Is it even possible for a city to be transformed? Will the church ever discover biblical unity in the city? Is the Gospel we love even penetrable in today’s postmodern world?
When I’ve felt so overwhelmed by this daunting task of transformation, I often default to these same questions.
Then, along comes hope! Hope came to me recently via an invite to take an “Urban Immersion Tour” to Amsterdam. Amsterdam, my city! I arrived there 41 years ago with my family of five, joined a YWAM team and plunked ourselves into a 350 square foot apartment In the city’s notorious Red Light District.
After nearly 14 years, many conversions, new churches planted, daily prayer for our “neighborhood,” spectacular teammates and much favor from the Dutch church, we abruptly found ourselves jettisoned out of the Netherlands and back in California – for good.
There was a sense of incompletion in my heart, feeling that we had only gotten started and being denied closure. We felt that we had barely scratched the surface of the overwhelming needs in this magnificent European city. I was apparently done with my mission in the city, but God wasn’t! (More detail in Unveiled by Jon Petersen)
This Spring, a “junk” email flicked by my eyes. I caught the word “Bakke” on the subject line and clicked on it. The email was promoting a 12-day urban immersion tour by the Bakke Graduate University. The name Ray Bakke emitted a wave of warmth in me – an urban hero and champion of our work in Amsterdam when we were first getting started in the late 70’s.
Twenty eight years after we left, Ray is with Jesus, and his University continued training urban leaders for transformation. I scrolled down the page and there was the face of Dr. Piet Brinksma, BGU, Doctoral Professor of Learning for Urban Studies. Piet had been a young leader in the Foursquare Movement in the Netherlands that I had met in the 80’s. His smiling face provoked me to contact him and to see if there was a chance that I could audit the course. He was quick to invite me to come on the tour that was starting just three weeks from when I had seen the advert.
Overwhelmed by God’s faithfulness
Have you ever returned to old friends or maybe your hometown and discovered everything had changed – for the good? Five hours after landing at Schipol airport, I was on a canal boat tour of Amsterdam’s inner city with my new classmates. It was immediately apparent that the atmosphere in the city was lighter, almost like a party. There was no manifestation of the drug culture that had permeated us in the 80’s and 90’s. The city seemed to be thriving more diverse, wealthier and clean.
We floated past the Red Light District where we were told there were now nearly 30 ministries engaged in this historic part of town. In the 1980’s there were four. One couple, living in a beautiful canal house on the edge of the district, helped rescue 500 “girls” from prostitution during Covid 19’s presence in the city.The District itself is now 50% of what it once was and the current mayor is contemplating shutting it down altogether.
This is Amsterdam, once known as the “drug and sex capitol” of Europe, is now becoming known as a place of hope.
The seeds you sow…
We had walked those streets, took our children to school through them and prayed over them – daily. Here I was in a canal boat seeing the faithfulness of God and the answer to the prayers that we prayed for this part of the city and the enslaved lives of so many. Father seemed to say, “See what I can do with a seed?” I realized that our team had been sowers and this new generation of believers were the reapers. My disappointment of an unfinished task vaporized.
Throughout the week, I walked back over the streets and alleys we had walked so many times in the immigrant communities, past Muslim mosques, old abandoned Reformed churches, overburdened refugee tenements and comatose drug addicts slumped against graffiti-dense walls.
Now, churches were strategically being placed or repurposed within the immigrant communities, prayer walking their complexes, discovering their needs, meeting those needs and hosting parties in the parks. One dear pastor couple had befriended an Imam from a neighborhood mosque, built a friendship and was eventually invited to help them “beautify their neighborhood,” together with Muslims and believers. One Reformed pastor took an abandoned church and turned into a place for serving the surrounding community and…hosting gospel-friendly “standup comedy” nights in the 300 year old facility.
At barely five-foot tall, a Malaysian sister, Lynette Kong, joined our team in the 1980’s. Lynette was the consummate intercessor and agitator for “faith for the impossible.” I was sitting in our little learning center during our tour, and in rolls Lynette. After a shout or two and some commensurate hugging, I marveled that she was still faithfully mobilizing prayer for the city. With six definable districts in the city, Lynette had developed a prayer team for each district replete with district leaders, all, connected to the pastoral network. This city is becoming saturated with the priesthood of believers and their dangerous prayers for their city. Amsterdam is becoming a prayed-for city!
A group of Dutch reformed pastors who had determined together that they and their churches were “irrelevant” to the city, asked my friend Piet for help. After three years of studying the book of Acts and numerous epistles, they came to the conclusion that the Kingdom of God is relevant today and that they and their churches were going to give themselves to the needs of the city. Furthermore, they came to yet another stunning conclusion: “we can’t do this without out brothers in Christ – Protestants, Pentecostals, Immigrant and Free Churches.
I watched as leaders from various streams and denominations laughed, hugged and even danced together. Jesus’ epic prayer in John 17 was happening in front of my amazed eyes. In a very “transactional,” cool culture, these leaders are finding organic friendship and the unique warmth only found in the fellowship of the gospel. This level of growing unity is the harbinger of the city knowing that “Jesus was sent by His Father” to bring “new creation” to it’s population and institutions.
It’s a funny thing about seeds – they aren’t in a hurry. Paul told the Corinthian church that some sew, some water but only God gives the increase. Disappointment with unrealized promises is a waist of time.
In the work of city transformation, God will sometime give you promises that only those that follow you will fulfill. At times we are favored to see the results of our labors, at other times, they may only be realized after we are off the scene. As transformational leaders we do our work as “unto the Lord,” not unto the fulfillment of a vision.
Surrendering delays, disappointments and disasters to the Father, only ensures the integrity of the seed. Watchmen Nee once told a young leader that the issue with a seed is not whether it has life in it, but whether it would be surrendered to the soil and die. The work of transforming lives and cities is not contingent on whether we have vision, resources or potential, but whether we will plant it out of sight, then leave it to the resurrection life of Jesus.
Meanwhile, we get a vision of Jesus from Jesus, work like crazy, love without reserve, then plop that seed in the soil of our city and watch the Giver of Life to do his amazing work of transformation.