In 1988 when Tim first mentioned the idea of us going to Manhattan to plant a church, I reacted by laughing. Take our three wild boys (the victims of below-average parenting, as well as indwelling sin) to the center of a big city? Expose them to varieties of sin that I hoped they wouldn’t hear about until, say, their mid-30s? My list of answers to “What is wrong with this picture?” was a long, long one.
We now are coming up on 23 years as residents of New York City. Our sons have grown up here, been educated in the New York City public school system (as well as private and Christian schools), married, and—to the surprise of my 1988 self—expressed the desire to never live anywhere else. Two have already bought fixer-upper apartments, and the third is doing everything in his power to move back as soon as he graduates with his MBA. Our granddaughter is a New Yorker bred and born, and already knows her way around the playgrounds and museums of New York, as well as how to charm a free flower from the man at the corner flower stall.
I learned in those intervening decades that the city is a wonderful place to raise children, a place where families can flourish in a way that they may not in the suburbs or the small towns. (See the list at the end of this article that Redeemer elder Glen Kleinknecht put together [with a few additions from me] for staff considering moving their families to New York.)
Don’t get me wrong; we’ve lived and ministered in both suburbs and small towns, and there are spiritual strengths and spiritual needs everywhere there are people. But because most Christians don’t think about the city as a great place to raise their family, Christians are moving into the city at a vastly slower rate than the rest of the world’s people. I just hope to break some stereotypes about what it’s like to have a family in the city.
As a summary I would say that the two main advantages of raising your children in the city are also its two main characteristics—its darkness and its light.
The darkness of the city is easy to see. In the first few years we lived here my sons saw, from the vantage point of the back of our van where they were waiting for us to come out of the evening service, a robbery suspect chased down the sidewalk, caught, and spread-eagled, handcuffed, and Mirandized on the hood of the car parked behind us. We drove past hookers in silver lame bikinis and stilettos, watched over by their pimp, on our way home. We watched one man knock another one out in a fistfight at a street fair; and, memorably, a well-dressed man in the financial district drunkenly fall to his knees, vomit all over himself, and then stagger off.
Naturally, these incidents were the subject of lengthy family conversation and discussion. That sin should be so visible, and appear in its true, ugly colors, is of inestimable value in a culture that glamorizes depraved behavior, laughing off drunkenness and promiscuity as “partying” and mocking those who don’t participate. I never had to give one lecture on the evils of drunkenness to boys who had seen them live, in living color, for themselves.
In the city your kids see sin and its consequences while you are still with them and can help them process it. Eventually they’re going to encounter it for themselves, usually when they leave the protected environment of home for the big wide world—just when you are no longer around to discuss things.
I have had parents counter this suggestion by saying that, as valuable as processing the ugliness of this broken world with your children might be, there is such a thing as seeing too much, too soon. Possibly so, but my daughter in law (with degrees in education from Vanderbilt and Harvard in both primary and secondary education, and experience in teaching both) pointed something out to me—if children are really that young, too young for some sights, they simply won’t see them, or understand what they’re seeing. Children find a great deal of the world inexplicable to them, so the very young are not usually in danger of being damaged by fleeting glimpses of the sordid world. By the time they are old enough to notice what they’re seeing, it’s time for parents to be talking to them about it, anyway. And it’s usually way younger than you thought!
The other characteristic of the city that makes it a great place to raise your family is its light. Just as the city showcases the worst of the human heart, it also lifts up the best that human culture has achieved. Art and music, drama, architecture, sports, all are the best that they can be. And when you are attending a church full of younger-than-yourself Christians in these professions, your children have role models they can actually embrace. I have often said that the best thing you can do for your teenage children is not to have them in a great big youth group (of other teens as clueless and confused as themselves), but to have lots of young adult, cool, ardently believing friends.
Two incidents in our family illustrate this. It has been our custom at Thanksgiving to gather those who have nowhere else to go. One year several students from Juilliard School of Music came to our Thanksgiving dinner, and afterwards brought out a violin and a viola for an impromptu recital. Our boys loved music, but it had somehow never dawned on them that music was made by people. Their jaws hung open as they watched these two young women pull magical sounds out of pieces of wood.
