Have you ever noticed how city-obsessed a lot of superheroes are?
Think about it: Superman is the protector of Metropolis. Batman is the Dark Knight of Gotham. Spiderman watches over the boroughs of New York.
In more recent TV adaptations, the city focus is even more evident. In Netflix’s Daredevil, the protagonist fights for Hell’s Kitchen and for the rest of New York, resolute on purging his city of the forces that threaten it. Or in the CW’s Arrow, the hero returns to his city to save it from all its crime and corruption. Regularly (enough that the show’s characters begin to mock it), he condemns his enemies with the words, “You have failed this city.”
It’s all very inspiring; which of course gets me thinking: What if Christians were like this? What if I was like this?
What if we had such a sense of place—of where God has placed each of us—and such a sense of purpose? What if we had such passion for our cities and such compassion for the people in them?
Was that not, in fact, the original purpose of the parish? The idea of the parish entailed Christians taking spiritual responsibility for a designated geographic area, making a commitment to a local community, and planting roots to form deep, meaningful relationships in a neighborhood in order to bring about justice and renewal. It meant that their primary responsibility was directly related to where God had placed them, to give special care to the people there.
Now, there are many Christians, churches, or ministries that are city-focused and community-minded. In fact, in the last decade or so, many in the church have finally started to take note of the global sociological trend of the world’s population becoming increasingly urban. More and more people are moving into the world’s cities. Urban centers and their immediate suburbs are expected to continue to grow exponentially, while rural areas are expected to become less and less significantly populated. Many Christian groups are recognizing that reality and seeking to address it.
Unfortunately, their responses are often a mixed bag—capable of so much good but also of so much harm. For example, as cities grow, it is true that there will need to be new faith communities started to meet the spiritual needs of the growing population (i.e. church planting). Yet often these new faith communities are started in such ways that they create negative consequences, like gentrification or cultural imperialism.
In my time working in church planting, I have seen this more times than I dare count. I’ve seen churches started in neighborhoods that were more than 90% black, where the churches were almost all white (and also predominantly hipster), and all the leaders were white. I’ve seen churches set out to rebuild a neighborhood, but their efforts of renewal end up making the neighborhood so upscale that the original residents of the neighborhood can no longer afford to stay there; so they move, often into even worse conditions than what they were in before.
These experiences beg the question: Are our cities actually better for all these new churches?
It makes me wonder what would it look like for us to serve our cities in a way that honors our cities in their unique culture, character, and qualities?
Something most superheroes have in common is that they operate outside the regular systems and structures of the law. They are vigilantes. Seeing their cities fraught with such crime and corruption that regular law enforcement is not able to stop it (often because they are personally involved in it), these heroes take it upon themselves to pursue justice.
So much of the time, it seems that our churches and ministries—the regular, existing systems and structures—are unable to address the needs of their communities. Sometimes this is despite their best efforts to serve and to love as best they can. Some churches and ministries do everything they can, but it is simply impossible for them to meet every need. Other times, this is because the churches and ministries themselves contribute to the problems facing their communities.
For this reason, when I was serving as a pastor of a church plant, I often felt like there was a great chasm between being in ministry and actually doing ministry. The times when I felt like I was actually doing ministry, when I was actually helping people, when I was actually making an impact on people’s souls were those times when I was giving my time and energy in relationship to people who would likely never step foot in a church (at least not any time soon). That is where I felt God at work.
But when I was spending my time being in ministry, working on behalf of the church, trying to find a location for our little plant to meet, networking to gather people together, planning out budgets, and other things of that sort (not unimportant things), I rarely found any real ministry taking place. I rarely found God at work in a budget meeting.
So I’ve started thinking – Maybe God is trying to do something outside, while we’re shut up inside.
What would it look like for Christians to go outside the regular systems and structures to serve the people who will never otherwise be served, to address the issues no one is talking about, and to love their cities like never before?
Or to put it another way: What if we engaged in vigilante ministry?
Frankly, I think vigilantes get a bad rap. Admittedly, sometimes that may be justified. At times, working outside the regular systems and structures of the law, they commit crimes and enact violence. But this is not always the case, and more importantly, those more negative aspects are not at the heart of what a vigilante is.
At her core, a vigilante is a self-appointed doer of justice.
Now if we apply to that core definition the biblical definitions of justice, which form a redemptive social reality, incorporating things like love, peace, grace, mercy, rights, beauty, and flourishing, then the idea of vigilante ministry becomes truly appealing.
Isn’t that what Jesus was doing for much of his ministry?
He wasn’t a priest. He wasn’t a scribe. He didn’t fit into one of the established groups of the time, like the Essenes, Zealots, Sadducees, or Pharisees. He wasn’t even universally recognized as a prophet.
Jesus spent most of his time loving and serving people whom no one wanted anything to do with. He welcomed sex workers. He ate with Roman-employed tax collectors. He surrounded himself with sinners. He defended an adulteress. He touched lepers. He taught women. He gave special place to children. Jesus made friends of all the wrong people.
That is how he understood his purpose: “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32 NASB).
Isn’t that the life he invites us to? What if we joined him?
You may notice that I have asked a lot of questions and provided no answers. This is intentional. We don’t need quick answers and easy solutions. We need to start a conversation about what it looks like to be Christians where we are. I invite you to think on these questions and start the conversation – both below in the comments and for your community where you are.
Adam Waddell is a minister in search of his calling. Raised Southern Baptist and trained non-denominational, he has found his home within the Anglican/Episcopal tradition. Nerdy things and puns are his favorite pastimes. Adam lives in Memphis, TN.