The CGN International Conference is focusing on this year’s theme, “Commissioned: Urban Ministry in a Post-Everything World,” on June 24-27, 2019. Visit cgn.calvarychapel.com for more information.
Henry David Thoreau once described cities as “millions of people being lonesome together.” Have you ever considered how important cities are theologically? It is fascinating when you begin to realize God’s heart for cities.
Let’s take a brief journey and unpack just how important cities truly are to the glory of God:
The Scriptures begin in a garden and end in a city. The Bible begins in the book of Genesis with the creation of a glorious garden in Eden and culminates in the book of Revelation with the city of Jerusalem coming down, a new heaven and new earth.
The cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28 is an urban mandate. Timothy Keller writes:
“Even in the midst of the garden setting of Genesis 1-2, [urban] perceptions emerge. A perfect creation completed by God and unmarred by sin stood poised to begin its historical development. And in that setting God calls Adam and Eve and their future descendants to rule the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). This calling has been aptly termed the cultural mandate. It is a calling to ‘image God’s work for the world by taking up our work in the world’ (Spykman 1992:256). But it could just as easily be called an urban mandate.”
God’s plan for cities was twisted by sin. So much so that cities can be built specifically to express our independence from God and “make a name for ourselves.” Babel is literally and figuratively the apex of sin in Genesis 1-11. Timothy Keller says:
“The quintessential City of Rebellion is Babel. It’s the original sin city. The first skyscraper is built in clear defiance of God. The original mandate of God to humankind was to be ‘miners’ of all the riches of creation. They were to turn to the natural resources of the physical universe and the personal resources of their own creation in the image of God. They were thus to be culture builders, developing science and art and civic life, building civilization that glorified God as its source and ground. Now we have a city dedicated to ‘mining cultural riches’ for human glorification and to show its independence of God.”
God responds to this apex of sin in Genesis 11 by graciously calling a man named Abram in Genesis 12, through whom God would bless all nations. Contrary to the rebellious city of Babel, Hebrews 11:10 says Abraham “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
When Israel entered the Promised Land, God appointed 48 specific cities to be set up. Keller continues: “Compassion, justice and righteousness were to mark the teaching to come from these forty-eight cities. They were to be Torah centers of instruction by the Levites… They were to exemplify the larger Israel’s vocation to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:5-6).” Some of these cities were cities of refuge, where people could seek asylum when they committed specific acts like manslaughter.
The geographical center of God’s activity on earth in the Old and New Testaments was not just a region or a country, it was a city – Jerusalem.
Psalm 107 shows the sorry state of someone without a city, and God’s grace in placing people within cities: “Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way till they reached a city to dwell in” (Psalm 107:4-7).
Jesus was born in a small village, but the expansion of His ministry clearly moved in an urban direction, ultimately journeying to the great city of Jerusalem.
Jesus’s love for the city is expressed not only by his death but in his tears. Keller again says, “Reading through the Gospels, we find only two times when it is recorded that Jesus wept: once over the death of his friend Lazarus, and a second time over the city of Jerusalem. The spiritual condition of the city moved the heart of Jesus. He himself was born in a village but died in a city.”
The spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ was strategically aimed at cities. When you study the book of Acts, you see a particular mission strategy aimed not primarily at suburban or rural contexts, but in the larger metropolitan and cosmopolitan areas beyond Jerusalem.
Paul’s missionary journeys and his ensuing letters were focused almost exclusively on the major influential cities of Asia Minor. Even at the end of Acts, we read of Paul’s great desire to journey to the most influential city of the day, Rome.
Our eternal dwelling is neither open countryside nor cloud-based, but an urban setting. Abraham sought the city “whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Revelation 21 describes and depicts the apex of God’s redemption, as a city! His redemption is building us a city – the new Jerusalem…and the current Jerusalem, The Holy City would be the shadow of the great city to come, where Jesus would reign eternally on David’s throne.
Fascinating, isn’t it?? In fact, when you start studying this, you find that the word city is cited some 1,250 times in the Bible – 160 times in the New Testament (polis in Greek) and 1,090 times in the Old Testament (ir in Hebrew).
The Greek word for “city” (polis) is where the words “polite” or “polished” come from. Greeks considered people who didn’t live in the city to be unpolished and impolite. The Latin word for city (civitas) is where we get the word “civilized.” For the Romans, to live in the city is to be civilized, whereas people in the country were uncivilized.
The city is home to both the politician and the poor, the collegiate and the criminal, the businessman and the beggar. People throughout time have both fled to the city for refuge, protection, commerce, philosophy, education, fashion, political power, judicial decisions, and industry and fled from the city for serenity, solitude, and retirement. The city is a melting pot of diversity—not merely in race—but also in religion, theology, politics and socioeconomic differences. Those who live in the city are bound by its successes and failures, must live an integrated life where they eat, live, work and play all in one unified territory.
