Seven Essentials of City Transformation Part 2

Changing Your World

By Gary Kinnaman

Transforming a city is complicated, and our starting point has to be God and his special presence to transform people and nations. Proverbs 9:10 announces famously, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It’s important to note here that, in Hebrew, wisdom isn’t philosophical or theological. It’s intensely practical. In fact, the Hebrew term is perhaps better translated “skill.” The fear of God is the starting line for skillful strategies that change our world.

Yet strategic thinking alone changes nothing. People change things. People change people, and people empowered by the Spirit of God bring hope to the table of transformation.

Just ask Jesus. He didn’t preach the kingdom, pray for the sick, or stand up to the devil until, at his baptism, the power of God’s Spirit came on his life. After intense spiritual conflict, a primal factor in the complexity of urban darkness, Jesus “went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:16-19)

While Jesus was still with them, his disciples were engaged in apprentice ministry. Yet the full impact of their calling was not possible until after they, too, had received the Spirit in power. The Book of Acts is the story of the people of God receiving what Jesus received, the Holy Spirit, in order to do what Jesus did. In this regard, the Apostle Paul proclaims,

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).

Summarized simply, cities are darkly complex and our starting point for changing them has to be the power of God in us and through us. This was the theme of the first half of this article which (see (1) Transforming a city is complicated, and (2) the power of God is essential. This brings us to the third essential of

3. Prayer

It’s only logical to conclude that, if cities are complex and spiritually dark, then we must have a spiritually wise and powerful response. The Bible couldn’t be clearer:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war [fight our battles or solve our problems] as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).

And in the classic text on spiritual warfare and the armor of God in Ephesians 5, Paul concludes with a dramatic call to prayer, any time and all the time, anywhere and everywhere, any time and all the time:

And pray
in the Spirit [taking us back to Luke 4]
on all occasions
with all kinds of prayers
and requests.
With this in mind, be alert
and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
Pray also for me …
(Ephesians 6:18-20)

Miracles of biblical proportion

There are simple reasons why Americans don’t pray: our lives are too comfortable, we have too many distractions, and mostly we have lost touch with the reality and power of the spiritual realm.

Frankly, I’m regularly dismayed the neglect of prayer in the American church. In our homes. In my home. I just attended candidate school for Frontiers, an extraordinary organization reaching Muslims living in areas where no one has ever heard the gospel. Many of us don’t know about the extraordinary Jesus movements growing in Muslim communities—and Book of Acts-like miracles as a result of passionate, sustained prayer. In one region, Christian leaders prayed successfully for eleven people to be raised from the dead in a single year. But they were disappointed, because their goal for the year was twelve.

I know that some of you who read this will say to yourself, “Yeah, right. That just doesn’t happen anymore.” But I’ve seen the power of prayer in action. No, I haven’t personally seen anyone raised from the dead, but I witnessed perhaps one of the most incredible prayer meetings in Christian history: 35,000 Christians praying all night in a stadium in Cali, Colombia—and another 10,000 praying all night outside the stadium because they couldn’t get in. The vigilia (Spanish for “vigil”) shifted the history of a nation as the church rose up in prayer and drug cartels began to fall.

Right here in my home state of Arizona, we’ve seen a prayer movement with similar impact. Last year, Hal and Cheryl Sacks ( led a state-wide, twenty-one day fast, specifically directed at Mexican drug cartels working in Arizona. A day after the fast ended, law enforcement here announced the bust of the very cartel we targeted in prayer.

4. Relationships, relationships, relationships

Recently I participated in a gathering of some of the most influential pastors in our city. One of my best friends Mark Buckley challenged us to deepen our relationships with another. “Whether or not we ever do anything together,” he shared, “we should come together like this, if for no other reason, because Jesus prayed to his Father for us to be one” (John 17:21).

Pastors in relationship and churches serving their communities together have been, for me, a life-long passion and mission. We are, simply, better together, and a house divided against itself cannot stand. Unity is essential, but unity won’t happen outside of significant, safe relationships.

Christian leaders need peer friendships, not merely collegial or professional relationships. Pastors need other pastors, not just to share best-practices, but to share life. The apostle Paul tells us in Acts that God determined the exact places where people should live (Acts 17:26). You can’t choose your neighbors, or the people you work with, or those who attend your church. Yet no relationship is random. Paul also teaches us in I Corinthians 12:18 that “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” As a pastor, I always believed that I had a responsibility to know, love and collaborate with other pastors in my city, and any pastor who feels otherwise has, in my view, a narrow and restrictive view of their ministry.

I know this is self-evident, but relationships need time. We like to talk about “quality time,” but in my view, that’s empty rhetoric. Our marriages and friendships need time, period. Lots of time. Yet it’s something our busy lives don’t allow us to do. Observe other cultures where people have far less distractions and seemingly much more time, where you see people just sitting in front of their small homes. Just sitting there talking. Or just sitting there. In a clock and calendar-driven world, we’ve lost the art of time-driven relationships.

The Phoenix pastor story

Others with a national perspective have told me that relationships between and among pastors in Phoenix, and uniquely the pastors of the largest churches in the state, are unmatched in any major metro area in the U. S. I’m pleased to have played a role in bringing this about.

Over a decade ago I took the initiative to meet and to introduce myself to megachurch pastors in metro Phoenix. Each of them agreed that we should all gather from time to time, so we planned our first 3K+ (3000 or more in attendance) meeting, and four out of about a dozen showed up.

