What does salvation mean in the urban context?

(published as a Chapter in Crossover City – Resources for Urban Mission and Transformation [Continuum, 2009])

Salvation in South London?

In 2007 the shootings in south London of three young men: Billy Cox in Clapham, Michael Dosunmu in Peckham and James Andre Smartt-Ford in Streatham caused national headlines. Television and radio shows debated the issue and Tony Blair convened a forum with community representatives and the police to see what could be done. A lot of people were asking questions like ‘What is wrong in our cities?’ and ‘What has happened to our urban youth?’

In response, Christian churches in South London along with the Peace Alliance [1] organised a prayer walk from Peckham to Brixton on 22 February 2008. The aim was to witness to the peace and hope of Jesus and to consciously declare this in the streets that have been associated with violence and murder. The walk intentionally walked through numerous gang boundaries to show that these boundaries meant nothing in reality because we are all one in Christ Jesus.

I participated in the prayer walk because one of the murders occurred very close to where I live in Streatham. It was both an uplifting experience and also a deeply challenging one for me. This is was not an event which tentatively encouraged Christian values – Jesus’ Lordship was declared boldly from the platform. And as we walked we sang songs that were familiar to me from my church; songs like ‘Our God is an Awesome God’ and ‘You came from Heaven to Earth’. But there was a huge difference in how they were sung. The context changed everything because we sang with urgency, passion and a sense of the immediacy of God that I have rarely experienced.

The walk was evidence of the Church (largely Pentecostal) declaring salvation in Jesus in an unashamedly bold and vocal way. But this was a deeply integrated faith, committing to witnessing to God’s saving power now; a salvation that is politically engaged and socially relevant. A salvation that is committed to both personal responsibility and the declaration of God’s power to save our community. A salvation which makes good, and challenges injustice. It liberates captives from fear; to cast out the demons of violence and despair. This justice announces in word, deed and sign the reality of God’s saving power: Truly a light shining in the darkness.

Problems with our concepts of salvation

The centrality of salvation to the Christian faith makes it an essential concept to grapple with if we desire unity in the mission of the Church. But, as illustrated by the violence and deaths in South London recently our urban context gives urgency to our discussion. We are confronted by issues that demand answers from those with faith. What will save the city from violence and destruction? What will stop injustice and suffering? Can we have hope in a better future?

Too often our use of the word salvation and associated phrases like ‘being saved’ become religious jargon, flowing easily from the pages of liturgy or within internal church discussion. But those engaged in Christian ministry and mission in the urban context need to reflect carefully on what we mean when we talk about salvation. Are we declaring a whole gospel? Are we guilty, like many of the false prophets in Israel’s history, of telling ‘our people’ only what they are comfortable hearing?[2]

In his first book, Jim Wallis picks up this theme. He wrote (my italics) ‘The churches have secularised the kingdom by identifying it with ideologies, programs, movements, institutions, and governments; they have individualised it by restricting it to the inner recesses of the heart; they have spiritualised it by removing it entirely to heaven; or they have futurised it by speaking of it only in connection with apocalyptic events at the end of time.’ [3]

Wallis was writing in the mid-seventies in the context of an urban community seeking to live out the radical call of the gospel through counter-cultural lifestyle and political resistance. His experience of the challenges facing the urban poor left him dissatisfied with both the narrowness of evangelicalism and the spiritual dryness of liberalism.

The current divisions between ‘evangelical’ and ‘liberal’ mean that there is a danger of two separate and distinct gospel messages being proclaimed. One is a message primarily of personal salvation and the other a message focussed on a social salvation. Our division along these lines tragically undermines the Church’s witness because both sides are undernourished by the division. The truth is that neither narrow evangelicalism or woolly liberalism are good news for the city.  This diagram illustrates the dichotomy that we fall into:

We have to go deeper. The crisis of violence, poverty and meaninglessness in our urban areas desperately needs the good news of the kingdom of God. How can we share a holistic gospel which integrates the personal, social and political imperatives of salvation?

A personal and social salvation

Shaftesbury works alongside a wide range of churches in urban areas. In seeking to support them in their mission to their communities, we often discuss the way in which Christian faith has both deeply personal and social dimensions.

Too often in history the gospel has been individualised to suit the rich and powerful and to deny the radical biblical critique of social and structural sin. This needs to be exposed but not in favour of a lop-sided focus that disregards the personal aspects of sin and salvation. This is equally ineffectual and dangerous. Too often middle-class analysis of urban issues, (homelessness is a great example) falls into the trap of minimising personal agency and personal responsibility in a way that simply does not ring true to real life experience.

