I love cities. I’ve spent time in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago this summer. I love the energy, the opportunities, and the history of our nation’s big cities. I have no desire to discourage any Christian from moving to the city for ministry. Our cities have lots of people, and so they need lots of Christians, lots of churches, and lots of evangelical institutions. I’m all for evangelicals and cities coming together.

But what does that mean?

The evangelical advocacy for the city is a discussion in dire need of clarity. Case in point is yesterday’s First Things article by Gene Fant, This Time Narnia is a City. Fant argues that “something is afoot in Christian higher education,” and that something is “urbanization.” In explaining why he recently joined the administration at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Fant notes that he was “following a very specific sense of God’s leading to serve in an urban context.” He then lists several other examples of evangelicals moving to cities.

I have dear friends who have recently joined other urban campuses, notably David S. Dockery, the new president at Trinity International University / Evangelical Divinity School and Gregory Alan Thornbury, president at The King’s College in New York City (19.9M in metro area; began serving in 2013). In Chicago, Dockery joins Philip Ryken at Wheaton (started in 2010) and others who are serving a population of some 9.5M. Pres. Michael Lindsay (started in 2011) is poised to take Gordon in the Boston area (4.6M residents) to new heights. In 2012, Pres. Daniel Martin began serving at Seattle-Pacific, with a metro area of 3.6M.

Fant is careful not to denigrate suburban or rural ministry, but he believes the movement of Aslan in our day is a move to urban settings. Fant’s final exhortation is a summons to the city: “The moment we face as American Christianity is whether or not we will shed our suburban comforts for the challenges of urban life.”

Let me say it again, I am thankful for people who feel called to an urban context. Whether it’s to alleviate poverty or embrace diversity or influence cultural elites or simply to be where lost people are, I have no problem with evangelical appeals to be involved in cities. In fact, I am entirely for it! But if this ongoing discussion about evangelicals and cities is to be profitable, we have to figure out what we actually mean by cities.

What makes one’s setting “urban”? On the one hand, Fant exhorts evangelicals to leave the comfortable suburbs behind, but then he mentions a number of “urban” evangelical colleges and seminaries which can only be considered urban in as much as they belong to a large metropolitan statistical area. I love Trinity and Wheaton, but both institutions are in the suburbs. Gordon College (my wife’s alma mater) may be a part of the Boston metro area, but the campus is 45 minutes away on the North Shore, nestled with woods and water in one of the most idyllic, non-urban setting you can imagine.

What constitutes city ministry or an urban setting? Is it population density? Is it being within the city limits of a municipality with more than, say, half a million people? Or is it a million? Is it being in one of the country’s major metropolitan areas? Is it being in a center city environment? Depending on your definition of city, most of us are already in one. According to the U.S. Census bureau, 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Most of us don’t have to go anywhere to become urban. But if urban really means “center city,” then Moody Bible Institute qualifies, while Trinity, Wheaton, and Gordon do not. Most people would not consider Covenant College in a city setting. It is, after all, literally on top of a mountain. But Lookout Mountain, GA (pop. 1,617) is counted in the census as part of a metropolitan statistical area (Chattanooga) with 541,000 people. So depending on your definition, Covenant is urban.

I’m not trying to be pedantic. Defining our terms and using them consistently is critical to this whole discussion. Either Americans are already overwhelmingly urban (which includes suburbs like Deerfield, IL and little hamlets like Wenham, MA), in which case the call to leave the suburbs is self-defeating. Or, if what we really mean is that Christians should move to our nation’s urban cores, then most of the institutions mentioned in Fant’s article do not fit the bill.

On a related note, we should also think more carefully about whether “population in proximity” is the best way to assess possible strategic influence. Is Princeton less influential for being located in what amounts to little more than a nice village? Is working at School A with 1500 students in a metropolitan area of 7 million more strategic than working at School B with 50,000 students in small city of a couple hundred thousand? And does this skip over the exegetical question of whether there is any discernible city strategy to the mission of the early church?

