The City Without a Church: Concrete Spirituality

Guest Preacher: Dr. Selena Headley

Although I’m a Canadian primarily raised in Calgary, God captured my heart for mission in my youth. I have nurtured a long-term call to serve local leaders in Africa, having been immersed in ministry in Cape Town, South Africa for over 15 years. I’m delighted to have joined Resonate Global Mission this year as the Urban Training Collaborative Coordinator. I’m part of a dynamic team in Southern and Eastern Africa who are passionate about sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

My passion is to come alongside local leaders and help them flourish as they wrestle with challenges and seek to both share and be Good News in their communities. I’m also excited to foster theological education and conduct research to break down critical issues which hinder transformation and the expression of God’s Shalom in the cities of Africa. You may ask, “Why African Cities? 

In African cities the pace of urbanisation has been stunning, from 10% in 1950, to 35% in 1990, and to close to 50% in 2015, with urban expansion expected to continue exponentially in the next 2 to 3 decades. This growth has been marked by “deep poverty, immense infrastructure backlogs, weak capacity and a shortage of money”.[1] Much of the explosive growth is taking place through the proliferation of slum settlements where life remains precarious for millions. I’ll share more about my local experience later but let’s dig into the Revelation of Jesus Christ for better understanding of God’s vision of a city. 

Revelation 21 and 22, provide an imaginative vision of the New Jerusalem, a luminous city descending after much tribulation on the earth at the end of John’s apocalyptic vision. In this vision John saw a city without a temple. What was John communicating to his hearers in the midst of turbulent times which may help us in our times? 

Before we read the scripture for today, I’m going to provide a few introductory comments to remind us of the genres and context in which the book of revelation was written. It is the longest pastoral letter in the bible, written to the churches of Asia minor, yet it is different from other New Testament letters to the churches. It was likely written by the apostle John around 68 AD, when he was exiled to the island of Patmos during a time when the early church faced persecution by the Roman Empire. 

Revelation is a Pastoral Letter: This letter opens with pastoral exhortations from Jesus Christ to 7 churches located in a circuit through Asia minor. As “the Revelation of Jesus Christ,” it is providing a counter-narrative to the domination of the Roman Empire grounded in Old Testament imagery through over 250 allusions to texts like Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Psalms, which would have been more familiar to the early Christians. The primary symbol of the slain lamb who rules in faithfulness and sacrifice over all the evil powers of the world also opposes a Babylonian model of empire which prevailed through generations. 

We are called to follow the lamb that was slain wherever he goes. Some churches are commended for enduring persecution and showing loyalty under pressure, while others are challenged to hold fast and not give in to compromise through comfort, security, wealth, state-mandated cultic worship, and indifference to the Kingdom of God. Such challenges are faced by the modern church and we would do well to heed the call to persevere, repent, and hold fast to overcome daily pressures to compromise with worldly temptations not aligned with Jesus Christ.

Revelation is apocalyptic literature: John writes this book as a Revelation or in Greek apocalypse. Apocalyptic writing opens up a reality we do not ordinarily see, pulling back a curtain beyond what we perceive. For John’s hearers, this had a positive meaning of unveiling, or pulling back the curtain to reveal truth. For John’s time and context, apocalyptic literature was not the negative scary stuff we think of when we hear the word, “apocalypse” today, but this had a positive meaning of a divine unveiling, opening up reality to what we don’t ordinarily see. This apocalyptic genre of Jewish literature presents symbolic dreams and visions that reveal God’s heavenly perspective on history and current events, so the present could be viewed in light of history’s final outcome. The opening up or breaking through of God‘s kingdom in the midst of evil empires. 

Revelation is Prophecy: Prophecy was descriptive of particular moments in the life of Israel and the church, extending beyond the present moment. Prophecy was spoken to God’s people usually through a prophet to warn and or comfort them in time of crisis. John declares this is the ‘Revelation of Jesus’ in the tradition of the prophets, bringing Old Testament prophecy to its climax.  In the book the most common command was to “Look”, followed by “Do not be afraid”. John’s pastoral letter was written to open up and unveil how God‘s Kingdom was breaking through in the midst of the opposing forces of an evil empire. 

This apocalyptic prophecy was sent to real people in a real place experiencing the crush of empire in Asia minor. It was a letter to be circulated among seven churches. 

Today, we will look at a portion of John’s vision at the end of this extended apocalyptic and prophetic letter. The epilogue of Revelation 21 and 22 describes the end of the biblical story, bringing us into a vision of a new beginning with a new creation of heaven and earth, descending as the New Jerusalem with Christ as the Bridegroom and the church as the Bride and so much more.  

