Winter 1997

Volume 16, Issue 4

San Francisco’s City Church Shows God’s Love

by Becky Hobbs

When Fred Harrell (RTS ‘90) saw the skyline of New York City for the first time, he fell in love with the idea of living in a large city and knew without a doubt that God was calling him to minister in an urban area. But where? After much prayer, the answer came a little over a year ago when God led Fred and his wife, Terely, to plant the very first PCA church in one of America’s most secular and unreached cities -- San Francisco.

They arrived in August, 1996, with the names of just three contacts, and today, without a shred of advertising, City Church of San Francisco is a thriving, growing congregation of some 170 attenders. Through Fred’s solid, biblical preaching many others have heard the Gospel, most seriously considering its claims.

The church began as a small Bible study in Fred and Terely’s home in September of last year. It quickly grew to over sixty people, many of them non-Christians. Out of the study came a core group of ten to fifteen people who were highly committed to reaching English-speaking professionals within the city limits of San Francisco (pop. 750,000). On February 16,1997, the fledgling congregation began meeting for worship in the Main Post Chapel on the grounds of the Presidio, and the number of worshippers has been increasing every week.. In addition to worship, six small "community" groups meet weekly in homes all over the city.

Fred can hardly contain his excitement as he reveals the vision God has given him for the city of San Francisco. "Five years ago, I preached through the book of Jonah," Fred recalls. "Through that the Lord showed me His heart for great cities like Nineveh ‘who do not know their right hand from their left.’ God also began to break my heart for the cities of our culture. I believe that He has called me to take the Gospel to what many consider to be a modern-day Nineveh. I think God is providentially arranging for the ‘sparing’ of the city of San Francisco through a unique, authentic, and historic Christian witness."

In developing a strategy to reach San Francisco, the main question City Church has asked is, "How can this be a church for our friends and associates who don’t know Christ?" At every level the core group has sought to involve San Franciscans in their decisions. For example, they interviewed their friends to help pick a name for the congregation, and City Church won hands down. To develop a style of worship, Fred gave the core group five different styles of worship and asked them first to choose which would best communicate the Gospel to San Franciscans who don’t know Christ and, second, which one they preferred. He wanted them to see that what they preferred was not necessarily what will reach the city. The most important feature of the service is the proclamation of the Gospel in a stereotype-breaking way.

"We can have a worship service that addresses believers and unbelievers at the same time because we focus on the Gospel," says Fred. "Christ’s righteousness is the answer to all of our pathologies. We can be accepted, approved, and loved by God, not because of our performance, but because of Christ’s performance on our behalf. That is the answer to every addiction, every idolatry we set up. The Gospel can change any person, culture, and city because it changed us. Therefore, we never forget the ‘grace miracle’ of our own salvation."

From the beginning, the main focus has been to communicate historic, classical Christianity to a culture that doesn’t know "Christianese." One of the biggest obstacles to ministry in San Francisco is that it does not have a Christian past. It has no history of revivals or great movements of the Holy Spirit. A few evangelical churches exist, but many people drive out of the city to get to them.

"We are not seeker-focused or seeker-driven," explains Fred. "We are seeking to be biblical. That means we are seeker-comprehensible. When non-Christians come to worship, they understand what is being said. If we use terms like ‘justification,’ we define it because it is a biblical word. We also explain the use of creeds and their origins. We not only want our Christians to be built up during the service, but we also want them to bring their non-Christian friends. And they have brought them in great numbers."


Fred is no stranger to success in ministry. In 1990, immediately upon graduating from RTS/Jackson, he and Terely walked onto the campus of the University of Tennessee to start a Reformed University Fellowship campus ministry. Armed with the name of one student and the power of the Gospel, they set to work. By God’s grace, over the course of six years the ministry impacted over a thousand students in weekly informal worship, small group Bible studies, and one-to-one evangelistic, pastoral, and discipleship meetings.

