When I first heard about City-fest West Michigan about a year and a half ago, I have to admit that I was skeptical. I thought “Here’s another big-budget event with good intentions to megaphone the Gospel message out into the city---but really, how much of a difference is this gonna make in the long run?” As I've looked more into this and felt it out personally, I've come to believe this is a movement catalyst we've been praying for for almost a decade.
"But really, how much of a difference is this gonna make in the long run?”
Relationship and Surrender
I’ve always been a relationally-oriented, grass-roots kind of guy. For almost eight years, I’ve been living in a neighborhood on the West Side with other believers in close proximity, sharing our intentions of loving neighbors, learning, praying, dreaming, trying new ideas, failing, learning more---and all the while the main thread has been growing and deepening relationship as we surrender ourselves in abandon to our Father’s great love as best we know how. It’s challenged every part of me along the way, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
One thing I’ve learned is that nothing can really substitute for that orientation of relationship and mutual surrender to God’s purposes around us. You can have big events, bigger budgets, well-designed social media images, sexy flyers, fun games, talented staff, and free food, but if people can’t connect to some kind of humanity in the midst of it all---or rather, some kind of divine expression of love through a human touchpoint---whatever it is, it won’t last long. A “flash in the pan,” as they say. (I’m not even sure where that saying comes from, but maybe I’ll google it later.)
This is what I thought of Cityfest. I didn’t know much about it. I learned a bit about Luis Palau and his sons Andrew and Kevin, and at the time and I appreciated what I learned about them, but I still didn’t want to give much attention to this thing that would be happening in our city in the not-too-distant future. As you may tell from the title of this article, things turned around for me. Allow me to share why.
Church of the City
I believe in the church of the city, that there is a call for the believers in a place (be it a city, village, town, or nation) are called to be an extended family and seek to value and love one another as such across the boundaries that can exist around church memberships and Sunday attendance. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about church-planting, the proclamation of the Gospel, and having strong relationship and submission to upward pastoral graces in our lives, but I also believe it to be a healthy thing in our culture if some of those boundaries between churches get a bit blurry because of affection, friendship, and the curious excitement of praying and dreaming for this city we share. This is a primary framework for the church to see our individual church families as part of the larger whole.
I’ve been so excited to see that in the past eight years that I’ve been leading in a church family in Grand Rapids, I’ve seen this same mentality growing among other leaders as well. I’ve personally been a part of multiple groups of church/ministry leaders who pray together for reconciliation, unity, and transformation in the city AND have a high value for friendship and vulnerability between one another. You might know as well as I that in America, this is NOT NORMAL in most places. It should be, and I’m glad it’s becoming normal here. God has initiated this and the groundswell is beginning to be felt in wider ways.
"This is NOT normal. It should be, and I'm glad it's becoming normal here."
I was having dinner with a good friend at a real good Thai restaurant in Birmingham, England last year as we were both attending a prayer conference. She is from Portland, OR and has been integral to powerful prayer and mission movements there for decades. It dawned on me while we were eating that CityFest originally STARTED in Portland, so I thought to ask her of her experience with it. I was surprised to learn (but maybe shouldn’t have been surprised), that she had worked closely with the Palau’s and CityFest for their prayer initiatives. She spoke plainly, but the testimony that she shared with me that night was powerful---how the process of CityFest began as a conversation among church leaders with a desire to humbly learn from city leaders how to serve the city in ways that would actually be helpful, and then mobilize the church to unify around that while communicating the Gospel. It also afforded the church leaders in Portland to prioritize a spiritual retreat that ended up being a breakthrough moment for relationship, letting guards down, and lots of repentance. The initiatives and relationships have continued to grow, develop and evolve since. All of this was a surprise to me, and I began to see CityFest differently.
I decided to go to some of the State of CityFest meetings, and I realized that many of the people who had been appointed to chair different aspects of it like the prayer and justice initiatives were the local trustworthy leaders who have been doing faithful work in those areas on the ground for years, and this was giving them an opportunity to invite the wider church body to share in those initiatives. At the first State of CityFest meeting I went to, one of the presenters asked, “if we do all of this but don’t actually grow in real friendship with one another, what is any of this going to become?” I ALMOST yelled out an obnoxious “AMEN!” but being it was my first meeting, I was a little too sheepish at the time.
