Seven City-Reaching Systems

Summary: The recent process of evaluating Pastor Tim Keller’s “gospel ecosystems” approach to city-reaching inspired me to think about other approaches that I’m aware of from the past 20 years of experience and research. And so I wrote this post to offer an initial overview of seven distinct systems for reaching cities for Christ. The overview for each approach includes something about its ministry emphasis, theology, and generation-group appeal. If we look at these approaches as a set, I suspect we’ll be better able to develop a more comprehensive and contextual strategy for wherever it is that God’s providence has rooted us in.


I spent much of yesterday immersed in exploring “city reaching systems” that have been emerged over the past two decades. As a set, they impressed me as an important emerging perspective and a crucial element in the future of missional and multicultural ministry. As systems, they tend to:

  • Consider a far more holistic picture of ministry in general. They are more than a cluster of ministries; they are sets of strategies and structures that require some substantial organization. In terms of Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator, systems are more about “P” – perceiving, “gestalting,” and discerning patterns – than about “J” – details, analysis, and dividing points.
  • Accommodate the complicated demographics of the multicultural world in which we now live. This often means a greater sensitivity to cultural exegesis, ministry contextualization, and cross-cultural communication and conflict resolution.
  • Embody an ambitious vision. So, they must use infrastructures that require collaboration beyond the borders of any given church, ministry, or organization.

Such systems bear the marks of classic international missionary endeavors to reach previously unreached people groups. But, they also consider the complexities that are much closer to home … especially in cities. So, I looked for the largest possible frameworks/systems out there for multi-denominational, collaborative city-reaching from the past 20 years. I’ve been involved with most of these at some level, which is why I maybe have enough familiarity to identify each as a distinct approach to city-reaching.

I know there’s a lot more work to do on this analysis, but if I wait until it’s completed, I might never post it. So – better something fairly far along than nothing at all, that’s my philosophy. If/when I have the resources of leading, time, and books, I’ll see about advancing this analysis. Or, perhaps someone else out there will want to take up the call and finish this analysis … And, well, actually, you may consider this just a D-I-Y (do it yourself) starter kit!

Meanwhile … so far I have identified seven different emphases or integration points for city-reaching strategies. This list is tentative, and could be added to or adjusted, depending on what critical features show themselves during further analysis. All of these systems envision a similar goal of social transformation of neighborhoods and/or cities through churches and collaborative Kingdom methodologies. Each, however, has a significantly different combination in terms of who is/isn’t involved, level of emphasis on spiritual warfare, kinds of organizations preferred, and educational methodologies.

I discerned these seven distinct strategies based on differences in their overall combination of urban ministry theory, theology, and practices. So, this research and “taxonomy” exercise wasn’t about urban theology alone – there are numerous individual books on that subject. It was more a discernment of patterns based on their demonstrating a distinctive enough set of practices and a specific theological emphasis that undergirds their view of social transformation with an urban-/city-reaching component.

For instance, some approaches focus on the roles of pastors, staff, and other leaders from churches, ministries, and agencies; others welcome the participation of everyday disciples. Some prioritize opposing spiritual/demonic forces of oppression; others emphasize opposing human-made social structures of evil. Some work through community-based non-profit agencies and networks; others engage in action through overtly Christian churches and church planting. Some use conventional educational approaches of theory-into-application; others use hands-on action-reflection. Such polarities can be set up as a grid of distinctive features that details the unique ministry imprint of each approach.

The title of each system plus the first line of description (in boldface type) summarize its overall emphasis. Then I’ve given an initial description of the theological or philosophical imprint, and tried to suggest the generational footprint involved. The generational appeal is important, because each American generation of Christians tends to have a dominant “take” on unity and “ecumenism” or transdenominational partnering. (I’ve written about in my tutorial on Collaboration. You’ll find my opinions on which systems appeal to which generation(s) and why to be far more understandable if you read that tutorial first.)

And, I’ve listed an initial cluster of a few resource organizations and representative books for each perspective. These lists are not exhaustive, and I have not read all of these books or surfed the entire website of these organizations, so these may not be the best examples of that approach. But, they are ones that fit with what I currently know about that particular city-reaching system and can at least serve as an introduction. (Also, listing here does not imply that I endorse the book, video, or organization.)

