Understanding Your Own City
I believe that much of the evangelical world suffers from urban amnesia. Except for a faithful remnant, we have forgotten our roots. The early Christians were primarily city dwellers. They knew their cities and utilized their unique features to advance the gospel.
Many city-dwelling non-Christians are also culture-shapers—producing the technology, arts and leadership that influence the rest of the world.
Each city has a different personality that can only be truly appreciated through extended seasons of attentive presence. There are, however, certain dynamic traits of the urban environment that all cities share. Understanding these traits—and how they open opportunities for the gospel—is a critical part of navigating our way forward into significant urban ministry:
With increased density, cars become cumbersome, so walking or using public transit becomes advantageous. Experts call such dense environments “pedestrian scale” as opposed to “automobile scale”—the proportions characteristic of rural and suburban environments. Pedestrian-scale environments result in more casual and unplanned interactions—from hour-long conversations on public transit to chance encounters on street corners.
Density’s close cousin is diversity. The average city dweller interacts with people of different races, nations, classes and professions on a daily basis—reflecting the breadth and depth of God’s creation and presenting some unique gospel opportunities. Racial tensions are often magnified in the cities. Entering into these tensions can be some of the most challenging and personally stretching work that city ministers do. Similarly, the prevalence and proximity of the poor provides another opportunity for Christians to demonstrate truly biblical Christianity.
In his book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop chronicles how Americans in growing numbers are moving to regions where their beliefs and practices are shared by the majority of their neighbors. Indeed a former non-Christian friend of mine once told me, “I originally came to Berkeley because I figured this is where all the atheists go.” (In contrast, when I reveal that I am, in fact, a pastor, I have had people swear in shock or tell me I’m the first one they’ve ever met.)
Moreover, many city-dwelling non-Christians are also culture-shapers who produce the goods (technology, entertainment, art, leadership) that heavily influence the rest of the world. City ministers who can learn to interact with the multiplicity of world views often see their efforts multiplied in surprising ways.
Many who move to the city are motivated by high-octane career ambitions, and the result is a prodigious din of voices and viewpoints. The challenge for city ministers is to gain a hearing among all the noise and to conduct ministry that is truly “in” the city and not just “next” to it. This is where God’s creativity comes into play. After all, as recorded in Acts, God used a riverside prayer meeting, an earthquake and a clash with a magician to gain attention and open up gospel opportunities.
Safe but dangerous
The first city, built by Cain, was an attempt to find safety following a devastating estrangement from God. Today, people also flock to cities to find a form of safety. Some emigrate from foreign countries and embed themselves in an ethnic community for support. Others are drawn by the hope of job security. Still others seek personal fulfillment in wealth, power or endless activity.
In earthly cities, however, communities fail, jobs are lost and evil destroys that in which people have placed their trust. Even for the most successful city dwellers, the city cannot fulfill ultimate longings. But as Christians, we point to a City that does deliver on all its promises: safety, security, community, purpose and meaning—and all this eternally, in the presence of God. The key to this city is Christ.
The earthly cities around us create a hunger for the heavenly city. The destructive work of the enemy creates a longing for something better. God’s beauty, so evident in the multitude of image bearers in the city, provides a harbinger of what is to come. The promise of the heavenly city makes it well worth it for us to be part of redeeming the earthly one.
Andrew Hoffman is senior pastor of Solano Community Church (EFCA) in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.