Why cities are important for the mission of the Church
Cities are important to the mission of the Church because increasingly they are where people are. Until very recently, humanity lived almost exclusively in villages or rural settings. As recently as 1910, only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today, it is more than 50% urban, and that number could rise to 75% by mid-century. Paul Romer describes this drastic change as human beings going from living in packs like wolves to living more like ants or termites.
The change is happening mainly in the developing world. Africa is urbanizing today faster than any other continent. According to the UN, half of the world’s population growth by 2050, or about 1.2 billion people, will be in Africa. By 2050, 21% of the world’s population will live in African cities. China and India have also urbanized. More than a billion people around the world now live in urban slums, more than the combined population of the United States and Europe. As missiologist Ray Bakke said, “It’s no longer a grass thatched roof from a jungle. [Cities are] the new mission field of the future on six continents.
Cities are important to the mission of the church because increasingly they are where people are.
The Great Commission urges us to reach every people group and every place on the planet, but the sheer weight of demographics argues for a more urban mission field today. For every 100 million new urban residents, we need to start 10,000 new urban churches just to reach a ratio of one church per 10,000 people. This means that we will have to start tens of thousands of new urban churches in the decades to come.
But what about America?
Urbanization is different when we study the United States. If you follow the Census Bureau classification, our country has long been populated by urban dwellers, reaching 50% urban in 1920 and about 80% urban today. But the “80% urban” figure is misleading, as the bureau says any place with a population of 2,500 or more is urban. Someone who lives in John Mellencamp’s “small town” in Seymour, Indiana is now technically a city dweller.
Additionally, when most hear the word “urban,” they think of higher density areas with multi-family housing and mixed-use developments. They think of passable streets laid out on a grid-like street plan that are accessible by public transit. This description does not characterize the places where most Americans live. The combined 2020 population of the traditionally urban cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Washington, Baltimore, and Miami is only about 20 million. If you add urban districts in cities like Indianapolis (where I live) and even college towns, America’s urban population jumps to between 30 and 40 million, or only 10 to 15 percent of the country. Most Americans live in the suburbs, which have grown sprawlingly because of the automobile.
Given these realities, are traditional urban areas still important to the mission of the church in the United States? They are, and here are three reasons why:
1. Every person matters.
The 30 to 40 million people who live in cities need to hear the gospel. We shouldn’t exclude people living in urban settings, whether it’s small towns like Louisville and Birmingham or big cities like Boston and Seattle.
2. Cities contain power plants.
Major urban centers are critical nodes because they control the economy, industry and government of our country. The institutions that affect all Americans are there. It’s technology in the Bay Area, finance in New York, entertainment in Los Angeles, elite biotech and higher education in Boston, and the federal government in Washington that make these coastal centers some of the places the most powerful in the country. Decisions made in institutions like Google, Disney, the New York Times, the Department of Defense and Harvard have profound effects on all of us. For these reasons, cities are strategic. If we want to see the gospel transform key institutions, the church must be present and strong in cities.
3. Change starts here.
Since the institutions that shape the country’s culture are located in major urban centers, cultural change usually occurs there first. When Pennsylvania Station was demolished in New York City, it catalyzed the nationwide historic preservation movement. The modern LGBT+ rights movement was launched by the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in New York, San Francisco or LA will eventually show up on your doorstep. .
Major urban centers are critical nodes because they control the economy, industry and government of our country.
Churches in cities are exposed to cultural change very early on. For this reason, they are often the first to respond to these changes. Even if urban churches fail to reach the culture (or capitulate inappropriately), they can show the larger church what not to do. It can be easy to throw stones at urban church leaders from the comfort of a suburb or small town in a red state. But it would be wiser to pay attention to the pressures under which they operate, for these same forces will soon be everywhere.
Urban ministry is not the whole of the Great Commission, but it is important. For demographic, economic, political and cultural reasons, cities, both globally and nationally, are an essential component of the Church’s mission in the 21st century.