We need Christians wherever there are people, and so it stands to reason we need more Christians where there are more people. Please, please, please, do not take anything in this post as a deterrent for serving in cities, moving to cities, or caring about cities.  This is only meant to be a genuine and friendly appeal to clarify what all of that means.

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41 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Cities: A Discussion in Need of Clarity”

  1. ATB says:

    As always… a refreshing, balanced perspective. Thanks KDY. #Jesuslovesredneckstoo

  2. Joey Cochran says:

    Excellent observation. In many ways city ministry is the next college ministry. It’s typically then next grouping of young professionals who are somewhat transient. They’ll only be at a city church for so long before they move out to the burbs. Maybe this discussion is how we distract ourselves from conservative evangelical flight to the exurbs to raise chickens, goats and have a nostalgic frontier experience to distract from successful, over-worked, careers. The trendiness of city ministry distracts from the truly epidemic isolationism that we fail to address. Thus we settle for diluted illustrations, thinking well, we haven’t retreated into the exurbs at least.

  3. Alisa says:

    I so appreciate the clarification in this article. Seven yrs ago my husband and I were part of an “urban” church plant. We were regularly berated for not leaving our apt in a suburb and moving 12 minutes away into the actual city limits. Ironically we were the only members of the group who actually worked in the city. The clarification in this article serves well to guard against the sort of logic that is sometimes associated with glamorizations of urban ministry.

  4. Noah says:

    Great clarification. Central New Jersey connects not only NYC and Philly, but also Trenton, Jersey City, Newark, Elizabeth, etc. Although technically suburban, it’s one of the most densely populated parts of the country, and has a distinctly more urban feel than many Southern “cities”. If the goal is to go to densely populated areas because that’s where the people are, I’m there already even though I’m “only” in the suburbs.

  5. David says:

    It is frustrating to me when Christians project their own personal calling and passion onto all Christians. I’ve seen this happen with missions, youth, etc. Why not just do what you are called to do, and allow the Holy Spirit to call others to their place of ministry. I happen to be passionate about men’s discipleship. But that doesn’t mean I think that everyone should focus on that. People in the suburbs and rural areas need the gospel message just as much as people in the urban areas.

  6. Darius says:

    I’m reminded of Schnabel’s discussion in Paul the Missionary regarding cities. There are many cities that Paul “should” have visited if he had had such an intense focus on cities, but there is no record of such visits in the NT. (Going from memory here; I apologize if I didn’t accurately summarize Schnabel’s point.)

  7. Thank you Kevin. As a Church Planter in Whittier CA, I know exactly what you mean. Whittier is a suberb of Los Angeles. If you have ever landed at LAX, you are hard-pressed to find Los Angeles. If what you mean by the city is the clump of hi-rise buildings near the Staples Center that is a very myopic undrstanding of LA. A very small fraction of the six million poeple that live in the LA basin live downtown. There may be less than 90,000 people in Whittier, where our church is, but there are more than 500,000 in a 10 mile radius. There are million dollar homes on the hill and homeless camps withing 1 mile of the church. Ministry here is as urban or suburban and you want it to be. It’s gospel ministry to the people in front of us. Thanks for reminding us of that.

  8. Judd Rumley says:

    Thanks Kevin. I am preparing to go through Acts and Walter Liefeld (http://www.amazon.com/Interpreting-Book-Guides-Testament-Exegesis/dp/0801020158) points out that Paul went in and out of cities AND suburban and rural areas. He shows that several Greek words are used to show it wasn’t only cities Paul was concerned with. This helps those of us serving in the middle of the mountains to know that we are not missing the missional boat.