From what I see, at its best, CityFest has the potential to be one giant excuse for the church in West Michigan to grow in our long term deepening of friendship across existing boundaries, and learning how to pray, serve, and communicate the Gospel TOGETHER---including making some significant impact in critical local justice issues like affordable housing, education, and racial reconciliation through the ONE WEST MICHIGAN campaign. Wow! That would be amazing! At its worst, it could be a flash in the pan (still haven’t googled that yet!), some hearing and responding to the Gospel message, but potentially reinforcing negative habits the church in our city/region has been carrying for a long time already. I believe the difference here will be in how we as actual individuals and leaders in the church engage it and one another during this time and the season to come. Will we see this an opportunity to love one another, to love others, differently than we have before? Will we really listen to the people we are trying to serve, and actually serve in the ways they express will be most helpful, rather than the ways that simply make us feel good about ourselves? There's a lot of humility required in asking these questions and following a true path of growth.
"I believe the difference here will be in how we as actual individuals and leaders in the church engage it"
Valuing Participation in the Midst of Disagreement
A couple issues worth noting here are criticisms I've heard toward CityFest around the lack of female leadership represented in the primary board as well as the lack of leaders of small churches represented in that board. From my limited conversations with CityFest staff about this I've seen that there is awareness about this, that there were initial efforts to have female represented in that group that didn't work out, and I've seen ongoing efforts to have diversity in leadership representation. No mistake: this movement is not perfect. Being this is a church unity movement, there are bound to be issues of disagreement whenever different churches come together around something. I believe that strength will come in togetherness and participation even though there might be differences of belief within, and if those who have a disagreement about how things have been done so far do not show up to the table to be a part of the conversation, there will be no opportunity to grow together. I've always appreciated the motto of the Moravians: In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, Love. If you, like I did, have any reservation about participating in CityFest because of a disagreement you hold personally, I encourage you to stick your nose in, in some way, and ask if God is leading you to still play some role---because the truth is even if we, who are present at the table, disagree, WE STILL NEED EACH OTHER.
"even if we disagree, we still need each other."
I lead a neighborhood church community that was birthed out of a larger prayer movement (24-7 Prayer) whose goal is to live out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission through the values and practices of prayer, mission and justice. These are pretty basic ideas of the Gospel that I see shared in what CityFest it about. I am also the designated City Coordinator for GR within 24-7 Prayer USA---and I see that part of my work in this this role will be raising awareness for what God is doing through CityFest West MI this year in hopes that these new Kingdom relationships and initiatives can endure into the future. SO as the spring marches into summer, you’ll probably hear a lot more from me about CityFest as I personally seek to take advantage of this opportunity we all share to grow together in the ways I’ve talked about here.
Lord, give us the humility and grace we need as your church in West Michigan. Help us to see one another as You see us---so that we will see others through Your love.
If you’re interested in getting involved, here are some great ways:
1) Go to the website to get more info, and talk to others in your church about signing up as a partner along with over 300 other churches in the area. cityfestwestmichigan.org
2) Prayer - Find out more about an opportunity for your church to join in a city-wide 24-7-365 prayer movement in which churches will be adopting one day each month (or portion of a day) to cover the city in prayer. Email Marcus Little for more info firstname.lastname@example.org You can also join the Prayer Team at the website to commit to praying daily. There are bi-weekly prayer and equipping meetings going on at different churches around West MI.
3) Justice - Get involved in the justice campaign called One West Michigan, which is seeking to mobilize and equip the churches to unite and make a significant impact in our area in the specific issues of affordable housing, education, and racial reconciliation. The meetings are round table discussions with others who want to make a positive impact and figure it out together. Official launch of the campaign is April 12! Onewestmichigan.org
4) Mission - Attend the friendship evangelism training by author Mark Mittlelberg on April 17 or 18. www.cityfestwestmichigan.org/friendship-evangelism