for the City, a groundbreaking story of a group of churches who decided to work together to reach their city like never before.
Many of us at Crossway Church knew James was unwell, but he had played it down. He looked jaundiced and became breathless quickly. Not until the Macmillan nurse began to visit did I (John) realize just how serious the problem was. And I was in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, sitting by his bed, guitar in hand, trying to sing “Mighty to Save” and hold it together.
Friendship with James was a life’s ministry in microcosm. He had lived most of his adult life with the traveling community before returning to a hostel in Birmingham. It was then that an old school friend invited him to church, assuring him we were “not like other churches.” I first met James when he arrived like a whirlwind at our Sunday-morning gathering. Later we began to read Mark’s Gospel together, and he became convinced of the good news of Jesus, heard the call to repent and believe, and became a Christian. He was baptized and welcomed into membership, and he threw his all into the youth clubs and building maintenance team.
James began to grow and change. He was increasingly reconciled to his family. He was increasingly able to control his temper. He was increasingly using the gifts God had given him. And then his health deteriorated — quickly. It was eighteen months from born again to final breath.
So, picture the scene. A new creation, a beautiful child of God, rescued from chaos and darkness, saved from the judgment to come, is lying on a hospital bed during his final week on the wrong side of glory. The church pastor is way out of his depth, bumbling his way through James’s favorite worship song, holding back the tears, and attempting to speak the comforting words of the gospel.
But then zoom out, and you’ll see two other church members, also recent converts, holding James’s hand, quietly praying, trying to make their way through the song too. You’ll see three other church members making their way along the corridor, preparing themselves to sit and pray, to tell jokes, to shed tears.
Widen the angle again, and you’ll see an entire church family gathering under God’s Word. They are praying together for James in the building he helped to maintain, nestled in the heart of a large council estate on the south side of the city of Birmingham. You will see a small, multigenerational, multiethnic community that rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn. You will see a youth group of more than forty primary-age local children diligently making “get well soon” cards as they have the news about one of the youth club team sensitively explained to them.
But then pan out further, and you’ll see that this church family is the fruit of a seven-year church revitalization project, with a core team willing to plant into a dying church that had given itself just a couple of years to wind down and close. You’ll see a welcoming faithful remnant girding their loins for the challenges that will follow. You’ll see men and women, young and old, walking along the way of the cross through a process of costly change in order to recover a frontier for mission and begin to make disciples again.
Now zoom out further still. If you look carefully, you’ll glimpse 2020birmingham, a diverse coalition of about twenty local churches collaborating in order to see this revitalization happen. You’ll see other church-planting initiatives across the city, each taking a different form and reaching a different context. You’ll see established churches willing to give away their best people to join core teams, willing to give time to pray, willing to give from their budgets to get things off the ground, and willing to counsel young church leaders who are way out of their depth. You’ll see churches willing to cross boundaries to partner with others in order to reach Birmingham for Jesus, believing they can do more together than they can on their own. This is the bigger picture.
We have a deep conviction that the more willing we are to find ways to collaborate, the more effective we’ll be in reaching our city for Jesus. The more generous we are toward one another, the more God will bear fruit through us. The closeup and the bigger picture of the opening scene are connected. This is life and death, and heaven and hell. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. The need is too great to allow our vision to be too small. Without 2020birmingham, the Crossway Church described above would not have undergone revitalization. For James, in the providence of God, a bigger vision made the difference for eternity.
We have a deep conviction that the more willing we are to find ways to collaborate, the more effective we’ll be in reaching our city for Jesus.
With a wide-angle lens, a picture becomes a story. Imagine a snapshot of a small child on an inflatable mattress, floating on water. It makes all the difference in the world if the context is the tranquility of the shallow end of a swimming pool or the tumult of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The bigger picture matters. The bigger picture tells the story. The bigger picture makes the difference between raising a smile and raising the alarm.
As twenty-first-century believers scattered throughout the world, would we describe our bigger picture as a pool of tranquility or a raging storm? Should we be buying ice creams or launching lifeboats? The apostle Paul urges us, “Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16). Right now, that is the wide-angle story.
We seek to raise the alarm. The needs and opportunities demand a response that will be met only under God with a bigger vision. How do we make the most of every opportunity? We must be — and we can be — together for the city.
Adapted from Together for the City by Neil Powell and John James. Copyright © 2019 by Neil Powell and John James. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com.