Upon first stepping foot on the busy streets of Brooklyn years ago to evangelize, my initial impression was that I had entered a foreign mission field. The world has come to New York City like no other place. Research reveals it is the largest, most diverse cosmopolitan city on earth. Because the City is such a melting pot, almost any people group can be evangelized. However, there often seems to be a mental disconnect between foreign missions and making it the Church’s mission to reach foreigners right here on American soil.
The Importance of Research
Of course, impressions must be verified by reliable research. Through proper research the church planter can gain a better understanding of his target and will be enabled to make informed decisions about reaching the people there. There are two types of research that a church planter must employ. First, he should study the demographics of the area. This type of query can be done from a distance and yields valuable raw statistics (such as population numbers and income and education levels), which reflect the quantities of the city. This information can be found in libraries, business bureaus, real estate agencies, or on the Internet. For example, it is very convenient to go online and tap into the figures gathered by the US Census Bureau.
An ethnographic study is the most important type of research any church planter can do. Ethnography can be done only on site and gives an overwhelming vision for and an in-depth understanding of the community. It digs down beneath the surface and discovers the forces involved in the formation of the neighborhood. It reveals the qualities of the area and will give insight that will never be discovered in any other way. Through these means, the church planter will learn how to best reach the people.
The Best Plan
Some leaders arrive in the city with a prepackaged plan, but the best plan is to be deeply embedded in the community where the church will be started. To live with the people of the area is an excellent way to get to know and to gain a vision for reaching them. In this way the church planter can begin to get a sense of what the gospel can and will do there. Of course, this approach requires a significant time investment.
There is another alternative however, and that is seeing the city with spiritually sensitive eyes. Church planters must acquire the kind of vision that Jesus demonstrated (John 4:27–38). While His disciples were preoccupied with satisfying their physical hunger, Jesus was feasting His eyes while He fasted. Hungry for the souls He came to seek and to save, Christ willingly missed a meal to reap a harvest.
When Dwight L. Moody was in London during one of his famous evangelistic tours, several British clergymen visited him. They wanted to know how and why this poorly educated American was so effective in winning throngs of people to Christ. Moody took the three men to the window of his hotel room and asked each in turn what he saw. One by one, the men described the people in the park below. Then Moody looked out the window with tears rolling down his cheeks. “What do you see, Mr. Moody?” asked one of the men. “I see countless thousands of souls that will one day spend eternity in hell if they do not find the Savior.” Obviously, D. L. Moody saw people differently than the average observer does. And because he saw eternal souls where others saw only people strolling in a park, Moody approached life with a different agenda.
The Example of Paul the Apostle
Paul possessed this same kind of vision, and his visit to Athens provides an extensive example of ethnographic research (Acts 17:16– 21). Athens was a world-famous city. It was the site of the Acropolis and the Parthenon (one of the architectural wonders of the world), the cradle of Greek civilization and the cultural center of Hellenism. It was the highly sophisticated intellectual capital of the world, the premier “university town” of the empire, and the hub of Greek philosophy.This city above all others represented the glory of the Greeks.
While waiting on other team members to meet him there, Paul did some sightseeing. As he observed the buildings and statues and altars, he appreciated the beauty of the city because he was a cultured man. But he did not view Athens as would a tourist, for he was not focused on its exquisite architecture. Instead, Paul was struck by the fact that the city was “wholly given to idolatry.” What he saw helped him to know how to approach the Athenians with the gospel, which was directly related to the rampant idolatry he perceived. Every building he saw and everywhere Paul went in the city, he saw some god or goddess represented. He was overwhelmed by the fact that Athens was crammed with altars, images, and statues dedicated to the gods. The population of the city at the time was about 10,000, but scholars estimate that there might have been as many as 30,000 statues of gods erected there. In fact, some historians have said it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens!Paul was familiar with idolatry from his childhood in Tarsus and from traveling through the many cities of his day planting churches. But it was the pandemic idolatry he observed in Athens that grieved his heart and moved him to the core of his being.