Fred assumed that God had called him to the campus for a lifetime. He relished bringing the historic Christian message to such an atmosphere -- very diverse, very pagan, and very broken by sin. But beginning in 1992 he headed up several urban missions trips to New York, coordinated through RUF and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He found in the city many of the same challenges which drew him to campus ministry. Over the course of three years, he saw Redeemer, under the leadership of Tim Keller, grow from 200 to over 2000 members. Fred became gripped by the needs of the city and impressed by the power of a planted church to address those needs.

In 1995, he and Terely were approached about planting a church in San Francisco. The two began praying that God would speak clearly about such an ambitious project. After over a year of prayer, assessment, and interaction from many of the most skilled and successful urban church planters, they were convinced this was the direction in which God was leading them.

"God loves the city," says Fred. "It contains some of the greatest thinkers and artists, and some of the greatest sin, perversity, and degradation. The city pushes people either toward greatness or towards destruction. I believe this makes a tremendously fertile soil for the Gospel. People in the city are reconsidering life and are passionately open because many of them have achieved what they have always wanted and are still not happy. Others know they will never achieve what they have always wanted and are lost in despair. Whatever the problems, the Gospel alone truly gives the solutions."


City Church is one of several new exciting church models called Center City Churches. Church planters point out that Paul took the Gospel not to the countryside, but to the urban centers of his day. Why? Because he knew that if the cities were converted, the culture wouldn’t be far behind.

City Church is supported by visionary churches who want to see the kingdom of God expanded throughout our culture, particularly in areas where there is little or no funding and where there is not a historic Christian witness. Four major donor churches have provided the bulk of the all-important seed money to get City Church on its feet -- Spanish River Presbyterian in Boca Raton, Florida; First Presbyterian and Pear Orchard Presbyterian Churches in Jackson, Mississippi; and Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Funding and prayer are critical because starting a work like City Church is costly --San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. The Harrells pay $2750 a month for an 1800 square foot apartment--and they got a deal! Second, the startup cost of planting a church in such a burned-over, secular environment is much more because it takes so much longer for the church to gain enough members to become self-supporting.

The goal for the next four to five years is to get City Church well-established, then begin to plant churches all over the city. As a prototype, Fred points to Redeemer Presbyterian, which has already planted nine daughter churches in New York’s inner city. "We are trying to ignite a movement for the Gospel, not just plant one church," Fred relates. "This is an anchor church. Our vision is to see northern California transformed. I lay before my people all the time the vision of fifteen to twenty Gospel-centered churches all over this city, RUF groups at all the universities, and several mercy ministries. We also hope to have our own presbytery.

Fred has already begun to recruit people to start RUF groups at Berkeley or Stanford and possibly to plant a future daughter church. City Church has just hired a Director of Worship Arts, Jonathan Gilley, who was working in one of Redeemer’s daughter churches.

"God has been good to us," says Fred, thankfully. "We are living in a fascinating city, filled with beauty and brokenness. It is just the kind of place in which the Gospel can best perform its transforming miracle. Please pray with us that God would pour out His Spirit, bringing revival and renewal to this needy city."

What People Are Saying About City Church

From a Visitor:

"I admire your church because you treat people with dignity and respect. You aren’t afraid to state what you believe, but you still honor mystery. That is totally unlike any church I’ve ever been in. They either believe nothing, or they think they know it all."

From a New Christian:

"...I talked with two non-Christians for well over an hour about my faith. That is something that I never imagined I would be doing. I could really relate to those two and their questions about God... I’ve also had the opportunity to talk with people at work about Christ...and I’ve brought three people from work to church."

From a Longtime San Franciscan:

"During the ‘80s, I’d pray through the phone book for the salvation of everyone in San Francisco. I usually laid my hand on each page of the white pages and prayed that God would save all of them. Then I lost heart and gave up, seeing so little fruit...I feel encouraged again and part of that is because of City Church...Thank you for coming to my hometown to serve the Lord."

From a Recent Seeker:

"I have been raised around churches my whole life, but since being involved with City Church I realize that I have never understood the Gospel. I have decided not to take communion anymore until I understand my commitment to the Gospel better."

RTS wordmark Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 4
Reformed Theological Seminary
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Last updated 7-20-99.