As we met quarterly, though, every leading pastor in our city participated in these two to three hour-long fellowship meetings. No speaker. No agenda. Our simple task was relationships. Time together. It wasn’t long before our gathering grew into an annual summit, three days and two nights out of town together, where for four years now, we’ve had twenty or more of us participate. Most recently, our pastors’ movement “Undivided” has adopted three targets of transformation around the needs of children: when they are eligible for foster care, when they are hungry, and when they are in school.

Now three of those churches are partnering to make an extraordinary difference in our foster care system. Although City of Grace, Redemption, and Mission are three very different kinds of churches, together they’ve hired a consultant to help them develop a strategic plan which includes working with foster care agencies and the Arizona Department of Economic Security, our state’s department of human services. You can read about this at

In Austin, Texas, my dear friend Dan Davis has led the formation of multiple small pastors’ covenant groups. Hundreds of pastors in Austin have been participating over the last decade, and their trusting, mutually supportive friendships have led to many city-changing efforts, principally through their Austin Bridge Builders Alliance (ABBA).

5. Missional churches

Rick Warren has introduced us to purpose-driven churches filled with people who have purpose-driven lives. Churches, though, are generally designed to meet the needs of church people who often live for themselves.

Thus, “family” is usually the prevailing metaphor of the church in the church, and it trumps every other metaphor, like “temple,” “city on a hill,” “army.” Church people are often the greatest hindrance to the advance of God’s kingdom, because they’ve made the church all about them. How many times have you heard, “This is my church,” and something you own is something you want to control. All through the Bible, though, God’s message to us is that life isn’t about me, about us. It’s about God and what he wants to do through me, through us for others.

I discussed the missional element of the Christian life in the introduction of the first half of this article (see, but I want to emphasize here that, until church leadership in denominations, in the pulpit, in elders and deacons meetings in local churches embrace the Great Commission and preach the kingdom of God, our cities and the people who live in them will not be transformed.

Most Christian leaders know how the Gospels end with the Great Commission. Few know that Acts ends similarly: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed [first] the kingdom of God [shalom, everything made right in our world] and [second] taught about the Lord Jesus Christ [the one through whom the kingdom of God comes]” (Acts 28:30-31).

6. Evangelism and church planting

Years ago I heard church growth and spiritual gifts guru C. Peter Wagner say that the most effective form of evangelism is church planting. It’s a known fact that new churches draw new people, and the older churches are, the less they draw new people.

I heard Tim Keller say recently that, as influential as his church in New York City has become, it’s seeing fewer and fewer people come to Christ. This was my experience at Word of Grace. At about our twenty-year mark we discovered a church statistic I’ve never heard discussed: our number of first time visitors was slowly declining. It was our first clue that our church was aging and losing its momentum.

Whatever else God’s people are doing in Phoenix, they are not planting enough new churches. Over a decade ago, a national Christian organization Church Resource Ministries (CRM), in a demographic study of churches in Phoenix, found that our metro area was two thousand churches behind the national average of churches per capita in large cities.

To put things in perspective, if the twenty largest churches in the Phoenix area average 5000 people on the weekend, that’s 100,000 people attending these churches on the weekend. In our city of 4 million, that’s a dreadful one-quarter of one percent.

7. Common grace

Do you believe that everyone is created in the image of God? If so, God can and will use everyone and anyone to accomplish his purposes.

A year ago, I wrecked my sports car in the morning rush hour on the freeway

It was horrible.

A great thing about causing a four-car collision and a traffic backup miles long, though, is watching strangers respond to tragedy. It was remarkable. People got out of their cars and ran to assist those of us in the wreck. Emergency vehicles raced to the scene. Tow trucks pulled disabled vehicles out of the traffic. Someone with an orange vest was out there sweeping up glass with a push broom.

And no one yelled at me. No one gave me the finger for causing the crash.

Think about the attack on the World Trade Center. The NYPD and the NYFD. Were all those men and women Bible-believing Christians? Hardly. But they were heroes, many of whom gave their lives—because it’s in every one of us to do amazing things for others.

Like the teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to protect children in an elementary school in Connecticut.

The Reformers called this “common grace,” which for me is the common ground of service to our cities.

Yet somehow born again Christians find it difficult to partner with others in community transformation if those other people aren’t Christians, or if they are pro-choice, or gay. Or in some cases, if they just go to a different kind of church. You know, they’re not Baptist. Or they’re not the right kind of Lutheran.

Meanwhile the world is going to hell—or through hell, and we do nothing. Or very little, because we can’t work together.

When I was senior pastor of Word of Grace, we had an annual executive leadership retreat for our leadership staff and board. One year we invited community leaders to share with us how we could be more effective in ministering to the people in our city, even those who didn’t go to church. Former vice-mayor and Mesa Man of the Year Pat Gilbert said,

“If you are going to work in the community, you will have to serve side by side with people you don’t agree with.”

No, we can’t worship with everybody. We have our distinctives. But we can serve together. For example, our area of Phoenix has a very large Mormon population. If there’s a flood in Lehi, a small settlement on our Salt River, and the Governor calls for volunteers to fill sand bags, and I’m paired with Mormon, I’m not going to make sure he believes the same thing about the Trinity before I shovel sand into his bag.

I’m a conservative evangelical, a registered Republican. Yet when I was asked to serve Governor (now Secretary of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano’s Council on Faith and Community Initiatives, I had no hesitation saying ‘yes.’ Some of my conservative Christian friends, though, were not happy I was serving a moderate to left of center governor. I had to remind them of Moses and Daniel, and God’s command in Jeremiah 29:7, “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

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