Rebuilding Cities, Brick by Brick

“But now I said to them, ‘See what trouble we are in because Jerusalem is in ruins and its gates are destroyed! Let's rebuild the city walls and put an end to our disgrace.' And I told them how God had been with me and helped me, and what the emperor had said to me. They responded, ‘Let's start rebuilding!' And they got ready to start the work.” — Nehemiah 2.17,18 (GNT)
More than 75 percent of the American population lives in cities. Hotbeds of culture, business, technology and the arts, cities represent some of humanity's best achievements. But these triumphs are juxtaposed with rampant poverty, racial inequality and crime. Clearly, our cities need to be revived through the transforming power of God.
Enter Brick by Brick, a 40-day Scripture journey through the book of Nehemiah, written to inspire urban churches to rebuild their cities just as Nehemiah rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem nearly 2,500 years ago. Using the book of Nehemiah as a springboard, Brick by Brick employs sermon outlines, discussion guides, a reading planner and other resources to engage believers in the critical restorative work that will turn people in cities back to the heart of God.
“It's a call to action,” says Samantha Slusser, project specialist at American Bible Society (ABS). While the book of Nehemiah tells the story of reconstruction, it also tells the story of Nehemiah as a leader. “He really inspired his people to rebuild that wall and to do it faithfully,” says Slusser. So, too, can God's people inspire the Body of Christ to rebuild the walls of our own cities.
Laying the Bricks
The foundation for Brick by Brick was laid in 2011 when American Bible Society, Concerts of Prayer and the New York City Leadership Center teamed to create a 40-day Scripture journey titled The Least of These. More than 140 churches comprising 40,000 members spent time from Easter to Pentecost following this journey through reading, reflecting and praying for their cities.
This year, 200 New York City churches signed up to take a similar Scripture-based journey through Nehemiah. “It's all about fixing what's broken — what's broken in our churches, what's broken in our lives and what's broken in our cities,” says Sharon Cushing, executive assistant to the president at the New York City Leadership Center. “As Christians, we need to be praying together in order to make an impact. We need to be united.”
Brick by Brick is all about unification, regardless of church size or denomination. And the vision extends beyond the church to “get entire cities prayerfully reading through Scripture in order to move them toward living out Scripture,” says John Edgar Caterson, director of church ministries at ABS.
A God-Sized Vision
Like the problems facing our cities today, Nehemiah's task was overwhelming. But the prophet rallied God's people together. Brick by Brick is charged with that same mission.
“It's a God-sized vision and dream,” says Caterson, because what cities need is nothing less than radical restoration. “The heartbeat [is] that we've got to get entire communities within cities praying together and reading Scripture together, to take back cities . . . and to have a voice that is shaping culture, instead of playing catch-up with culture.”
Mac Pier, president of the New York City Leadership Center, agrees. Churches from diverse backgrounds working and praying together have been “a major component of Great Awakenings in the past,” he says. A modern Great Awakening — one that could awaken and revive our cities — must start with “corporate spiritual disciplines: united prayer [and] churches reading Scripture together.” Brick by Brick, Pier says, is a contribution toward that end.
The opening chapter of Nehemiah depicts a man burdened for his city and for the people of God. These twin burdens are significant, Pier says, because churches need to be conversant and concerned about the needs of the church, as well as those of the entire city. Nehemiah highlights this dual concern, bringing together the spiritual and leadership aspects of the tactical changes that need to occur. “There isn't a more relevant book to urban America than Nehemiah,” Pier says.
Part of the mission of Brick by Brick is “creating a language and a spiritual currency among churches and leaders,” Pier adds. “We want churches and leaders to have a theologically informed vision for the city and what God can do.”
The book of Nehemiah provides a template for this vision, a blueprint for how to change a city.
Going Further
“God is no respecter of cities, but he loves people,” says Gary Frost, president, Concerts of Prayer. “There are just more [people] here.” The themes in Nehemiah are still relevant for cities today because the challenges that churches face in increasingly secular environments directly correlate with what we read in Nehemiah, Frost says.
On Sept. 27, materials from Brick by Brick will be showcased at a New York City event called Movement Day, where Christian leaders from all over the country will come together to examine their role in God's transformative work in the cities. “Every city, every Christian community can benefit from going through Brick by Brick,” Frost says. “The principles are so relevant to the challenges of the urban environment.”
The ultimate vision is a city on its knees, says Caterson, a city whose Christian community is “the voice, the heartbeat, the conscience of the city.”
God is rebuilding and taking back his own in the city, brick by brick.
Elrena Evans is the author of This Crowded Night and writes for the Christianity Today women's blog Her.meneutics.

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Are you a church leader? Movement Day is Thursday, Sept. 27

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