In the catechism question today, we reflected on God’s goodness at the beginning of the biblical story in the first creation of heaven and earth. We will now see this goodness at the end in the creation story revealed in the creation of a new heaven and earth. In Revelation 21and 22 we are given a glimpse of the redemption of God’s creation in the ultimate consummation of a new heaven and earth. 

For the sake of time, we will only read the beginning of chapter  21, verses 1-11, skipping the detailed account of perfectly formed  luminous physical features of the new Jerusalem in verses 12-21, picking up again in verses 22-27. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.

“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

Then one of the seven angels who held the seven bowls containing the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come with me! I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.”

10 So he took me in the Spirit[b] to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. 

22 I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. 24 The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. 25 Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. 26 And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city. 27 Nothing evil will be allowed to enter, nor anyone who practices shameful idolatry and dishonesty—but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

I can’t possibly exegete this chapter in this short time together, but I hope we can make some observation which will inspire us to love and action in our cities today. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

This passage opens with the passing away of the old heaven and earth. What we know and experience now is not eternal, yet we are called to care for all that comes with the current gift of life we have been given. And here is this surprising vision of the new heaven and earth as a city. Not an inviting vision of a garden, but a city. We know in the concentration of people in the city there can be violence, decay, injustice and death. Yet Christ is pulling us toward the kind of city we long for, where the Spirit of God broods over the chaos of the sea as in the book of Genesis and brings new life.  

We long to be clothed as the Bride in white linen. Revelation 19 tells us to rejoice, “for the wedding of the Lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear.” We are told, “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.” We know that priests were also clothed in white linen as those who intercede and bless.

In light of these unseen realities, we are being pulled to do everything we can to seek the welfare of the city and bless it. Beyond our own comfort we are called to labor with Christ, to pray, “as it is in heaven so let it be on earth,” prepared to be God’s answer to that prayer. We are called to minister to those in need as ambassadors for Christ, drawn into building God’s beautifying vision of our city in opposition to spiritual forces which promote wickedness and the destruction of those made in the image of God.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

We are not left alone but we are called to unite with Christ, who weeps over the condition of Jerusalem, and Cape Town and Calgary. Even now we are being pulled into the love of Christ for his people and those in the city who experience the effects of sin which cause tears and pain, death and sorrow. We can’t simply say, “the earth is not our home we’re just a passing through.” Like John 15 tells us, we are to remain in Christ to bear fruit and show ourselves as his disciples remaining in His love, so that our joy will remain full. God’s love is a gift that helps us to walk in the way of embracing the city of God in the midst of darkness and pain. 

22 I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. 24 

For the Jewish way of worship, a city without a temple is unthinkable. Yet in this unseen reality the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple, filling up everything in every way. In Christ we can access the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that we may know him better and make him known. Sometimes seeming like a concealed reality, He is the light of the world. As His body we are being called and drawn into the fullness of Christ who fills everything in everyway (See Ephesians 1:15-23).

This defies the limiting expression of religion and worship within the sacred spaces of the church. This is the city without a church and the opposite of what we might imagine of heaven or the heavenly life. God cares about every part of the city, every person, and everyone who sins and is sinned against. 

At first glance a city without a church is a shock, but with more consideration we begin to imagine the fullness of Christ in the concrete reality of life, and  in the everydayness of the multitudes packed in our cities. It becomes an inviting picture, where we find human life at its greatest intensity, and the most real relationships where God has placed us. We are being pulled to illuminating glory of God, envision Christ in us, the hope of glory. Christ goes in the city, where real life is and the greatest needs are found.  

I work in South Africa, one of the world’s most unequal countries, reflected in the cities through this drone image that is repeated through all the main cities and towns.

  • The country is deeply scarred by centuries of colonialism and apartheid which mandated deep divisions of racial segregation and inscribed injustice into the physical layout of the city.
  • This resulted in large sections where people of colour were forcibly removed to  the “Cape Flats” where 100s of informal settlements were created and sprung up outside of the well-located land in the city.

SLIDE: The Cape Town people know is a very beautiful city, which it is. That’s the city that people view as the real city. But also the informal city makes up a large part on the outskirts, where the townships are located and 100,000s of people live in very densely populated conditions which come with a host of challenges, not least of which is high unemployment and food insecurity. Pictured on the right is Khayelitsha, one of the places where I’m working there the electrical connection reveal the density. 

