In case you haven’t noticed, cities have been a hot topic of conversation recently, especially for evangelicals. We hear about the importance of “the city,” the need for support urban church planting strategies, and the reality of urban renewal. If demography is destiny, then the future is urban. If evangelicals want to reach people in the culture, we have to think strategically about where the people are – and the destination for many is increasingly “the city.”
Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard believe cities matter to God and to the culture, and that’s why they ought to matter to the Church. To make their case, these pastors have authored a book, Why Cities Matter (Crossway, 2013) which serves as a primer on the why behind city engagement.
What is a City?
First off, what is a city? Um and Buzzard respond:
“This is the essence of cities: cities emerge when people choose to live, work, and play in close proximity to one another.”
In other words, cities are places of dense populations, and because of the number of people, they are centers of power, culture, and spirituality.
Why Do Cities Matter?
So why should we care about cities? One reason is the culture-shaping power of urban areas:
“Cities shape the world. What happens in cities doesn’t stay in cities. What happens in cities spreads – as the city goes, so goes the broader culture.”
It may seem like the authors believe cities matter primarily because of the cultural influence that comes from cities. But as the book goes on, they make clear: Cities matter because that’s where the people are. In other words, because people matter to God, cities should matter to us.
Why do cities matter to the greater culture? Three reasons. They are magnets, amplifiers, and engines:
- As magnets, cities attract all types of people.
- As amplifiers, they provide an environment for the flourishing and sharpening of their citizens.
- As engines, cities take the collective talents, skills, and creativity of their citizens and translate them into world-driving technology, industry, and cultural development.
Along the way, Um and Buzzard debunk the false notion that the Bible views the city negatively. They make a convincing case for seeing cities as part of God’s original intent, even though they admit that, due to the fall, the city amplifies the wickedness of humanity.
So, cities matter because people matter, but cities also matter because culture matters, and cities are where culture is shaped.
“Culture is established in cities—the places where diverse people are most densely congregated together to live, work, worship, create, learn, and play. Scripture calls us to align our lives and talents with the missional heart of God by contributing to our culture’s common good—by making a serious contribution to our city’s art, business, music, law, literature, education, medicine, finance, etc.”
Where Do We Start?
Where should we begin in seeking to reach the city? Um and Buzzard don’t lay out a grandiose scheme for cultural transformation. Their advice is simple and attainable. It’s important to understand your city’s history, values, dreams, and fears. In other words, discover the baseline narrative of your city, affirm the parts of that story that are good, challenge the city’s idols, and retell your city’s story in line with the gospel. In doing so, we are following in the footsteps of those who have gone before us:
“What happened between AD 33 and AD 310 is remarkable. Christians changed the world because of their faithful presence in cities. This is part of our Christian history. We have inherited the legacy of Christians who made their mark in the great cities of antiquity. Our knowledge of the gospel is a result of their faithful stewardship and ministry in cities.”
I enjoyed Why Cities Matter. It’s easy to read. It makes a good case for urban ministry. And it maintains a good balance between theory and practice.
An Unresolved Tension
There is, however, an underlying tension in this book that, for me at least, was left unresolved. The authors say that cities matter because people matter. We go where the people are. But it seems like, when it comes to strategy, the culture-shaping aspect of urban ministry runs up against and sometimes overwhelms the people-focus.
For example, if you find there are twice the number of people in an inner city neighborhood than in the white-collar culture-shaping skyscraper downtown, which one do you focus your ministry on? If you go with their first answer (“cities matter because people matter”), then you go where the most people are. But if you go with their second answer (“cities matter because culture matters”), then you go where the influencers are.
This is the tension that runs through this book. It feels like the authors are calling for a specific type of urban ministry – one that appeals to the urban elites who shape the culture and less to the inner city poverty where the population may be more dense.
I would love to see further exploration of this subject. If cities matter, we need churches in Manhattan and Brooklyn, even though Manhattan is clearly more culture-shaping than Brooklyn.
Do cities matter primarily because of people or primarily because of culture? The book says “people,” but the strategy seems to be around “culture.”
Why Cities Matter is an important book that deserves your time. Read it, consider it, and then pray about how to be part of God’s work in the great cities of our world.