To avoid the pendulum swing between within this false dichotomy it is essential that we go deeper – to grasp the depth of sin’s effect on the whole world and embrace the radical and holistic nature of our salvation in Christ. As Vinay Samuel has written ‘the whole of personal and social life is God’s area of concern and action’.[5]

The fullness of salvation

The biblical picture of salvation is rich and multi-faceted. The whole biblical ‘meta-narrative’ is a salvation history, of how a loving Creator God is working out his redemptive purposes for the whole of creation. Within this big picture, we can draw out four interlinking ways of describing salvation:[6]

1) Salvation as wholeness

In the Bible we see that salvation centres upon restoring the whole person (not just the ‘soul’) to a proper network of relationships. It embraces forgiveness in relation to both each other and God, as well as healing and a proper attitude to others and the whole of creation. A good example is when Jesus declared that ‘salvation had come to this house’ when rich urbanite Zacchaeus rejected his previous lifestyle and prioritised restoring relationships in his community (Luke 19). This wholeness is essentially social; biblically salvation is never seen as a purely individualistic concern.

This is especially relevant in the urban context where relationships between groups are often contentious. The close proximity of different groups with different worldviews and perspectives frequently leads to fragmentation of community and deepening divisions between people groups based on ethnicity, age or geographical boundaries (as with the south London gangs). The salvation we have in Christ cuts across these divisions for in Christ ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). It is a wonderful thing when congregations make this truth incarnate across the amazing diversity of humanity.

On a more personal level, the demanding nature of the urban context causes anxiety, mental illness and exclusion of people with differences. In Jesus’ ministry we see healing and wholeness go hand in hand, with the healings of individuals being the signs of the kingdom where people are fully restored into community (e.g. Luke 4:31-37, 8:26-39).

2) Salvation as liberation

Salvation entails liberation from oppression. This is most clearly illustrated in the Exodus story of the Israel’s liberation from the injustice and oppression of slavery. In the books of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah[7], we see a denouncement of the sin that is expressed and embodied in social structures that oppress and dehumanise. A similarly political expression of injustice is to be found in Revelation 13, where the economic and military power of Rome are portrayed as beasts which cause captivity and oppression.

Thus the biblical picture of salvation is both deeply political but also personal. In Philippi (Acts 16:16-40) we see God working through Paul and Silas to bring liberation to a slave girl being manipulated by her owners for financial gain. This transformative act leads to their flogging, imprisonment and a subsequent challenge to the authorities.

This challenge to the powers of the world is obviously relevant to the socially oppressive conditions in urban areas. The social, political and economic forces at work in the city which oppress those on the margins are not the true reality (they are ‘false absolutes’) and will be transformed one day in the New Heavens and New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-25, Revelation 21:1-5). Our task is to declare and embody this truth in anticipation of this age; to pray, act and struggle for liberation.

3) Salvation as forgiveness

A central biblical focus of salvation is on people experiencing forgiveness for their guilt in participation in wrong-doing. In line with the Passover, God has acted through Jesus to both conquer and justly forgive the sin of humanity rather than simply ignore it. The nature of our forgiveness in Christ can be emphasised in different ways (Christ as our representative, our participation in Christ or Christ as our substitute) but all involve the personal acceptance of guilt and the embracing of God’s grace through forgiveness.

Jesus’ death on the Cross brings a deep reconciliation between humanity and God. Jesus challenges us to go the way of the Cross, as Samuel states ‘The reconciliation brought about on the Cross has profound socio – political and cultural implications. How can humans deal with the bad consequences of human action, theirs, their ancestors and others who ruled them? Can such consequences be reversed?’[8]

It is obvious but important to state (especially in the current context of vicious divisions within the Church) that our experience of God’s grace must overflow into our dealings with our neighbours. Jesus’ story of the unmerciful servant illustrates this vividly (Matthew 18:21-35). Forgiveness is not about ignoring the wrongs we have committed but acknowledging their reality and facing up to our guilt before God and our neighbours.

The need for forgiveness and grace is profoundly important in urban life because we see the destruction caused by unresolved disputes and the downward spiral of revenge. I am personally struck whenever I get my local bus how much the conversation of young people in my area focuses on retribution. I regularly cycle past the site of a knifing in Mitcham, South London where flowers and cards have been laid for the young man who was murdered. When I read the various cards and rap lyrics left in his honour, the dominant thread is one of retribution and revenge for his death rather than appeals for peace or much sense of hope. I find reading them profoundly depressing.

Desmond Tutu’s book ‘No Future without Forgiveness’ illustrates the political dimensions of forgiveness in the astonishing and miraculous story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. This is the saving nature of God’s grace embodied in a political process which sought a truth and forgiveness beyond the reach of the normal process of law. It is a stunning example of God’s saving grace which has had the power to save individual’s lives and whole communities from bitter and destructive recrimination.

