By Michael C. Mack
Cities are a key setting in God’s story. The churches in Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, Athens, and many others in the New Testament were urban. And, while the Bible’s story began in a rural area (surely two people in a garden surrounded by lots of animals is rural!), it ends in an urban locale, “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2).
Cities also present a strategic opportunity for the church today. Several statistics quoted by writers of this month’s articles stood out to me:
– “The most recent U.S. Census data revealed for the first time more than 4 in 5 Americans live in urban areas” (Tim Cole).
– “The United Nations estimates that 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that number is projected to swell to 68 percent by 2050” (Michael Bowling).
– “Only 5 percent of the just under 15 million people living in the six states that comprise New England are believers” (Kelly Carr).
Several articles this month point to a vital principle for carrying out the Great Commission: We must go where people are, especially those who don’t yet know Christ. More and more, they are moving to our cities.
Yet, as several writers noted, for many years independent Christian churches have not done well in cities. Along the way, we became focused more on rural communities, small towns, and suburbs. (For one reason why this has occurred, see Jerry Harris’s Letter from the Publisher on page 2.) However, as this issue demonstrates, more and more of our leaders are now moving to our cities, planting churches, and living where they minister.
This month we feature stories from seven areas of the country—New York City (MinistryLife), Baltimore, Maryland; the mid-Atlantic states; New England; Los Angeles; Cincinnati; and Decatur, Illinois. These ministries serve as examples of what we in our movement are doing in urban areas.
We should celebrate this and commit to do more.
Nathan Hawkins, west regional director for Stadia, says in his article, “Church planting in the U.S. will need to double or triple from current rates to address population growth and anticipated church closures of older congregations. The American church needs to plant more than 200,000 churches in the next 30 years . . . and even more than that if it hopes to meet the needs of the unaffiliated.” And, it seems, many of those new churches need to be in urban areas.
While the city offers great opportunities for the church, we must also recognize the challenges there. In “3 Challenges in Urban Ministry” at www.BiblicalLeadership.com, Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, listed these: depravity, longevity, and community.
When some Christ followers think about urban areas, they naturally think of the depravity they see in news stories. While that may be true, says Stetzer, “depravity is everywhere, not just cities”! Sin and brokenness are all around, and “when sin abounds, the gospel can abound even more.”
Loving a city takes longevity. Residents in too many cities have watched churches and other Christian ministries come and go. They need to know we are making a long-term commitment to walk with them, serve them, and love them. Growth in numbers may be slow. People may not seem to want the message we are bringing. They may seem too busy and too wrapped up in their own lives to get involved. We must remain faithful servants.
Finally, says Stetzer, community is key. How is that a challenge? Urban areas are typically not one big community, but a patchwork of numerous smaller communities, each with its own unique identity and often with barriers built up and even hostilities toward the communities around them. The gospel can build bridges and bring reconciliation, especially when people become believers and citizens of God’s kingdom.
You will see the same challenges and opportunities in the urban-ministry stories in this issue.
As you might expect, there is no single prevailing strategy that works in every urban environment, except to build relationships, listen, love, and serve people in the neighborhoods. These are the same strategies that work anywhere the church is doing ministry!
Perhaps God has called you to stay where he has planted you in a rural, small-town, or suburban church. You can learn from this issue! Remain faithful where God has placed you. But I hope and pray God will use this month’s articles to draw more of his people to go to cities where he can use them in mighty ways.
Go to where the people are.