”Remember, you are never more like God than when you are living in relationships with God’s people and working in partnerships for the re-creation and redemption of God’s world.”
– Ray Bakke, A Theology As Big As The City
According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Most estimates project there will be 9.8 billion people on Earth by 2050. This means 6.5 billion people will reside in cities in 30 years!
No two cities are the same – each one has its own blend of cultures, values, and demographic groups. Whether it’s Tokyo, Mexico City, or Delhi, cities should matter to believers. From a Christian perspective, all cities are equally valuable because they are filled with image-bearers of God.
It is often this blending of cultures that draws people to cities. For some, it’s the diversity of food, entertainment, and amenities. For others, it’s proximity to the cutting edge of fashion, technology, or the arts. While the cultural, racial, and economic vibrancy attracts people to urban areas, cities also magnify the brokenness of individuals and systems. They are characterized by higher levels of poverty, homelessness, marginalization, and economic injustice. However, cities are not the cause of the pain and suffering taking place within them. Rather, they are a magnifying glass that forces us to look at the pain and suffering produced by all four areas of brokenness.
Cities in the Old Testament
Jeremiah 29:4-7 has uniquely driven the vision and mission of For The City since its inception. It is a reminder that God loves the city, is for the city, and has placed His people in them to bring about His peace and flourishing.
In Jeremiah 29, the prophet is writing a letter to the people of God taken captive by Babylon. While in captivity, the Israelites separated themselves from the Babylonians and began forming Jewish enclaves within Babylonian cities. In Jer 29:4-7, Jeremiah corrects and instructs God’s people to move toward the city rather than remain removed from it.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give you daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in numbers there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jeremiah 29:4-7 NIV).
Three points from this passage shape the way we think about mission and flourishing in cities:
1. We are missionaries to the city. In Jer 29:4, God calls the Israelites “all those I carried into exile.” This is a radical statement by God. Some skeptical Israelites may have even thought, “This is revisionist history! We weren’t carried, we were captured!” What God is saying here is that He used the Babylonian kingdom to bring His people to a city to be His missionaries in a foreign land. In many ways, this foretells Jesus’ command to His disciples in Acts 1:8 (“...and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”). The God of the Bible has always desired to see His name glorified across the earth, and cities offer unique opportunities for that to happen.
2. We should make the city our home. In Jer 29:5-6, Isaiah tells the Israelites to, “build houses and settle down…Marry and have sons and daughters.” Israelites were living as captive refugees at the time Jeremiah wrote this letter. The land they were in was not their home, and as soon as they could leave they were ready to do so. However, God corrects His people. He tells them to unpack and settle down in Babylon – to make the city their home. They were not captives or tourists simply consuming from the city but expected to be contributors as exiles. Theologically, this passage serves as a great example to show how God expects Christians everywhere to live distinctly as exiles on earth.
3. We seek the peace and flourishing of the city. In Jer 29:7, Jeremiah tells the Israelites to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city…Pray to the Lord for it.” This would have been scandalous to Jewish listeners. Literal jaws would have dropped at the reading of this verse. Israelites were taught to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6), not a foreign city. Furthermore, why on earth would Israel pray for the peace of a city that had conquered them, brought them into captivity, and tried to force them to assimilate? God was telling Israel that despite all that had happened to them, they should love the city sacrificially and without disdain. God even tied Israel’s flourishing to that of Babylon’s. In the same way, Christians should seek the holistic peace of our cities today. When all children are educated, our children are educated. When all forms of racial injustice are brought to justice, we receive justice. Flourishing is not a zero-sum game.
Cities in the New Testament
Some scholars have called the Book of Acts the “missionary’s roadmap to cities” because every gospel movement in the text was spearheaded by an urban church and emphasized the planting of churches in cities. Tim Keller observes, “Through the cities, Christians changed history and culture by winning the elites as well as by identifying deeply with the poor.”
The early church was by and large an urban one. The Book of Acts makes no mention of a gospel movement taking place in a rural context. Instead, we see massive church planting efforts in major metropolitan cities like Jerusalem, Antioch, Colossae, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome. In his book Why Cities Matter, authors Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard reflect on these city revivals.
While we must be careful to read Acts descriptively rather than prescriptively, it is hard to ignore the strategic nature of the spread of the gospel in and through cities. It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic city-centre to the next. This is perhaps most notable and noticeable in the ministry of Paul.
In Acts 17-19, the Apostle Paul traveled to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus. There are at least three strengths of urban ministry we can glean from Paul’s emphasis on city engagement.
1. The gospel is more accessible in cities. All major travel and trade went through cities, particularly in Ephesus. By focusing his ministry on the region’s major city, Paul was guaranteed to reach a wider and more diverse audience with the message of the gospel.
2. The gospel spreads faster through cities. Urban centers made the gospel more accessible to various people groups. Because of the connectedness of cities to the surrounding regions, the gospel spread through radiating sources of influence.
3. The city shapes the culture. In American culture, the coasts tend to shape the rest of the country. Therefore, cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco disproportionately influence life throughout the United States. These cities are often referred to as “cultural hubs.” By focusing Christianity within the city, the church is similarly able to help speak into and shape the larger culture through our words and deeds.
In his book The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark shares the significance of the early church’s focus on cities. “To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope,” he says. “To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offers an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.” As Christians today, God similarly calls us to be for the city by cultivating and growing healthy aspects of culture while fighting to correct all forms of brokenness and injustice.