In order to contextualize the gospel to your city, you need to know your city. Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard, in Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), give five helpful questions to ask (pp. 98-103). The answers to these questions can help craft a working portrait of the story of your city. The best way to learn the answers to these questions is by listening, that is, engaging with the different people groups that are in your city, especially those people who have lived in your city the longest, and reading what you can about your city.
Question 1: What Is Your City’s History?
Explanation: your present city did not show up overnight, nor has it always been this way. It is important to know how your city came to be, what it was founded for, what is it known for, and how it has changed over the years.
Louisville example: Louisville was founded as a French city, so its religious roots are Catholic. There is still a massive Catholic influence with numerous private schools, but it is mostly nominal at this point. Louisville experienced a great white flight to the suburbs, leaving the city extremely segregated. Beginning in the 1970s, the public schools began busing students in order to integrate blacks and whites, but the segregation continues to this day. There was also a general flight from the city center several decades ago. I've lived here for thirteen years and the city has been continually trying to bring people back to the downtown area. Economically, Louisville originated as a hotspot for the transportation of goods on the Ohio River at the convenient place of “the Falls of the Ohio.” Because river transportation is mostly a thing of the past, Louisville has lost its prominence in this area; still, it holds onto the past as a UPS hub.
Question 2: What Are Your City’s Values?
Explanation: it is important to know what your city treasures the most. To identify these core values, ask: What words, although unstated, would describe the makeup—the DNA—of your city? What is valued in such a way that it is assumed by all who live there?
Louisville example: traditional; family; religious, but busy; education
Question 3: What Are Your City’s Dreams?
Explanation: the people of your city live there for a reason. Even though on a micro-level people may have varying aspirations, your city as a whole is going toward some dream or dreams.
Louisville example: Louisville calls itself “Possibility City” and wants to put itself on the map like it used to be.
Question 4: What Are Your City’s Fears?
Explanation: your city will dread the opposite of what it values. Knowing these fears will unveil the idols of your city so that you can apply the gospel truth to its heart.
Louisville example: Louisville fears falling behind Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Nashville any more than it already has. Louisville also fears discomfort: its citizens want things to remain according to the traditional status quo, passing on their day-to-day lives of working and relaxing to their children.
Question 5: What Is Your City’s Ethos?
Explanation: "A city’s ethos is shaped by its unique geography, history, and climate" (Why Cities Matter, 102). Is your city more formal or more casual? Faster or slower paced? Polite or rude?
Louisville example: Comfort. Radical faith costs a lot, hence, there is much nominalism among Catholics and Protestants. Louisville would love to be a major economic city, but that would take a lot of overtime work and sacrifice. It’s more comfortable to work 9-5, go home to your family, and repeat. Interracial relationships are hard, so it’s just easier to stay segregated and not really talk about it. Still, Louisville public schools spend well over $100 million a year busing 70,000 students each day to integrate schools around the metro. But the city has still not shown marked improvement in its segregation in forty years. And yet we continue with what we are used to. Comfort is a powerful thing.
In order to contextualize the gospel to your city, you need to know your city. These five questions, illustrated by Louisville, can help you become more familiar with your city as you seek to bring the gospel to it.