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The Missing Demographic in Urban Churches

Christians are not yet close to matching the pace by which the world is moving into cities, but make no mistake, Christians are urbanizing and migrating. As believers follow Paul’s footsteps to evangelize the most influential cities in the world, we rejoice. Yet ask any urban pastor or church planter his top five needs and somewhere on that list will be a demographic for whom the city remains a fearful and inhospitable place.

Families.

By the time we planted our church in the heart of Montreal, we were already pregnant with our third child (in three years). While neither my husband nor I was raised in the city, our heart for seeing the Great Commission fulfilled and the obvious influence of urban centers compelled us to urban church planting—with our growing family.

Cities naturally draw in young people. Cities are home to many of the best universities and career opportunities, so professionals and students flock to cities in droves. While the magnetic draw to urban centers is undeniable to most, Christians have been slow to respond—Christian families especially. Why?

Appeal Elsewhere

Certainly there are drawbacks for families living in cities, yet some secular families are immigrating to cities and staying in them, so these drawbacks aren’t stopping everyone. But Christian families continue to stay away, or in some cases, move away once children are born.

My husband and I have spoken with countless couples in the United States and Canada about urban church planting. We find that often men are quickly interested, and much of our urban life appeals to them. Not so with the majority of women we meet. Especially among the mothers.

All of this concern I understand firsthand. I certainly never imagined living in a city—indeed, I hated cities. Though all of my children were born in the city, I can imagine how certain things would be easier if I were parenting in the suburbs or a small town—practically, financially, and especially spiritually. I think about suburban churches and their burgeoning kids' programs and family ministries, and I realize that as our children grow and mature it will be challenging for them not having many Christian friends their age.

As the need appears great it shouldn’t scare the faithful away, but should draw us in as we seek to see every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. A vision of the redeemed worshiping the lamb must propel us into these hard places. Yet it seems these hard places scare us away.

But are these hard places any worse than others? Cities seem to be filled with brokenness and sin, but this is not unique. To the parents who would consider urban church planting or pastoring, I urge you to consider this: where a city may have strip clubs, a suburb still has pornography. Where a city may have homelessness, a suburb still has broken homes and orphans. Where a city has drugs and violence, a suburb has likewise, behind a prettier facade.

Unique Blessing

Families are a particular blessing to the urban church and to cities, which makes their absence all the more frustrating. For the same reason families don’t want to move to urban churches, urban churches need them deeply. Cities can be cold and heartless, but a Christian family offers warmth and care. Cities can be competitive and rough, but a Christian family shows mutual serving and gentleness. A Christian family reminds the world that we need one another.

I have seen firsthand how my family has been a blessing in ways often overlooked in suburbs or small towns. Families offer grounding where the urban church can be evanescent. Families offer stability where the urban church can be transient. Families contradict the city’s sermon that “it’s all about you” and invite the urban church to serve and love and lead and disciple.

The challenges to city life with children are legitimate: high cost of living, less space, fewer schooling options, increased crime (if only due to the increased population), and so on. Several years ago on this site Kathy Keller wrote a compelling list of reasons why living in the city with children is wonderful. Even so, families give up a great deal when answering the call to urban ministry. But could it be that one of the ways we pick up our cross and follow Christ is to lay down our right to a yard and white picket fence? To lay down our right to a driveway and garage? To lay down our right to home ownership at all?

As parents we have a God-given desire to protect our children. This is right and good and brings glory to the father. But our mother hen instinct and our love for comfort can also blind us from great opportunity and privilege, particularly in ministry. The world is moving to cities and Christian families have been fleeing. May we hold the work of the gospel in such a high esteem that we would relocate our families joyfully to where the church must preach the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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