SLIDE: POPULATION DENSITY TOWERS] This map of the city is telling, where the light green space are closer to what we are used to in Canada. These are not high rise towers but the red spikes show the concentration of people in those communities. Take the entire population of Killarney/Glengarry community, which is 7500 and add at 2500 people, then put everyone inside a square kilometre, that would equal to the 10,000 people per square kilometre in Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha is one of the largest informal settlements in Africa with 500,000 to 1 million residents (they can’t even count the number of residents properly). 70% are still living in shacks and one in three must walk 200m or more to access water. Close to 90% of houses are food insecure  with youth unemployment for 18-35 between around 65-70% (Wikipedia).

What does God envision for all parts of the city? I love the picture of this tree which shows the kind of resilient leaders I work with. I don’t know how this tree grows. The roots, you can see seem to come from nowhere, but I think it’s fitting  to show the way God works in challenging spaces through his people who are ready to engage in concrete spirituality. This is the kind of spirituality, that must be nurtured in such challenging spaces. 

Part of the work that I’m doing is: 

1) facilitate and build a capacity and learning opportunities, helping leaders grow through spiritual formation 

2) through growing networks of care, for those engaged in poverty alleviation, justice-seeking and community building. 

3) Building up local leaders so we can build communities of practice to make a difference, in situations of rapid urbanization in informal spaces and the whole city. 

I’m working for long term transformation through the Gospel, sinking roots in deep with local relationships to foster practices and spiritual formation that helps individuals flourish where they have been planted. 

I intentionally journey with local leaders, churches and communities through cycles of identification, reflection and action by:

  • Fostering attentive listening and curiosity for personal, family and community  stories. 
  • Wrestling with histories, struggles and blessings of communities and cities with biblical and theological understanding. 
  • Amplifying the Good News by exploring how we live out our spirituality in lifegiving actions rooted in love.  
  • Building communities of faith practitioners who sustain productive and inspiring ways of living and being in the city.

Just one of the amazing leaders I get to work with Rev. Tsakani Sibanda is a local pastor in Khayelitsha. To give an example of her amazing work, I agonised with her during COVID about how she could use her small church help her neighbours before there was a vaccine, during hard lock down before we understood what the virus might do. She prayed and sought the Lord and embarked on a project to not just provide a shelter in the church, but to go out to 1000 homes surrounding the church with life-saving supplies of bleach sanitiser and cleanser along with health information with the help of Doctors Without Boarders. She worked with community members in this difficult space, and even created food gardens in the church yard so that people could be fed, facing people who are struggling with hunger and lack of resources. 

This is the work of partnering with communities leaders seeing what is not there on the surface as we seek to Be and Share the Good News in the City in seemingly impossible situations. Concrete spirituality in a church without walls. Only Christ can give us this kind of vision to pull his love and vision for the city into reality.

Ephesians 2:19-22 also describes our current reality in Christ: 

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

The call to John’s hearers, and perhaps to us as the Bride and Body of Christ is to follow the Lamb in laying down our lives and remaining faithful. Living as though Christ remains the never-ending light in the midst of dark days and spaces in our cities.  

This City, then, which John saw is none other than your City, the place where you live–as it might be, and as you are to help to make it. It is London, Berlin, New York, Paris, Melbourne, Calcutta–these as they might be, and in some infinitesimal degree as they have already begun to be. In each of these, and in every City throughout the world to-day, there is a City descending out of Heaven from God. Each one of us is daily building up this City or helping to keep it back. Its walls rise slowly, but, as we believe in God, the building can never cease. For the might of those who build, be they few or many, is so surely greater than the might of those who retard, that no day’s sun sets over any City in the land that does not see some stone of the invisible City laid. To believe this is faith. To live for this is Christianity.”[1]

Does Christ’s kingdom come now among us and the intensity of humanity we experience in our city? Can we join God and the Spirit as they are making all things new? Can we join in this work of renewal, spreading Good News of Christ in the face of Bad news in the cities of our world? Human kingdoms repeat Babylon time and again, crushing people in sin and death. But the kingdom of the lamb comes with light and love in the midst of the pain, the struggle, and the suffering of humanity. It is the presence of God and the Lamb in us, who leads us to engage in acts of righteousness, displaying God’s kingdom has come to earth as it is in heaven. God longs to permeate every square inch of our cities with concrete acts of love and forgiveness in the midst of people’s struggles.  

There’s so much more I can share, but this is a little tiny bit of what I do. I’m going to be around for the next few months working from Calgary building a team of prayer, care and financial partnership. I’m available after the service and I have this book if you’d like to sign on to my prayer letter list and receive a brochure. I look forward to sharing and getting to know this congregation. Thank you so much, I’m glad to be with you. 

[1] Edgar Pieterse, Susan Parnell, and Gareth Haysom, “African Dreams: Locating Urban Infrastructure in the 2030 Sustainable Developmental Agenda,” Area Development and Policy 3, no. 2 (May 4, 2018): 4,

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