  9. It’s the missionary message of radically calling forth the need to live according to God’s ways and God’s thoughts rather than mankind’s that needs to be enlarged in modern preaching; from the lack of a proper creation theology of care for all God’s creatures, to identifying modern idols of all kinds that “Christians” serve, to the lack of a fully formed Christian mind, to the false Biblical teaching in many of our church hymns, to the real lack of preparing to be with the Lord in an eternal home within a new heaven and a new earth that is so much more than just waiting for a “heaven”; teaching more fully that God not only requires change to do the Spirit’s will but to teach that that same Spirit-Word of God connection loves change and embraces it within and without all creation past, present, and future.

  10. James M. says:

    I was struck by the same thing when I read the article. The urban/suburban distinction seems dicey. However, I wouldn’t too easily cede to his basic thesis – that urban ministry requires urban located centers for higher learning. What bothers me about the author’s thrust is the presumption on display regarding at least three points. First, when someone suggests that we need to get on board with where the Spirit of God is working, a la H. Blackaby, (implying the exclusion of His working elsewhere), the red flags begin waving. Does the Spirit of God not move out here in the middle of the Great Plains, where I live? Or in Great Falls, the Up, etc.? Second, I’m not buying that the relatively “rural” location of post-secondary institutions is a problem; it may even benefit the preparation of the students involved for lives lived in populous areas. Speaking anecdotally to be sure, but our little school on the prairie has former students in places from Seoul to Kiev to Chicago, etc. I would argue that there are certain strengths to the kind of preparation received in out of the way places, and this is the kind of thing that seems worth exploring in this discussion, if one thinks it worth considering. Finally, the need for ministry to rural folk is as great now as it has ever been, and faithful workers in that field (sorry, no pun intended) are needed as well, and maybe as much as ever.

    I closely follow only one other blog besides this one, Mere Orthodoxy, and the same kind of contention has been made by a few over there. I do wonder how all of this advances us in any way toward a more useful understanding of what it is we are called to on this earth. At least to the ears of those of us who don’t live in either “urban” or “suburban” America. Beyond the obvious fact that we need to be where people are, where does this really take us?

  11. JM says:

    Much needed piece. Besides, Palm Beach a city….?. OK, I guess so, like Malibu. Please.

    A bit of over-spiritaulization in the whole discussion. Cities need ministries. Suburbs do. Oldsters do. Hipsters do. Hence we have had in another urea Schaeffer and Lloyd-Jones and Dorothy Day and Young Life.

    As for Aslan on the move, maybe he is moving out of the States, how about that? Like I said, the conversation amounts to thinking to much.

  12. JohnM says:

    I wonder if the emphasis on urban mission isn’t partly nostalgia driven. We’ve been doing urban mission since at least the latter part of the nineteenth century and perhaps the image of soup kitchens and storefront churches appeals in much the same way as the image of the little country church with it’s steeple.

  13. Bereans All says:

    For some, I think, it is more than just nostalgia: it’s counterculture and ‘cool.’ Is it still cool to say “cool”? If the older folks were moving back to the cities, the up-and-coming crowd would be heading for the suburbs and writing all kinds of articles on why that was a new movement of God. Again, following Kevin’s lead, I said, “For some.” I too am thankful for those that are willing and lead to the more difficult environments in some of our cities.

  14. Good post. Two thoughts that contribute to your point:
    1. I went to a Bible School in Geneva, Switzerland. We were 5 minutes from the center. But the school has absolutely no intent on reaching the city. Living in a monastary wouldn’t have changed anything!
    2. We often say we’re ministering in Paris (or in my case Lyon), rather than name the suburb. Not because it sounds cooler to be church-planting in a City, but because no one knows the suburb!

  15. Zach Terry says:

    Thank you!!! I’ve been wondering the same thing for some time.

  16. Curt Day says:

    The “moment we face” is not whether we will leave our comfortable life in the suburbs, it is whether we will leave our suburban mentality that says we can have it all. The all we can have is the combination of isolating ourselves from what we find distasteful and yet live with all of the benefits of modernity. The suburban mentality is that of believing we don’t have to be rich to build our own fantasy island, an island on which we can control who enters. And those who live in the city can at least partially embrace this mentality too as the city becomes such a focus that the rest of the world begins to fade into irrelevancy.

