The City Is Where God Is

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“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them.’”

After reciting these words from Revelation 21, veteran urban pastor Tony Van Zanten declared, “The city is the place where God is and where hope is.”

Tony and Donna Van Zanten’s passion for the city and commitment to ministering in it inspired the 38 pastors and Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS) faculty, staff, and students who gathered for two days last August for CTS’s Consultation on Urban Ministry.

In addition to honoring the Van Zantens’ ministry of service, worship, and training at Roseland Christian Ministries in Chicago, they learned about the challenges and joys of urban ministry.

Although the ministries of those present varied greatly, pastors agreed that urban ministry is both exasperating and exhilarating. But they also agreed that the frustrations are outweighed by the joy of watching God transform lives and seeing God change the city one person and one block at a time.

The urban pastors described the characteristics of students who fit well in the city: those who are curious and adventurous, flexible and comfortable with ambiguity, bold enough to stay the course, and humble enough to learn the city’s culture.

As Denise Posie, pastor of Immanuel CRC in Kalamazoo, Mich., said, “Sometimes when we go into cross-cultural settings we think we know more about the people than we really do. This destroys our right to be in that community.”

Carl Kammeraad, pastor of Seymour CRC in Grand Rapids, advised that “urban ministry stretches you like crazy, but you can’t let it stretch you beyond who you are.”

The group also challenged CTS to connect with the city more. They recommended immersion experiences to allow students to live and work in major metropolitan settings where they can’t avoid the issues of the city. The seminarians present had done that in their summer internships and testified to its impact on their formation for ministry.

It was obvious that the pastors love urban ministry. As Sheila Holmes, pastor of Northside Community CRC in Paterson, N.J., put it, “It’s tough and rough, but I’m only here by the grace of God.”

About the Author

Rev. Kathy Smith is senior associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, adjunct professor of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin University. She is a member of First CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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