So, here they are, in no particular order or importance. I’ve numbered them simply to make it easier for reference purposes:

  1. Leader-Focused Networks
  2. Spiritual Resistance and Prayer Movements
  3. Whole Community Development
  4. Missional Ministry and Church Planting
  5. Practitioner-Mentoring and Internships
  6. Advanced Academic Degrees
  7. For-Benefit Transformation Enterprises

So – please read the tutorial on Collaboration first, and then launch into the Seven City-Reaching System!

Seven City-Reaching Systems and Their Distinctives

1. Leader-Focused Networks

Leader care, pastoral prayer summits, “elders of the city.” The Leader-Focused Networks system seems to draw in church leaders from more conservative, evangelical, and charismatic churches – sometimes mainline churches. It brings them together for fellowship and prayer, and through that, eventually activity partnerships emerge.

Leader-Focused Networks are relationship and action oriented. They tend to appeal more to a Boomer sensibility of “pragmatic unity,” and probably less so to a traditional Builder “nominal unity.”

2. Spiritual Resistance and Prayer Movements

Prayer and spiritual warfare; strategic level praying/spiritual mapping. The Spiritual Resistance and Prayer Movements approach tends to appeal to those with a more radical prophetic/charismatic theological. It emphasizes the role of demonic forces in human affairs.

Although it does draw in almost any generation, the key leaders have been from the Builder and Boomer generations. This may morph over time, as members of younger generations sometimes display apparent “signs and wonders” giftings that tend to link in with a strong spiritual warfare mindset.

I am not against prayer or spiritual warfare, but I will be blunt: I believe from experience and research that many of the perspectives and resources here have proven themselves over time to be biblically imbalanced, which leads to spiritually abusive and authoritarian practices in the church, and a domineering attitude toward culture instead of a humble and contextualized influence in culture. I recommend extreme caution in evaluating what is usable from these perspectives and what needs to be rejected as overboard and abusive. But I also urge us to search for a clear understanding of the role spiritual warfare and corporate prayer play in social transformation. My tutorial on Theodicy may be of help in sifting through these views.

3. Whole Community Development

Economic asset-building, social agencies, external outreaches. The Whole Community Development approach seeks to reach the entire city. Specific organizations within this approach may put a priority on those who are poor or otherwise have complex needs. Depending on the specific organization’s mandate, it will work primarily through churches, Christian businesses in the community, or perhaps both. This may seem very similar to city-reaching system #1, Leader-Focused Networks, but here it is more about organizations and developing a unified vision than about the leaders of those organizations.

The Whole Community Development action-oriented approach seems to appeal primarily to the Boomer’s “pragmatic unity,” and secondarily to a traditional Builder sense of “nominal unity” and doing something under the banner of Christianity.

4. Missional Ministry and Church Planting

Church planting movements, ministry networks, relational ministry resourcing. The Missional Ministry and Church Planting approach focuses on holistic collaboration, often with an emphasis on multicultural work, neighborhood ministries, church planting, or Kingdom enterprise start-ups (e.g., non-profits). It keeps theological conservatism/evangelism in dynamic tension with theological liberalism/social action, and therefore has potential for welcoming a broad range of participants, in terms of theological and denominational backgrounds.

The Missional Ministry and Church Planting approach here seems to appeal most to Boomer’s “pragmatic unity,” but may also draw in Busters with their desire for an “experiential journey together,” and maybe even Millennials with their holistic and hands-on “integrational” style.

5. Practitioner-Mentoring and Internships

Leadership development, relational discipleship, ministry coaching. The Practitioner-Mentoring and Internships approach emphasizes practitioner mentoring of disciple-leaders through ministry coaching, apprenticeships, internships, and various kinds of hands-on ministry experiences. The focus may be on “apostolic-type” catalytic leaders who will go on to plant churches, start non-profits, do new ministry development, etc.

The relational and teamwork involved in the Practitioner-Mentoring and Internships approach may appeal to Busters with their desire for an “experiential journey together,” and maybe even Millennials with their holistic and hands-on “integrational” style.