More seriously, the time came in the life of one of the boys when the club culture cast its allure, especially a fabled den of iniquity known as the Limelight. Begging to be allowed to go fell on deaf ears. Sneaking off to try to talk his way in resulted in being caught and grounded for decades. We were bemoaning this seemingly intractable desire to walk on the wild side to a 30-something friend. He was a talent agent who represented very well-known people, and my sons thought he was the coolest person they’d ever met. When the son in question walked up, Steve turned to him and said, “I hear you want to visit the Limelight. If you want to go, I’ll take you. I went there many times before I became a Christian, and I never want to go back. But if you want to see it for yourself, I’ll take you.” We never heard another word about it. Steve had been there, done that, and found Christ better. His words had a power that our lectures never could have.
My sons loved the city growing up, and love it even more now, not just New York, but all cities. London, Hong Kong, Berlin, Singapore all excite them, whereas a quiet, empty suburb bores them to tears. They love the density of people, the diversity of culture, even the sounds and bustle. While they have an appreciation for mountains and the sea, for camping and hiking, they always want to return to the city, with its needs (one son is a pastor) and its possibilities (one is an urban planner). Having them nearby is just a bonus.
Reasons to Love City Living
Money Savers You May Not Have Considered
- no car purchase + insurance + parking + gas + repairs
- many free cultural events (e.g., Shakespeare, Philharmonic in the Park), not just amateur performers
- avoid the many hidden costs of house ownership (to be set against the higher cost of city housing in some places)
Savings of Time and Money
- no house repairs
- no lawn and garden care
- no auto maintenance
- simplicity more possible—you collect less stuff in small apartments
- immediate family is closer physically, harder for kids to isolate themselves; meals together more likely
- apt cleaning/care is easier, less time-consuming than a house
- you don’t spend all your free time on house/yard chores
- no scraping off your car in icy weather—enjoy walking in the snow instead
- no school snow days—the subway is always working
- sense of community, bonding, in your immediate neighborhood
- for new parents, especially stay-at-home moms, you don’t experience the isolation and despair of being stuck at home all day, unable to go out or even see another adult person—just a trip to the laundry room gives you someone to talk to, and a stroll outside brings you to the world
- many large American cities have something like Fresh Direct: order your groceries online and have them delivered the next day, boxed, to your kitchen; great if you are sick or time pressured
- fresh fruit and cheap flowers at corner stands rival expensive shops elsewhere
- great food in every restaurant—no bad meals
- less peer pressure; great diversity of interests and skills in every school cancels the need to fit into a mold
- diversity of friends and classmates makes them comfortable anywhere in the world later on
- babysitters within walking distance or travel on own—no driving them home late at night
- babysitting less expensive with neighborhood co-op
- kids’ friends often within walking distance, or meet at playground; no carpooling
- easy access to cultural enrichment activities (music, art, drama, parks)
- you do things with your kids, rather than sending them out to play in the yard
- teens don’t need a car
- teens aren’t riding with other teens who may be reckless, drunk, or newly minted drivers
- navigating the city makes them resourceful—not going to be unnerved anywhere else
- kids as young as 11 years old can take themselves to their own dental and allergist appointments, music lessons, playdates
- if you pray and talk frankly in front of your children about your fears and challenges regarding church planting, and your kids see you deriving the strength to go on with it from God, you will be a hero to your children, one who practices what he preaches
- you are able to process the sinfulness of the world, which is up close and visible in the city, with your children; they aren’t shielded from it until just as they are leaving home and you are no longer as much an influence in their lives.
- BEST REASON TO RAISE KIDS IN THE CITY: they see young, hip, urban Christians in the church, new believers who have been there and done that and find Christ better than all of it; these young believers are role models that parents can never be—no kid wants to grow up to be their parents; but the artists, musicians, politicians, and others they find in the urban church are a huge aid to making Christianity plausible to kids
- sin is more visible and salvation more plausible in the city
- airline prices are cheaper to/from larger cities; fewer transfers
- closer to ministry opportunities, especially diverse groups, the poor, ethnic communities (instead of traveling many miles to reach a people group); virtually all people groups are in the city, especially Africans, Russians, and South Americans
- less expensive for getaways; can travel by subway to a new neighborhood or a cultural enclave for a change of pace; so many unique experiences close at hand
- wealthy people in cities are always happy to lend their vacation homes to ministry families for weekends and getaways, as long as you are flexible; since ministry happens on weekends, mid-week getaways don’t generally conflict with the owners’ desire to use it on weekends
- easier to reach the suburbs from the city center than to reach the city center from the suburbs
- access to the best of the best in: professional sports, cultural interests (museums, lectures), entertainment (theatre, music, improv), educational opportunities/options, shopping, influencers in every field, restaurants, medical care