Paul looked at life through spiritually sensitive eyes, which caused his spirit to be deeply stirred within him. Significantly, the Greek word paroxymo, translated “stirred,” which describes Paul’s reaction to the idolatry he observed in Athens, depicts violent emotions that are an intense mixture of both rage and grief. It is precisely the same word used to describe God’s reaction to the idolatry of the Israelites (Isa. 65:2, 3). Paul was outraged by such blatant rebellion against a holy God and its disastrous affects upon people. He saw all the beauty of the city, the culture, and the art. On the surface, everything looked good. But he knew that underneath things were not good at all. Paul was so in tune with the Spirit of God that he was able to look at the city through God’s eyes, feel the very throb of the Lord’s heart, and likewise share His response. He was also moved with compassion because he viewed people as being held in Satan’s grip. These deeply complex feelings led the apostle to take bold action. This kind of spiritual sensitivity is the result of walking in the Spirit and is the crucial ingredient in reaching the mission field that has come to us; it is indeed the key to church planting.
Paul accurately saw the mission field as a spiritual battlefield and waged spiritual warfare on two separate fronts. Before dealing with the systemic idolatry he encountered, Paul did something that was this church planter’s custom everywhere he went. He first entered the local synagogue. Using the Jewish Scriptures, he entered into a mutual discussion with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles who joined themselves to the assembly. However, in the scripturally illiterate pagan sector, he daily spoke in the Agora (“market”), which was the heart of daily life in the city. Around the outside of the marketplace stood a series of covered porticoes, called stoas, where the philosophers debated and presented their views. With people milling about buying and selling and philosophers debating with one another, there was no shortage of people to listen. There, Paul found the proper venue to engage in open-air preaching and began to effectively convey the Gospel to the city of Athens.
Spiritual Sensitivity in Action
While pastoring in Connecticut, I made a few trips to Brooklyn, New York, to do open-air evangelism. I would return from these evangelistic excursions excited about the wide-open opportunities on this “foreign” mission field. I recall a developing burden for the Russian Jewish area where I would evangelize. Several years later when the Lord called me to start a church in that general area, I made periodic trips to Brooklyn in order to get a feel for the neighborhood. I went around observantly, considering what was being promoted and discovering people’s values. I tried to talk to the “man on the street” and asked questions that would give me helpful impressions and insights. The collation and analysis of the information that I had gleaned played an important role in planting and charting the course of Bethel Baptist Fellowship, which now includes a Russian language ministry and the training of men to plant more churches in New York City.
There are unique challenges in reaching postmodern society. Ethnic diversity requires people-sensitivity. Crosscultural ministry necessitates learning new ways of thinking, acting, and relating. All of this is greatly accentuated in the city. Primarily, the urban church planter’s impression of the city must mirror Paul’s Athenian experience. He must walk in the Spirit to view the city through God’s eyes. It is too easy to become indifferent to the familiar. He must constantly realize that the city is “wholly given to idolatry.” Effective outreach requires identifying and addressing the idols of the particular people groups. These idols are the major spiritual barriers that Satan is using to blind their minds to the gospel.
Paul felt outrage at the rebellion against God’s holiness, but he also was moved with compassion because he saw that idolatry had enslaved the people in darkness. If either of these feelings is absent from your witnessing, you will be greatly ineffective. You must allow the Lord to blend compulsion and compassion in your outreach. Only then will your heart function like God’s, and only then will your evangelism will be on target.
 US Census Bureau, http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml , http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-34.pdf, p. 9.
Jim Bickel and his wife, Nancy, have been married for thirty years. Jim is a graduate of Bob Jones University and a pioneer church planter with over twenty-five years of ministry experience. In 1980 he planted a church in Connecticut where he pastored for over fourteen years. He was next used of God to plant Bethel Baptist Fellowship in 1999 in Brooklyn. Each summer, Jim is engaged in a very active internship program training future pastors in urban church planting.
(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2007. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)