6. Advanced Academic Degrees

Graduate training in national/international urban transformation, business platforms, missional systems. The Advanced Academic Degree systems for city-reaching typically support the creation of business and other secular platforms for conducting ministry, such as non-profit agencies. They tend to focus on missions, missional ministry, and/or global urban environments. Other national and international organizations supply strategies and resources for addressing global-level problems that often plague cities. My sense is that more such organizations are migrating to an integrated “quadruple bottom line” mentality of benefiting the community, ecology, economy, and spirituality – while not causing harm. For this approach, I’ll only suggest a sampling of training programs, universities, and seminaries to show the range of practitioner and/or academic degrees available, dealing urban leadership, business entrepreneurship, and social transformation.

The professional training found in the Advanced Academic Degrees approach has drawn in Boomers with their “pragmatic unity”; they want to do something practical in city-reaching ministry. But it also seems to hold appeal for Busters with their desire for an “experiential journey together” – especially if their learning involves a cohort that learns and graduates together – and even Millennials with their holistic and hands-on “integrational” style when internships are involved.

  • Association for Theological Field Education, which includes broad membership from seminaries and other training programs. My understanding is that every seminary program requires a theological “practicum” course in order for the seminary to maintain its accreditation. Most of these involve direct supervision and/or mentoring.
  • Bakke Graduate University – degrees in Transformational Leadership, Global Urban Leadership, Social and Civic Entrepreneurship, Business Administration.
  • Northern Seminary – degree emphases in Christian Community Development, Missional Church Ministry, Urban Ministry, Transformational Ministry.
  • Biblical Seminary – Biblical has been working to reintegrate its entire curriculum around what it means to be missional.
  • Covenant Theological Seminary – Covenant is host to the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute, and also has a Religion and Cultures degree with a concentration in city ministry.
  • International Students Inc. – I’ve included this here because ISI represents a college/university-based approach to connecting with international students, many of whom will return to their native countries and assume roles of influence and leadership. These students may well become urban leaders in their homelands.

7. For-Benefit Transformation Enterprises

“New Wave” social entrepreneurship, specialized “people group” and needs-based ministries. The For-Benefit Enterprises emphasis coincides with the secular, global movement for everyone to do at least something that creates social benefit without inflicting harm. These days, many issue- and group-based organizations seem to be drawing in advocates and activists from younger generations. The theologies and ministry philosophies of these enterprises tend to be more holistic and organic, and they often rely on the language of benefits found in a “triple or quadruple bottom line.” Project emphasis may be on building up communities, environmental protection, creating businesses that support missions, and/or personal and social transformation. The mandates of the organizations may not be strickty related to city-reaching, but their missions typically involve issues or groups which are found in cities.

Participants in social transformation enterprises tend to view collaboration as more team-based, action-oriented, and journey-oriented than older generations typically do. They seem to work more readily than other generations do with community-based organizations. More media-savvy, they amplify their impact through the use of virtual networks, “crowd-sourced” resourcing like Kiva and Givezooks, and advertising/recruiting via social media. And there tends to be a significant level of dedication to the kinds of “systems work” needed to help people who are dealing with complex, life-dominating issues, such as refugee and immigrant populations, people with addictions, those enslaved by or surviving human trafficking, people affected by HIV/AIDS, etc.

This approach has the most appeal for Millennials with their holistic and hands-on “integrational” style. Also, their generation has grown up at a time when community service is widely required for graduation from high school, and social media promotes volunteerism. Also, the teamwork typically involved in social entrepreneurship appeals to Busters with their desire for an “experiential journey together.”

  • Matryoshka Haus has catalyzed a range of campaigns, projects, and enterprises that demonstrate this emerging approach to social entrepreneurship and ministry. This includes a political campaign dealing with the demand side of human trafficking (The Truth Isn’t Sexy), a social enterprise for women who are survivors of abuse, violence, and/or trafficking (Sweet Notions), and a creativity training program (NET – Network of Entrepreneurial Talent). Its team has also developed The Transformational Index – a system for planning, implementing, evaluating, and revising ministries and social enterprises. (I use Matryoshka Haus as a case study because I am the most familiar with it as a representative of this “new wave” approach. It has a strong track record and shows how diverse the activities of one organization can be, depending on the interests and abilities of participants.)
  • International Justice Mission.
  • Not For Sale has produced an organization/campaign, book, and DVDs dealing with modern slavery/human trafficking.
  • Refugee Highway Partnership.
  • Some of the organizations that address human trafficking deal with fair trade issues of servitude and slavery in agricultural work. Others focus on issues of sustainable food supply, such as the “slow food” movement, organic foods, urban gardening, heritage varieties, etc.


