Like it or not, it’s true: more people are living in cities than ever before. This migration cityward doesn’t appear to be waning, either; in fact, it’s projected that within the next 35 years our world will be 70 percent urban. (In 1800, that number was 2 percent. In 1900, it was 14 percent.)
So what bearing should this reality have on today’s church? In Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church (Crossway), Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard seek to address such pressing questions and trends. Their aim, as Um explains in the video below featuring Buzzard and Christ + City author Jon Dennis, isn’t to insinuate that city ministry is superior. It is, however, uniquely strategic.
“This book is not about why cities matter more. We need gospel-preaching, gospel-shaped churches wherever there are people,” Um says. “But more people are moving into cities than ever before. Around the world 5.5 million people per month are moving into cities. That’s another San Francisco every month.”
I corresponded with Um, senior minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston, about Why Cities Matter, why American believers are often urban pessimists, how rural and suburban friends can champion God’s work in cities, and more.
What prompted you to write this book now? To whom is it addressed?
No matter where you live, it’s an established reality that the world is rapidly becoming very urban. In 1900, the world’s urban population was only 14 percent. As I write, that number has reached 52 percent. By 2050, the number is projected to be near 70 percent. It’s hard to wrap our minds around this kind of enormous shift. So Why Cities Matter is addressed to anyone seeking to understand rapid global urbanization and its implications for our world, particularly as it relates to gospel mission. The book isn’t only written for people living in cities, but also for those in rural and suburban areas who want to prayerfully understand and support the work of God in urban centers.
We’re hoping the book is winsome enough to help the conversation move beyond the perceived divisions between urban, suburban, and rural ministries. We need churches wherever there are people. That’s something that we can all agree on. But we must also be honest about the fact that more people than ever before are moving to the cities of the world.
Tim Keller has observed, “Christians, particularly in America, are generally negative toward cities. . . . Very few American Christians have lived in urban centers or even like them.” Why do you think this is so?
Unfortunately, leaders like Keller are often subjected to the charge of being “anti-suburban” because of their willingness to speak clearly about a very real phenomenon. Research has shown that 68.1 percent of American evangelicals live in suburban and rural areas, while only 31.9 percent live in urban areas.1 Numbers like these force us to be honest with ourselves. The majority of evangelicals appear to have a preference for non-urban places, while the majority of the world’s population increasingly has a preference for urban areas. Simply put, if evangelicals stay where they are, in 35 years our geographical statistics will be the exact opposite of the rest of the world’s (i.e., we’ll be roughly 30 percent urban and 70 percent suburban/rural while the world’s population is roughly 70 percent urban and 30 percent suburban/rural). That ought to give us pause.
You remark that in 35 years the world is likely to be almost 70 percent urban. What kinds of challenges or opportunities does this trend present to believers?
The challenge will be keeping up with the combined phenomenon of rapid population growth and global urbanization. In the foreword to our book Keller observes, “In the next 20 years, China’s cities will add an additional 350 million people to their current population, more than the entire population of the United States.” Needless to say, if there isn’t a strategic gospel-centered church planting movement ahead of this curve, we’ll be playing catch-up for the next century or more. And this is just one example of how our world is shifting. But the opportunities for believers are endless. We can actually identify the urban areas to which millions of aspirational, marginalized, and explorational individuals will be streaming in the coming decades. These are people who are in great need of the gospel, and who will be uniquely open to hearing the gospel as a result of the cosmopolitan spirit so prevalent in cities.
Where do we see cities in Scripture, and what can we learn from those passages?
The Bible has much to say about the city, and we cover a lot of that ground in the third chapter of the book, so I’ll give just one example here. In Hebrews 11, we’re told Abraham was called by God to leave his birth city and to live “in tents” on the way to the land of promise (v. 9). The author assumes that this wasn’t an ideal way of life, and Abraham is seen to be “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (v. 10). In this way believers are seen as “not yet” sojourners en route to a city prepared by God (Rev. 21).
But in the next chapter, Hebrews 12, the author encourages his readers by stacking up the blessings they already have in Christ. Among those “already” blessings is this: you “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (v. 22). The implication is that while we’re still awaiting the full consummation of the new city of Revelation 21, we already experience the blessings of our heavenly citizenship. Citizenship in a future city shapes our approach to our penultimate citizenship in our present cities.
How can those who don’t live in cities be obedient to the call to love cities as God does?
It can begin with personal prayer to discern whether or not you’ve unknowingly adapted an anti-urban bias. What happens in your heart when you hear about cities or about city-specific ministries? If you find yourself getting defensive or polemical, you might ask God to disinfect your approach to cities. Not everyone is called to live in an urban area—many are called to live in suburban and rural areas—but everyone is called to pray for the spread of the gospel and the health of the church. If you have a hard time celebrating, supporting, and enjoying what God is doing in cities, then this may be an occasion for evaluating your heart posture toward God’s global kingdom work. The same goes for Christians in urban settings. We must be careful not to downplay or demonize the great work God is doing in rural and suburban areas. Justin and I lay out additional suggestions in the book.
What would you say to brothers and sisters serving in obscure places who may read a book like Why Cities Matter and feel like they’re missing out—perhaps even selling out—by not ministering in a city context?
First, anyone who goes to the city because they feel they’re missing out or selling out needs to re-evaluate their sense of calling to the city. Though there’s much to love about cities and their culture(s), God’s call has little to do with what is culturally savvy. That said, if you’ve been called to an “obscure” place, Why Cities Matter isn’t a threat or a challenge; it’s a resource we hope will aid you in situating your own contextual ministry within a broad understanding of our world’s shifting cultural currents.
We are in this together. God is calling some to cities. He’s calling others to suburban and rural areas. We hope that Why Cities Matter will be an occasion for confessional evangelicals to be self-reflective and strategic as we think about what gospel mission might look like in an increasingly urban world.
1 Mark T. Mulder and James K. A. Smith, “Subdivided by Faith?: An Historical Account of Evangelicals and the City,” Christian Scholars Review XXXVIII, no. 4 (2009), 430. The numbers are even more striking when race is factored in: “Only 18.4% of white evangelicals live in urban areas, while 51.8% live in sub-urban/exurban contexts (just 29.8% live in rural areas).”