    Don’t misunderstand, I think it is good that people want to live where there is need in order to help. But there is great need outside of the city and we can’t afford to ignore the need for solidarity with those in the state, nation and the world just because we are personally investing so much in the city.

  17. Timothy Durey says:

    I grew up in cornfields of Illinois. Today there is only one gospel-centered, evangelical church I know of within 45 minutes of the town. That’s a large population of people. Maybe not equivalent to a city, but definitely many towns.

  18. Tim Locke says:

    This is classic DeYoung. Antithetical for the sake of being antithetical. Are there really leaders in the church who are arguing that God is working in the city today exclusive of the rural or suburban setting? Or are many arguing that the Church has a call to bring the Gospel to the City because of our history of abandoning the world to itself? We abandoned the public schools, we’ve abandoned civil government, we’ve isolated and become insular. Why does DeYoung feel it necessary to clarify what we mean by “city”? Must we all be conformed to DeYoung’s vision of evangelicalism? Industrialization has accelerated urbanization. The church (largely white) has moved out instead of staying in the city (of whatever size). Our desire for better lifestyles, safety, better schools, homogeneous culture, etc., has overridden our Kingdom work. DeYoung’s “clarification” might be a subtle reaffirmation of the church’s love of comfort and refusal to sacrifice for the Kingdom. Let’s continue to encourage our people to move into the brokenness of our cities and bring the Kingdom to the cultural hubs of our country and world. Let’s continue to challenge the next generation to head the call of the Kingdom and believe the power of the Gospel to transform the cities of every size. Yes, the Gospel is for the people every believer lives next to, but the suburbs are safe and let’s face it champions of privacy. Suburban believers would love to hear the message of comfort. I haven’t read Fant but as the pastor of a suburban church I have to agree that the suburbs are not seeing the kind of movement we’re seeing in the urban centers. Is that Aslan’s fault or ours? Maybe suburban and rural churches (like mine) should be addressing their adoption of the world’s values of privacy. Maybe instead of focusing on “what is a city?” we should be calling the church everywhere to repent of it’s isolation from the world.

  19. Jessica says:

    Glad you’re thinking about these things! As someone who is part of a church plant in the center of Boston, urban ministry is huge on our radar. Interestingly, when I first got to the statement about “urban ministry….so-and-so moving to Gordon” I thought, “What? Gordon isn’t Boston, nor is Gordon playing a hugely influencing role in Boston.” Just as you mentioned, Gordon is waaaaay up there on the North Shore. We have a few Gordon students at our church, but they usually graduate and leave. We feel no effects of Gordon.

    We’re a BIG church in Boston (250 people is big for a non-denominational in Boston) made up of 20-somethings who are working and studying in the city, who live in the city, who hang out at local coffee shops and interact with the community and are artists and doctors and teachers and baristas and musicians and PhD students. How do we bring the Gospel to the places in the city where we live and work and hang out? That’s urban ministry for us, and that’s how I see Boston being affected.

  20. Corey says:

    I believe that a lot of the draw to the city is the excitement and opportunities in a more populated area. When will a best selling author feel called to rural West Virginia or Kansas? I just prepped a sermon on the soil parable and it seems like the urban area, while having more need, also has harsher soil for the Gospel. Shouldn’t we look at the soil of an area to plant, not just the population? There is more poverty per capita in rural areas in many places than in cities, just not as much visibility. I am not saying that anyone who moves toward urban ministry is seeking out popularity, but in a day when you can podcast from anywhere, why not the heartland?

  21. Ken says:

    I have enjoyed your articles, I find them refreshing. I love the idea of defining the terms, this is an absolute must. In fact we believers need to get back to the terms of scripture, such as calling sin, well sin. I am happy for those called to the city in fact we need more of them. But we also need more in the boondocks, in towns and villages across America, who are going to engage folks with the true gospel and the love of Christ. I admit in these small towns you will most likely never see a congregation over 200, or never see a paycheck even close to that number. But we all know that Christ loves those in small towns to.