The various kinds of collaborative city-reaching approaches overviewed here all have potential, but they also all have potholes. It’s worth taking a look at more in depth, and hopefully these suggested resources will give you the starter list needed to spark your own research. Also, I hope to write additional pieces that evaluate the underlying assumptions in these seven city-reaching systems, what each system has to offer, and points where we need to view each with caution.

Do-It-Yourself Study/Discussion Questions

Which city-reaching system(s) do you most identify with? Why? How has it worked in your neighborhood, city, church, ministry, agency, business, and/or collaborative endeavors?

After studying these seven city-reaching systems, what elements do see that might be missing from your preferred approach(es)? What could you fill in those gaps with from other city-reaching systems?

What excesses in emphasis or activities do you now see might be present in your preferred approach(es)? How could those overemphases be reduced to moderate the potential problems and/or make the system more accessible?

What would a “master composite” list of assumptions, participants, and activities for city-reaching look like, if you integrated the best of each and all seven systems into one?

What elements (if any) do you think are missing from the entire set of seven city-reaching systems, and why? Or is there a whole perspective that is missing and needs to be added, and why? Or would you reorganize these systems in some completely different way, and why? If so, how? How could they be presented differently?

What difference does participation in city-reaching efforts make for advancement of the Kingdom?

How would you keep corrupting influences, abusive people, and toxic organizations from ruining collaborative efforts?

4 thoughts on “Seven City-Reaching Systems

  1. Brad, good survey of the many proliferating voices advocating for whole-city transformation. You have captured the spectrum and the differences built on quite different missiological assumption. I’m currently writing my dissertation on this topic: URBAN TRANSFORMATION FOR A GLOBAL CITY: A MISSIOLOGICAL ASSESSMENT OF URBAN TRANSFORMATION MODELS (it is all caps because I cut & pasted, instead of retyping it). I have grouped them differently based on overall attitude toward the city and theological assumptions about transformation. Thanks for contributing your analytical skills to the big picture of urban transformation.

    • Yo, Michael … thanks for the feedback!

      It’s kind of a funky thing for me to even write this. Urban ministry is not my thing, but there just are times I’m compelled to analyze something, so I do.

      Will look forward to your dissertation. Been a loooong time comin’ and as a doc, you’ll look good in a hood in the ‘hood!

  2. I wonder why you are only considering urban situations. I moved from an urban to a rural area a few years ago and discovered that churches and religious groups work together here to help people in need with more cooperation than I saw where I previously lived. But with the internet and other modern inventions we’re all connected, and the world is becoming more and more like one big city, sharing a common culture. In the future perhaps it won’t be possible to separate what works in one type of area from what works in another.

    • You’ve raised an important question, Jan … and also what I think may be a significant role-model for solutions: rural America. First, the question of why cities. I believe part of the emphasis is because some of the earliest affiliations that began along the lines of “systems” [represented mostly by #1 Leader-Focused Networks and #3 Whole Community Development] gathered together leaders and churches and ministries in urban areas primarily. Also, with over 50% of the world’s population now living in urban areas, that’s become an increasing focus in missional and missionary movements. However, I’d hate for cities to become the new standard whereby if you aren’t serving in a city, you aren’t “really” living in God’s will. We need to root in wherever the Holy Spirit leads us.

      And on the idea of rural role-models of collaboration, having grown up in a rural, frontier area of the U.S., and the third generation of pioneer families on both sides, I get what you’re saying. There is a spirit of cooperation that seems more common in small towns and rural areas. You can’t isolate from your neighbors as easily. Some of my best formative experiences with collaboration and real “community” come from there. In frontier states of the Old West, you didn’t end up there unless you had a high-enough quotient of “rugged individualism,” but people didn’t survive without community. So, I grew up in a paradoxical setting that valued taking risk but also making relationships.

      In terms of systems, perhaps the real key is learning to work creatively and judiciously to steward whatever relational, environmental, economic, and organizational resources are available – regardless of the size of the neighborhood, community, or city. Many of the human needs will be the same in town and city, but the resource mix may be quite different.

      Anyway, there are some thoughts … Thanks for your comment, Jan!

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