God’s Word, Urbanization, Generational Shifts Compel Us to Plant Urban Churches Now
By Nathan “Chivo” Hawkins and Josie Barton
People are drawn to cities for many reasons: education, employment, entertainment, economic and social opportunities. People have also been overwhelmed by cities; the exposure to poverty, illness, and other symptoms of brokenness have caused many people to flee urban centers. But whether pulled or repulsed, the Great Commission compels us to minister in cities.
Biblical Rationale for Urban Ministry
Social justice has become such a buzz phrase that followers of Jesus might dismiss urban ministry as a fad. Yet, we have a clear biblical imperative to minister in the urban context. Ignoring this imperative will lead not only to increasing irrelevance in the church, but also to disobedience of Scripture.
In the books of Jonah and Nahum, a biblical theology of urban missions develops around the city of Nineveh. After the city was overtaken by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser (2 Kings 17), thousands of Israelites were taken captive and Samaria was repopulated with people from the Assyrian Empire. The population intermixed and developed a mishmash of religion, just as we see in diverse cities today. The Assyrian practice of resettling conquered territories with a mixture of people was designed to destroy the natives’ homogenous identity and deconstruct any notion of historical roots. It is therefore not surprising that the descendants of Nineveh, the Samaritans, were despised by Jews.
Despite this complex history and Nineveh’s reputation as an evil city, God referred to it as “great” (Jonah 1:2) and sent Jonah there as a missionary. Jonah was so opposed to ministry in this context that he tried to run away from God. But God did not relent. Why? The Lord clearly set a precedence for urban ministry with Nineveh. God asked Jonah: “Should I not have concern for the great city?” (Jonah 4:11).
God cares for the city, regardless of our opinions. The Lord looks at cities and sees people created in his own image, and he remembers his covenant with them. For God, cities are not hotbeds of corruption and injustice to be abolished, but landscapes ripe for harvest. If God cares for the city, then we also are called to join with God in their redemption.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Jeremiah implored exiles from Jerusalem to pray for the cities where they were sent, “for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7, New Revised Standard Version). When we join with God and serve on his behalf in the city, it benefits our communities and the people who live in them.
To be salt and light in the city, and to follow the example of our Savior who “became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message), we must live alongside and have authentic relationship with the people in our communities. For most of us today, living alongside in true, in-the-trenches community means being or becoming city-dwellers.
Later, Paul wrote letters to the churches in various cities; these letters were to people groups who were bound together by more than geography. John’s Gospel, meanwhile, was heavily weighted toward Jesus’ teaching and ministry in the city of Jerusalem. In fact, we are told that Jesus wept over Jerusalem, a city that was esteemed, bemoaned, and redeemed, again and again. God points to the city of Jerusalem as the archetype of a heavenly city, where people from every race, tribe, and tongue will live together side by side in eternal worship. If God’s vision for us is a heavenly city and we are called to usher in his kingdom in the here and now, we cannot ignore the importance of ministering to our cities.
In short, divinely created people made in God’s likeness are our creator’s priority, and so they should be our priority. We need to go where people are—and people are in the city.
Cities, the Church, and Church Planting
At the beginning of the 20th century, 25 percent of the world’s population lived in cities; by the turn of the 21st century, that percentage had more than doubled, according to a Ministry article from 2004. Data and trends indicate urban populations will continue to grow domestically and around the world. As the world becomes more urbanized, the church must do the same to fulfill the Great Commission.
Cities have been critical epicenters for the church since the first Christian congregations were established in places like Jerusalem, Ephesus, and Corinth. The early church was principally an urban movement spreading to the largest, most influential cities of the day. And Christians evangelized within those urban environments by caring for people. Rodney Stark explains this process in The Rise of Christianity:
To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with widows and orphans, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity . . . [for what Christians] brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture.
Creating a culture and advancing the gospel take work, and there are not enough workers in established urban churches to achieve this, especially when considering the population growth of cities. According to data compiled by the Pinetops Foundation, this era is the greatest gospel opportunity in American history. The Great Opportunity website (greatopportunity.org), sponsored by Pinetops, says this unparalleled shift in religious affiliation necessitates much new church planting. Sadly, it reports, the rate of church planting is near an all-time low in America while the rate of church closures is projected to increase over the next decade.
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. In addition, there is a dramatic need to invest specifically in emerging urban cities populated by those who have left the church. Generation Z (the population grouping that follows the millennials) is the largest generation in American history and will likely increase urban density over the next two decades.
Church planting is a core component of both reaching and blessing a city with the gospel.
Data demonstrate that new churches are more effective in reaching younger (increasingly city-dwelling) people with the gospel. Research by Leadership Network and Portable Church Industries indicates that the majority of people attending churches or multisite campuses started in the last five years are 35 years old or younger. Stadia Church Planting is starting churches that reach young adults and families at a higher rate than any other demographic. Increasingly, God is using Stadia to plant churches in cities across the U.S. and around the world.
City Gospel Movements (citygospelmovements.org) is a powerful force for urban ministry. The Luis Palau Association defines this work as “a united, holistic, sustainable effort by the Church to seek the peace and prosperity of their city.” These intentionally collaborative kingdom efforts are growing in cities across the United States, and our Restoration Movement heritage positions the Christian church to serve in them well. These movements often seek to emphasize Christian commonalities, including evangelism and service over denominational doctrines, and focusing on unity for the sake of mission. One exciting outcome of these collaborative movements has been churches joining together to plant new churches in cities like San Diego, Seattle, and New York. These collaborations are bearing sweet fruit.
There are millions of reasons urban church planting is important, and each reason comprises a soul that may be more receptive to the gospel than ever before.
Several years ago, Tim Keller wrote, “First, [city-dwellers] are more open to new ideas, and to change in general, after being uprooted from traditional settings. Second, they greatly need help and support to face the moral, economic, emotional, and spiritual pressures of city life.”
We are tremendously grateful for our Christian family in rural and suburban areas. For many of us, crossing the city boundary is a difficult step. Geography defines us more than location; it shapes who we are and how and with whom we minister. In this, as in everything, let us model ourselves after Christ. Jesus focused intently on urban ministry. Christians can prioritize urban church planting as we join with God in reconciling that which is broken and celebrating what Christ has already redeemed and continues to restore in the city—through the church!
Nathan “Chivo” Hawkins is the west regional director for Stadia Church Planting. Chivo has played a key role in Stadia’s global church planting strategy, served in a church plant relaunch in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, and led local and missions ministry in Mexico. As an adoptee and adoptive father, Chivo and his wife, Joy, are passionate about caring for children, especially through foster care.
Josie Barton is the marketing manager at Stadia. Josie was on the launch team of a church in Baltimore in 2013. She still resides in Baltimore, along with her husband and three young sons.