I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about which prepositions we should use in our mission as a church. Here’s the sentence: we are a church ____ the city. The possible prepositions are: IN, TO, FOR, and OF. Let’s work through them.
The most obvious is that we are IN the city. Many of our partners live or work in the city–or in adjacent communities. We make no apologies for this. God loves rural and small town churches. And they have a vital mission in the world. But we are not one of them. We are a church in the city. But having a mailbox does not mean the church has a mission. Some urban churches are physically in the city, but its passion for the neighborhood moved out decades ago. So location alone won’t do it.
We could say we are a church TO the city. This definitely communicates a missional spirit, that we are sent into the community to do God’s work. But that might make us sound a bit like missionaries who drop in. That doesn't reflect who we are (and certainly not who we want to be). We are not outsiders coming into Memphis. We have partners at White Station who came to faith through bus ministry, urban church plants, and ministries of mercy. We have partners who have lived in Memphis their entire life. Saying we are just TO the city might be a little shallow.
Perhaps we could say we are FOR the city. It’s not just that we are sent to bring God’s peace to Memphis, but also that we ally ourselves with the poor, the marginalized, and the unreached. But it still might sound like the city is something that we are not. Further, we are not a collection of civic boosters. We want what is best for Memphis, but not in a way that denigrates God’s mission in Little Rock, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, or Seattle.
So maybe we are the church OF the city? We are Memphis, no question. We’ll defend our gorgeous Spring, low-cost of living, and dry rub barbecue with a vengeance. But saying we are of this place might miss some of our spiritual identity. Our primary citizenship is in heaven, not simply in the 901 (Phil 3:20). So while this terra firma is the place where we stand, it is not ultimately where our treasures rest (Mt. 6:19-20). And we want to be sure that we present ourselves as a counter-cultural presence, not just as products of the dominant culture.
There is no perfect preposition for our mission. So we’ll continue to rotate. Specific moments call for specific prepositions. We are a church In the city. We are a church To the city. We are a church For the city. We are a church OF the city.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer. 29:7).