4) Salvation as personal affirmation

The Christian story is deeply affirming for humanity. For we are made in the image of the Creator God, his identity imprinted on every person. It is this identity and worth that is affirmed through the saving action of Christ. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’ (John 3:16). Of course, this image of God is marred by sin but it remains present in everyone. The life, death and resurrection of Christ does expose and judge the world of its sin but it also displays the astonishing extent of God’s love for us.

We live in an age desperate for affirmation and acceptance. Anxiety is the spirit of the age and in many ways the default mode of the city. We see an epidemic of depression and the growth of disorders related to personal self worth and appearance. The increasingly blatant marketing of plastic surgery play on these anxieties in ways we could not have imagined even a decade ago. Again, we see the inseparability of personal and social issues: the demons of financial greed and corruption capitalise on the insecurity of the weak and vulnerable.

Seeing the transformation that has come over friends, family and the young people in my church youth group through conversion to Christ has been a deep joy. This thread of personal affirmation has been vital in the transformation process as people understand that the central event of history is deeply relevant to them personally. Reflecting on the threats and challenges he faced, Martin Luther King wrote that ‘The agonising moments through which I have passed during the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever, I am convinced of the reality of a personal God�a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years’.[9]

The dynamism of transformation and hope

Salvation is dynamic because at its core it is about transformation and change. We believe that one day everything will be fully restored; that the world will be judged and all things will be ‘put to rights’ and that God will make ‘everything new’ (Revelation 21:5).

It is this eschatology that we seek to embody in the here and now ‘for in this hope we were saved’ (Romans 8:24). Tom Wright puts it like this ‘And earth and heaven shall be one: that is the note that should sound like a clear, sweet bell through all Christian living�people called to live in the present in the light of that future.’[10]

Hope and salvation work together. We have hope because we believe in God’s salvation. But our salvation is worked out through having hope. I have found through my work with homeless people that the nurturing of hope is so important because of its transformative power. It is only when a person believes in a better future that they can work towards it. As Jim Wallis often says ‘Hope is believing in spite of the evidence� then watching the evidence change.’[11]

In reflecting on his experiences in working to alleviate poverty, Michael Taylor has written of this dynamic between hope and transformation: ‘By choosing to believe that the world has possibilities, possibilities arise where otherwise they would not have done. That is true of God and it is true of us. By regarding the world we know, marked by the chaos of insecurity, poverty and injustice, as promising and acting accordingly, it is filled with promise. Hope is creative. It is not the child of transformation. Transformation is the child of hope. It makes the hills green and it believes that all things can be made new.’[12]

Using the categories of salvation discussed above, we see this dynamic of transformation and hope through God’s saving power:

From: To:
Suffering and exclusion    Wholeness
Captivity Liberation
Guilt Forgiveness
Insecurity Affirmation

Hope is a key ingredient in transformation. It provides a dynamic energy that is vital in combating the negativity and fear that can engulf individuals and communities in the urban context.

Conclusion: Going deeper

Jim Wallis’ critique of the secularising, futurising, individualising and spiritualising of the gospel message is a challenge to both evangelical and liberal doctrine and praxis. As he has said more recently, ‘The message the world is waiting for is one of both personal renewal and social justice’. This is the good news of salvation that can be understood in the urban context.

Our creativity, energy and confidence in the message of salvation will be essential if we are to communicate it effectively. Too many of our Church institutions are surviving off the fading oxygen of Christendom. We are in a different era now and we cannot expect people to simply turn up and participate in church unless they can see that the message connects and integrates with real life. Evangelism is now a political necessity if the Church is to be a transforming presence in urban areas. As Steve Latham has written ‘We need the real deal�instead of the ‘decaffeinated religion’ of postmodern liberal tolerance’.[13]

There is much to learn from how larger churches in our cities have been able to nurture faith, facilitate friendships, build community and run high quality youth and children’s work. But also larger churches must not lose sight of their role in the body of Christ, and avoid the accumulation of resources and individualistic and concentric[14] tendencies that gathered churches are prone to.

The crises facing our urban communities call us to go deeper in our faith and witness – to seek a unity in the gospel of the kingdom. And as carriers of this message and lifestyle, to become a Church committed to ‘mission as transformation’: places which speak confidently in the urban context of the wholeness, liberation, forgiveness and affirmation that we know and experience in Jesus.

