By Jennifer Johnson
My friend Abby and I love to visit museums. Recently we spent the afternoon at the Philadelphia Art Museum, looking at our favorites—the modern art wing and anything by Van Gogh—and enjoying lunch in the café. Next month we’re planning a girls’ trip to the ballet.
Abby is 7. To say she’s a little brighter than her peers is like saying the current American political scene is a little dysfunctional.
In addition to sampling the best culture of Philadelphia, Abby also loves going to New York City, just a short train ride away. She especially loves Broadway shows (she’s looking forward to seeing Matilda for her birthday this summer) and visiting the American Girl doll store. When I asked her why she liked visiting big cities, she said, “Because everything is interesting. Everything is there! But my feet get SO TIRED.”
Abby’s not alone in her love of the city. In recent years, both Evangelical and mainline churches have rediscovered urban ministry, prompted by studies which say that by 2050, as many as 70 percent of the world’s people will live in urban areas. Colleges and seminaries are adding programs in urban church planting, churches in changing neighborhoods are grappling with new demographics and adopting new models, and—as I learned this month—authors and academics are producing an unprecedented amount of material on urban ministry issues.
However, during a conversation with Kendi Howells Douglas, a co-owner of Urban Loft and a professor of intercultural studies who did her doctoral work on the Christian churches and churches of Christ in cities, this urban focus is relatively new for our movement.
“Before the split into three streams, our movement was in the cities as well as on the frontier,” she said. “But when we split, the Disciples stayed in the cities and we went back to the country and suburbs. In fact, in the Millennial Harbinger, Alexander Campbell equated spirituality with working with your hands on a farm. The fear of liberalism, the rejection of the social gospel, racism—all of these combined to portray the city negatively and keep people away. I remember growing up and hearing sermons about ‘sin lives in the city.’ And this was the pattern in our movement until recently; at the time of my dissertation, 78 percent of the U.S. population lived in a city, but only 7 percent of our churches were urban.”
She says the difficulty of urban work, in contrast with the relative ease and speed of starting suburban churches, is also a contributing factor; our desire to build big churches quickly is at odds with the reality of some urban initiatives.
Ultimately, however, Howells Douglas is hopeful.
“The New Testament church was urban and diverse,” she says. “So if we claim to be a movement that seeks to restore that church, there has to be a value for the city. I love teaching the next generation of church leaders and expanding their vision for urban ministry.”
Abby’s just a few years away from taking her own place in that emerging generation, and she and Kendi would get along famously. I just might tell Abby that someday she could live and work and tell people about Jesus in a big city. She just needs to get some good walking shoes.