  22. Heart for the Lost says:

    I love to see people saved, regardless of where they live–souls are souls. In response to Tim Lockes’ comment re: suburbanites loving their comfort and safety, I don’t find any unbiblical reasons for leaving a place (city or school) for safety/comfort/spiritual reasons, unless the Lord has put it on your heart to minister there. People tend to spread out when persecution comes or when things get crowded, somewhat based on personality, oftentimes based upon the fact that we live in a TERRIBLY evil world, and if we have opportunity and desire, there’s no reason NOT to protect our families and avoid some of the evils of Sodom. Lot may have wished he had moved sooner.
    That’s, not to say we shouldn’t love and evangelize cities, but why must we demonize those who don’t want to live in the midst of Sodom? Yes, some people may be saved as a result of our witness in the city, but perhaps God wants US elsewhere? Perhaps finances and jobs and family necessitate us to move. Why would that be okay, but not the spiritual well being of our own family? Until Christ returns, by and large, we will continue to see a lot of the ungodly continuing to love their sin and terrorizing lovers of the Gospel because they hate us, which is what we expect, as they hated Christ. When Jerusalem persecuted the Christians, God’s purpose for their “going into all the world” was accomplished. When the Pilgrims were losing their families to the world, they settled America and did what they could to evangelize Indians (contrary to what the schools teach about the Pilgrims today hating the Indians). I realize not everyone has to flee a wicked place, but doing so to preserve life is biblical (6th commandment), as is establishing a godly seed.

  23. I think Mr. DeYoung asks some good questions. It’s hard to define the various categories, and numbers alone may not do it. I think there should be more than one category of “suburban” ministry, depending on a few factors (population, population density, proximity to a large city and/or college, etc.). I’m a Wheaton grad, and have spent most of my life living around cities. Like Mr. DeYoung, I wouldn’t consider Wheaton or Deerfield, IL to be “urban” ministries, but perhaps “urbanized suburban” ministry.

    We could also help define “urban ministry” by taking into account what “suburban comforts” would need to be shed. For example, in large city limits, the stark rise in cost-of-living and population density can easily take away the personal space, neighborhood quietness, and single-income lifestyle. That’s why the cities tends to have lots of singles or “child-free” couples while families move out to suburbs or rural areas.

  24. Josh R. says:

    Tim Locke,

    I think you’re being a bit harsh toward DeYoung. Among others, Tim Keller frequently suggests that “urban” ministry should be emphasized over suburban or rural ministry. The concept is a growing theme.

  25. Donte Bland says:

    Besides the fact that, at least to me, the obsession with urban ministry oftentimes reeks of a certain level of legalistic ‘I’m doing REAL Kingdom work because you’re in the suburbs and I’m in the city’ mentality,I see great irony here. The irony being that most who are doing urban ministry (not all) seem to be predominately middle class folks who are going to cities which have already been or are being gentrified. Meaning that a lot of these cities have been already tailor-made for their cultural taste anyway (i.e. suburbia light). Complete with museums, art galleries, coffee shops and high culture musical venues. I’d be far more impressed with a lot of these urban ministry folks if they were doing work in cities (and indeed there are people doing just this so I don’t want to paint with too broad of a brush) that were not gentrified (i.e. the ‘high crime’ areas. The places where the ‘undesirables’ dwell. The neighborhoods which are aesthetically unappealing. Mostly poor black, white and Hispanic people). So for me, it kind of comes across as slightly disingenuous and hypocritical when the suburbs are heavily critiqued as they are by people who flee to cities which in many ways resemble them (mostly culturally, though sometimes aesthetically too). The city vs suburbia debate has gotten tiresome, especially when in all honesty BOTH are worthy of critique and both are in need of faithful Christians sharing the Gospel.

  26. JohnM says:

    Tim Lock – “…the suburbs are safe and let’s face it champions of privacy. ” Which ones? Part of the point here is that the distinction between urban and suburban isn’t so clear anymore in most metropolitan areas.

