Several big ideas have shaped Redeemer Presbyterian Church over the years. Kathy has written about the most important one—the centrality of the gospel. Another I’d like to reflect on is the importance of city ministry.
The Bible teaches several things about the city—including, first, respect for its importance, and second, realism about its evil. Theologian Geerhardus Vos observed that the city, while an accumulator of the energy of culture, is also an accumulator of the potencies of evil. The city draws and aggregates people’s talents in such a way that the greatest works of culture are produced there, but it does the same thing with human sin. So the city is like a magnifying glass, bringing out both the best and the worst in human beings.
Further, the Bible teaches that the city should draw out our love. God chastises Jonah for not being moved to compassion for the massive spiritual need in the great cities of the world (Jonah 4:11).
Christians today have several different attitudes toward cities. Some romanticize the city, and they often use the language of “loving the city.” But it might be more accurate to say they love the experience of the city—the excitement, the energy, the options. They don’t put time and effort into supporting the life and health of the city, and they tend to remain only in the cool and sophisticated parts.
Others disdain the city. They don’t come to the city, or, if they have to be here, they hold their breath until they can leave. They often resent the pride of the big city, or its secular liberal politics—with much warrant. They may dislike the competition, the expense, and the difficulty of working amid such dizzying plurality.
And there’s another group who’s simply indifferent to the city. They don’t particularly love or hate the city, but they aren’t keen on making any special investment of time, money, and life in city ministry. They don’t see why it should be prioritized.
I’d say that each of these attitudes fails to be informed and shaped by all of the Bible’s teaching.
Those who romanticize the city forget the spiritual darkness that cities generate: the power of the idols of sex, money, and power. Christians with a naïve view of cities won’t be attentive to the ways in which the city can seduce us into “the spirit of the age.” These Christians can also make believers not called to city living and ministry feel guilty.
Those who disdain the city forget the call to love—they forget God’s reasoning with Jonah: “Should I not have compassion on the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11). God isn’t saying Jonah should love urban life and experience. He’s asking how Jonah could fail to be moved by the size of the spiritual need.
God isn’t saying Jonah should love urban life and experience. He’s asking how Jonah could fail to be moved by the size of the spiritual need.
Those indifferent to the city forget the importance of the city. Vos’s astute observation that cities are “accumulators of the energies of culture” is exactly right. If Christians aren’t willing to live and work in cities, then we shouldn’t complain that the culture is reflecting less and less of the Bible’s wisdom.
Loving the City Itself
Those who hold together all the Bible’s insights about cities should love the city itself (not just the experience) through witness and sacrificial service for the wellbeing of our neighbors— whether they believe what we do or not (Luke 10:25–37). We should expect hostility, to never be fully accepted (1 Pet. 2:12), and yet not bristle or be hostile in turn. We should love the city by praying for and seeking its good (Jer. 29:7).
There’s one more balance I think we should strike. We must never give the impression that every Christian is called to live in the city. I’ve met and heard of believers who believe they’re simply being disobedient and selfish if they don’t come to minister in the city. Not only is there no biblical command to that effect—and therefore no one’s conscience should be bound to live in cities (see Westminster Confession, ch. 20)—but it only makes sense we should have Christians living and ministering everywhere there are people. Jesus told us to go into “all the world” and make disciples of “all nations.” That means all.
On the other hand, social scientists tell us that across the whole planet there are at least 5 million people moving into cities from the countryside every month. The number of churches per capita in the country and towns dwarfs the number of churches in cities. People are moving to cities with fewer places of gospel witness for the population, and that situation is worsening by the day. For example, New York City will be gaining a net of 1 million people over the next 25 years. That’s bigger than Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet will we be planting as many new churches here as there are churches in Charlotte? Probably not.
There are at least 5 million people moving into cities from the countryside every month. . . . We need churches everywhere there are people—but the people of the world are moving into cities much faster than the church is.
So put the balance like this: we need churches everywhere there are people—but the people of the world are moving into cities much faster than the church is. Jesus told us to go into the world to make disciples (Matt 28:18–20). If we fail to go where the world is going, then we aren’t heeding our Lord’s command. Certainly we must never insist that everyone should do city ministry, nor that gospel ministry in one place is intrinsically better than in another, but we shouldn’t shrink from emphasizing city ministry as never before.
Don’t romanticize or demonize or shrug at the city. Love the city, as Christ loved you.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared in the May 2017 Redeemer Report.
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