The Apostolic Outsider in Urban Church Networks
In 2010, my family and I moved from California to a city in Southeast Asia over 9,000 miles away. We had one primary purpose: to see Christ-centered churches established all over this multicultural city.
Loaded with eagerness and perhaps an American impetuousness, I began meeting with church leaders, wanting to hear the grand visions they had. One pastor after another had no answers. One pastor told me he needed more participation in his local denomination. Another cautioned me about all the things that will not work in terms of church planting in my city. Another heard me talk about church planting and said I sounded like a space alien. In one particularly uncomfortable conversation, a pastor lashed out at me for the mistakes of missionaries who came before me.
But when I asked each of them about their vision to reach the city, the room sounded like that vacuum of silence you get from wearing noise-canceling headphones. I got the sense that the primary concern of local pastors was worrying about their own church (and perhaps a little denominational work done out of duty).
As someone who wanted to reach the city through church planting, I felt all alone. But the day I met Fong Yang was different. We met for lunch near his church in a bustling part of the city. As we made our way from his office to a small café, at least a dozen people stopped to greet him or update him about a sick loved one. We slurped down tasty wonton noodles as he told me how he started his church and how that church started another church. But he was not satisfied; he was well aware that 98% of our city still needed to hear the gospel. Finally, someone else cared about church planting in the city!
As I taught church planting classes in a local seminary, I began to find others who shared a similar vision. Fong Yang simultaneously cast vision for church planting in the city. Over several years of informal gatherings with like-minded believers, we developed a strong bond built on the gospel and a desire to see churches started. We formed Gospel City Network (affiliated with City to City Asia Pacific) that connects with other pastors and recruits church planters. The collaborative efforts of local pastors, church planters, and international mission agencies make this network stronger.
Church networks are not new. They go back to the earliest days of Christianity. Churches sent greetings, laborers, and funds from one continent to another for the sake of the one global church (see Romans 15:25–27). In fact, young churches collaborating and load-sharing in the New Testament was remarkably different from any religious landscape the world had ever known. Ever since then, churches connect through some kind of network more often than not. Although church networks serve a variety of purposes, they are at their best when the purposes of the network reinforce the purposes of the church. For example, gospel witness to the nations is an essential purpose of the church (Matt 28:18–20; Acts 1:8). A healthy network should reinforce this essential purpose by encouraging and equipping churches in their gospel witness.
Networks like this have spurred mission and growth throughout church history — and they still can.
However, the bureaucracy and politics of many modern networks (particularly denominations) have made it difficult to innovate to reach our ever-changing cities. Church planting networks need to be lean and nimble, willing to take risks and push boundaries in order to advance the gospel. Networks like this have spurred mission and growth throughout church history — and they still can.
One benefit networks can provide is the insight of outsider missionaries and cross-cultural church planters, who can often be agents of connectivity that urge the church toward expansion and multiplication. (This is not only the role of the outsider, as God raises up leaders from within churches who also urge others toward expansion and reaching others.) These individuals can play this important role in several ways:
First, a missionary is more likely to look at the big picture of a nation or city. Local pastors are usually busy shepherding their flocks (and rightly so). Denominational executives are busy with administrative tasks. Mission agencies come with outside perspective and unique resourcing. In my city, I identify parts of the city and population segments that need churches.
Occasionally, I meet people in my city who are curious about church planting and the role they can play in church planting. Having mapped the city and seen where churches have a strong presence and where significant gaps remain, I am able to mention a couple of places in need of a church. Often, hearing about a specific neighborhood or area in need of a church makes an impression on them — and may even lead to new vision and new churches. Having someone with the big picture in mind can be the first step to starting churches in places that lack a gospel-centered community of faith.
Second, cross-cultural missionaries push the church in an apostolic direction. After a recent denominational gathering, the leaders came to me excited about the singing, preaching, and artistic performances that took place, even if the content was devoid of the gospel or any clear purpose. They wanted me to recruit one of our church plants into this denominational network, certain the whole production would have persuaded them to join. Unfortunately, this denomination was stagnant. They were content with who they had already reached and were not filled with a burden for those remaining in darkness. They lacked a voice reminding them of the biblical call to be on mission. Apostolically-gifted (those with a God-given drive to take the gospel across social or ethnic boundaries) members of the body (quite often missionaries and church planters) can give voice to the imperative placed on the church to be witnesses far beyond the borders of our comfort (Acts 1:8).
Similar to the first point, missionaries give time and resources to emphasize the missional heartbeat that should pulse through every church of Jesus. A story from my youth puts this principle into action. When I was in grade school, my parents took our family to Asia to see churches started. There, they identified a youth pastor on staff at an existing church who showed potential for starting a new church in a part of the city that had no churches. Were it not for the intervention of my parents, the existing church would never have thought to send this person out to plant a church. Furthermore, the existing church lacked the resources to equip and walk with this young church planter as he embarked on this journey. My parents were eager, willing, and prepared to work directly with this young man to prepare him for this task.
Third, outsiders can readily notice the population segments that remain unengaged by the churches. Cities are aggregators of the nations. People from everywhere are making their way to cities everywhere.
When teaching a class on urban ministry in my city, I took the class — a mix of international students and local students — to the heart of the city, where migrant workers from over a dozen nations come to find community with others from their countries. We observed floor after floor and block after block of restaurants, stores, financial institutions, and hangout spots for the variety of nationalities that came to this foreign city to work. My local students looked more amazed by the moment.
One student said, “I had no idea these huge communities were right here in this city.” She thought she knew the city and would be bored during our excursion, but realized she had no idea that some of these large, thriving populations existed in her own area. Another local student began talking to the foreign restaurant workers in his neighborhood with renewed vigilance for proclaiming the gospel. He also helped a group of refugees from a distant country start a church.
In another large Asian city, a missionary church planter helped a local church revitalize a superficial refugee ministry into multiple house churches for them within that community. This not only improved their ability to meet physical and psychological needs, but it has also been instrumental in bringing the gospel of Jesus to this refugee community and its restrictive religious background. The gospel was heard because the outsider (missionary) brought cross-cultural understanding and principles of sustainable church planting to a local church who desired to do more.
Much like Paul, who injected a similar apostolic thrust to the nascent churches in Mediterranean cities of the first century, mission agencies can provide a similar apostolic injection in urban church networks today. After all, it is the prayer of the missionary to see Jesus proclaimed and taught without hindrance.
He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
— Acts 28:30–31
 David Shenk and Ervin R. Stutzman, Creating Communities of the Kingdom: New Testament Models of Church Planting (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), 183.
 Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 160.
About the Author
Michael D. Crane is a professor of urban missiology at a seminary in Southeast Asia. Michael is also co-director of RADIUS Initiatives and is currently serving as the chairman of Gospel City Network. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters, Michael has written Sowing Seeds of Change: Cultivating Transformation in the City and co-written City Shaped Churches: Planting Churches in a Global Era.