We have much to learn from areas of the world where the church is growing. As Samuel writes ‘The explosive growth of the Church in India has much to do with the discovery of the poor of India that in the Gospel it is not first the personal connection with the once distant God but the resource for transforming their present circumstances of oppression and poverty through a living experience of the Holy Spirit’s power in their lives.’[15]

Steve Latham believes that ‘perhaps what we need is a liberation-charismatic fusion that will incarnate all aspects of God’s new creation kingdom reality’[16]. This is the powerful synthesis that Martin Luther King developed and represented through the civil rights movement in the US. And this is what I saw glimpses of in Peckham a few weeks ago – a declaration of hope in God’s salvation in the complexity of the urban context. It was exciting and challenging to participate in – a sure sign of God’s kingdom at work in His world.

Jon Kuhrt is Director of Community Mission, the Shaftesbury Society


Bryant Myers Walking with the Poor (Orbis Books/World Vision) 1999

Jim Wallis Agenda for Biblical People (Harper & Row) 1976

Steve Latham Some Issues in Urban Theology (London Urban Theology Project) 2007

Atkinson et al Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (IVP) 1995

Martin Luther King, Pilgrimage to Non-Violence in Strength to Love, (Fount) 1963

Tom Wright Simply Christian (SPCK) 2006

Michael Taylor Poverty and Christianity (SCM) 2002

Larry Rasmussen (ed.) Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life (Collins) 1989

Chris Sugden & Vinay Samuel Mission as Transformation (Regnum) 1999

Chris Erskine Concentric Church (The Shaftesbury Society) 2003

Vinay Samuel Transforming our Cultures – A Gospel Agenda (available at www.wheaton.edu/HNGR/resources/vinay_samuel.html) 2006


[1] For more information see www.peacealliance.org.uk

[2] For example: Micah 3:5, Amos 7:10-17, Jeremiah 6:13-15

[3] Jim Wallis Agenda for Biblical People (p.93)

[4] The inseparability of the person and the social order: based on diagram 2-5 p.48 in Bryant Myers Walking with the Poor

[5] Transforming our Cultures – A Gospel Agenda Vinay Samuel (2006)

[6] This four-fold definition is taken from the Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology

[7] E.g. Isaiah 3:13-15, Jeremiah 22:13-17, Amos 5;11-15, Micah 2:1-2

[8] Transforming our Cultures – A Gospel Agenda Vinay Samuel (2006)

[9] Martin Luther King, Pilgrimage to Non-Violence – taken from Strength to Love

[10] Tom Wright Simply Christian p186

[11] Jim Wallis (in just about every speech he has makes!)

[12] Michael Taylor Poverty and Christianity

[13] Steve Latham Some Issues in Urban Theology – the ‘decaffinated’ line is a quote from Slavoj Zizek (London Urban Theology Project) 2007

[14] Concentric Church Chris Erskine (The Shaftesbury Society) 2003

[15] Transforming our Cultures – A Gospel Agenda Vinay Samuel (2006)

[16] Steve Latham, ibid

2 thoughts on “What does salvation mean in the urban context?”

  1. God’s Word is sufficient to answer the needs of society. A just and righteous God has preserved His Word through every age, even as commentator’s and philosopher’s words have faded to dusty bookshelves. Isaiah 55:11 “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” God doesn’t need anyone to explain His Word or His purpose. He doesn’t need “social relevance” to promote His truth. In Jesus’ prayer for his disciples he said “sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth”. I’ve noted how much emphasis you have placed on the words and explanations of other men. I see your points and you are so, so close. Read your Bible – throw out or at least ignore every other book (in what is probably a very extensive library!) for a season and just read your Bible! In it lies the true message of salvation that you are hinting at, but not fully grasping. I mean no insult; I have no animosity – only respect for your obvious intentions but we will never change our society, our standards, our morals our outward appearance, our interaction with others until we are born of the Spirit of God. Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first and also to the Greek” The good news of Christ holds power for those that believe. That power transforms us from children of wrath to children of hope. Focus your attention on what God wants from you – He wants a personal, meaningful relationship with you. Imagine, a close relationship with the God of eternity! We are not capable as mere humans to bring about social change. It has been tried and tried again for both good and evil purposes and it has always failed. The only change that has been effective has come about as men of God proclaim His righteousness to those caught in the power of sin and stand back as God goes to work on men’s hearts. Paul was speaking to the Corinthian church about their internicine squabbles about who was for Paul or who was for Apollos – and he said in chapter 3 and verse 6 “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase”. Throughout modern history we have seen this. Revivals in America in the 18th century from the preaching of Edwards and Whitefield; by von Zinzendorf in Germany and in Cornwall revival came simply from the prayers of the citizens. Revivals in the 19th century in Kentucky, New York and Ulster. Revivals in the 20th century in Wales, Korea, New Guinea and America. These have brought real life changing results and none of those results can be attributed to the works of men. They are all of God. You want change. You need hope. Christ said “if any man follow me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” We cannot hope to take up the cross of Christ without understanding his story. His story is the Bible. Read it. May God bless you as you seek Him in His Word.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s