In 1900, 10% of the world’s population was urban. By 2005, more than 50% of the world’s population had become urban. And the trend is accelerating. 2007 was the tipping point, where for the first time in all of eternity, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. And that trend will never reverse.
HOW SHOULD WE THEN LIVE?
4 WAYS CHRISTIANS IN THE CITY MUST LIVE
1. Intentionally, not Accidentally
That encompasses how we pray, where we work, play, shop and recreate. Do you work intentionally to best steward the Gospel in the context of your city? Would you be willing to switch professions in order to better steward the Gospel? Those who live in the city must live with a Gospel intentionality. Whether we are on public transportation, in an Uber, working in a co-op or grabbing artisan coffee with other professionals, we should have a focus on bringing Christ into the dark places we encounter on a daily basis.
2. Distinct, not Divorced
Think of how we typically approach the world. Christians are so freaked out about the world, and I understand it. There are evil people out there, and germs, and we have to do SOMETHING. But notice how we approach the world. It’s usually one of four ways:
Lighthouse: The rhetoric these Christians use is that the church, like a lighthouse, is a shelter from the rocky, dangerous and pervasive evil that lurks all around, like a ship in a harbor. The lighthouse beckons all those desiring to live righteous lives to come and seek refuge from the storm. The church, therefore, acts as a functional bunker protecting the church from the sin (and the blessings) of the city. The church as a lighthouse has difficulty bringing redemption to the city because it is not participating in the cultural, social, political, economical, educational or philosophical amenities the city prescribes. Often these churches will have their own private schools, their own soup kitchens, their own ministries that attempt to bless the city; but they fail to come alongside civic programs that are making great strides, simply because these lie outside of the established church. The emphasis is to be a shelter from the city.
Picket Line: Taking the mentality a step further, the church as a picket line sees the city as wicked, depraved and beyond repair or redemption. This church would reject anything the city contributes like art, music, education or holistic civic programs as beyond redemption and erroneously work against the city, rather than embracing what can reflect the goodness and glory of God. Christians who live this way galvanize themselves and create a dividing wall of hostility, often taking strong political stands in both moral and nonmoral issues. The emphasis is to be separate from the city.
Mirror: On the other end of this continuum is the church that acts as a mirror to the city. This church takes all its cues and commands from the current culture. It is the church that only longs to be relevant at the price of Biblical truth, to be comfortable at the cost of being righteous, to be ecumenical at the expense of having convictions. Christians who “cut/ paste” the world’s system have difficulty expressing the redemptive nature of the Gospel and rather emphasize a social gospel that lacks a spiritual Gospel. The emphasis is to be the same as the city.
City on a Hill: Jesus employed this analogy to speak of His preference to how Christ followers should live in culture. A city on a hill stands out and cannot be hidden or separated from the world. It is a high and lofty ascent of splendor, holiness and majesty. It is a beacon of hope for those in darkness, despair or lost on a weary journey. In the midst of our city, we are to stand out as a city within a city, one that stands apart and is desirable and redeeming to all those who reside nearby.
In fact, go back and reread what Jesus said about being salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus wasn’t saying we need to be saltier and more lit. He said we already are the light of revelation and redemption in a dark place. We are the preservative agent that brings flavor to a dull and dying world. We don’t have to try harder—intrinsically this is who we already are.
3. Attentive, not Oblivious
How many of your coworkers grew up in Christian homes? What is God doing in your neighbors’ lives to draw them closer to Christ? Who in your classroom is in a place right now that could use steady, persevering prayer on their behalf? We must be attentive, not oblivious in the context God has placed us in.
4. Toward Need, not Toward Comfort
God’s desire is that Christians would be in the city, to be a light shining in the dark places of crime, fear, injustice, poverty, disease and brokenness. His followers, living as His ambassadors, will model His communicable attributes and speak of His unfailing love and grace expressed in the cross of Christ. As salt, Christians can preserve and bring flavor to the bland rhetoric and empty philosophies of this age. We can love our God and our neighbors as ourselves, as we surrender our rights and desires and lay down our lives to bless the city.
Does God want to do something great in our lives? Perhaps. Does He want to do something great in our city? For sure. And He desires to use us collectively to further His kingdom. So we have to wake up to this reality and stop sleeping in the light and hiding out like a terrified cell group.
Aaron Coe, a former NAMB missionary church planter and current executive director of the Send NYC church planting advocacy organization in New York, said a key factor is that Christians simply need to return to the cities with their families and influence:
“If people move back in, live out the gospel, see people come to Christ and plant churches, then we’re going to start to see massive transformation happen. We’ve got to cast that vision, let people know that there are opportunities…it’s not for the cities’ sake, it’s for the whole nation’s sake. Because what happens in the city…so goes the rest of the country.”
May we see the need and be willing to plant our lives, the Gospel, our families and even new churches in the hardship, joy and beauty of urban centers.