    “Suburban believers would love to hear the message of comfort “. What is “the message of comfort”?

  27. TheMostRtRev says:

    @Tim Locke,

    This is classic Tim Locke. Antithetical for the sake of being antithetical.
    I’m not sure what your ax is to grind regarding KDY, but it comes across with a strong whiff of haughtiness. Kevin has found an article that carelessly defines terms about what “city” and “urban” means, and for the sake of clarity (classic KDY), he asks us to be more careful and more discerning. Just take it for what it is. Most of us, when we hear the word “urban” immediately think crowded, run down, poor, multi-cultural, and not Wheaton. Having grown up in Los Angeles, I can see the need for a church in every square mile of that vast metropolitan because there are hundreds (or thousands) of people per square mile, almost anywhere there.

    Thanks, Kevin for request a careful definition.

  28. Chris says:

    Great thoughts and questions here. Just because you live in a more densely populated area does not mean you automatically have more Kingdom influence. For example, in Minnesota, many immigrants are moving OUT of the major cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul so smaller suburbs! There are just so many factors involved. Thanks, Kevin!

  29. Eric Rasmusen says:

    Suburban churches the easiest to minister to, because they have middle-aged and old people with time and money and not needing as much counselling as the 25-year-olds. What’s really needed is money flow from those churches to evangelical urban churches and to college campus churches (sending the money to IV or the former Campus Crusade for Christ doesn’t help). My own church is bursting with students and babies, but it’s tough going having very few grey heads or rich people. There’s huge inequality of spending across churches. Do presbyteries ever think about that?

  30. Eric Rasmusen says:

    Suburban churches the easiest to minister to, because they have middle-aged and old people with time and money and not needing as much counselling as the 25-year-olds. What’s really needed is money flow from those churches to evangelical urban churches and to college campus churches (sending the money to IV or the former Campus Crusade for Christ doesn’t help). My own church is bursting with students and babies, but it’s tough going having very few grey heads or rich people. There’s huge inequality of spending and talent across churches. Do presbyteries ever think about that?

  31. Trey Atkins says:

    Very good article and question! People are important, wherever they live. A basic misunderstanding seems to exist with what urbanization means. When the news came out a few years ago that the world had finally hit 50% urban, many thought a majority suddenly lived in big cities. Nothing is further from the truth. For example, America hit 50% urban in 1921, drifted just under during the depression, and then back over the 50% barrier after WWII.

    The UN Report on World Urbanization, which is where this 50% figure comes from, makes clear there is no standard definition of urban. A “kind of” world average is anyplace over 4,000 people! Is a place of 4,000 really a city? This means both Weatherford, OK, where I grew up, and Arkadelphia, AR, where I was blessed to work, are urban!

    Reading through the different definitions of urbanization can be kind of humorous, but I’ve found one figure that helps me get a better grasp on the nature of urbanization in a particular place.

    The midpoint city. The population of the city in which 50% live in smaller places and 50% in larger. When I first began questioning “urbanization” teachers about what did they mean by “urbanization” I was told two things: first, that half of the people now live in cities of over half a million; then, that it means half of the people now live in cities of over a million. I knew that was not true of any place I lived, so began to crunch the numbers. Almost every country has 50% of their people living in cities/towns of less than 20,000. Check out your own state or country. But, almost every place I’ve checked is over 50% urban.

    Reaching the cities is crucial, but it is because people are important to God, He gave His Son for them, they are concentrated together and typically evangelicals have struggled to being work in the cities.

  32. Eric Rasmusen says:

    I just had a new thought. The suburbs are the easiest place to start a church, which is why so many are started there. But maybe that is a reason a church planter who wants to found a biblical church should go there. He can implement church discipline, preach unpleasant truths, etc. and survive, since if 30% of the people are turned away, there are still enough for the church to continue. There are too few suburban churches that take advantage of their comfy position.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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