Tag Archives: Timothy Keller

Why Should You Care about Cities? (2/3)

Where can you serve God most strategically? This is not always an easy question to answer. There are needs everywhere, and diligent laborers are in short supply all over.

One answer is to simply say that I am most needed right here, right wherever I am. This is certainly true on one level. If I’m not useful “here,” I’m unlikely to be useful “there.” Discipleship begins here and now, not there and later.

This is one popular application of Jesus’ final words to his apostles. He told them “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Therefore, we often hear, we should imitate the apostles by starting at home, in our “Jerusalem” hometown, then expanding outward to Samaria (nearby regions) and eventually to the end of the earth.

But Collier Berkshire of IGo (Institute for Global Opportunities) once corrected my thinking on this. He pointed out that Jerusalem was not the apostles’ hometown! Most of them were from Galilee, after all. Then why did Jesus instruct them to begin witnessing for him at Jerusalem? The answer is a strategic one—Pentecost was coming. Jesus wanted his apostles to be in Jerusalem during Pentecost, because he knew that this annual Jewish feast would attract “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). New disciples from among this pool of feast-goers would then return to “every nation under heaven” (slight biblical hyperbole there, but we’ll skip that valuable exegetical lesson), carrying the gospel with them.

So I ask you again: Where can you serve God most strategically? For some of you, I suggest, the answer will be “in a city.”

Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:

  1. God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

This post will discuss the second reason. Why should you care about cities?

The City Needs You!

Two facts: Cities are growing, and globally they are growing faster than their Christian populations. An article by Al Mohler summarizes the first fact well:

In 1800, only 3 percent of the human population lived in cities. By 1900, cities held 14 percent of the population. By 2000, fully half of all human beings lived in urban areas. We are fast becoming an urban species…

As Stewart Brand argues, we are becoming a “city planet.”… “At the current rate,” Brand writes, “humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade.” (bold added)

Are Christians keeping up? Timothy Keller (see his book Center Church) doesn’t think so:

The people of the world are now moving into the great cities of the world many times faster than the church is… The Christian church is not responding fast enough to keep up with the rapid population growth in cities.

There are five million new people moving into the cities of the developing world every month—roughly the size of the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia or San Francisco. Think of that—how many churches ought there to be in a city the size of Philadelphia? Even if there were one church for every five thousand people—which is five times fewer than the United States average—this means we should be planting a thousand urban churches in the world every month. (p. 158, bold added)

Let’s add some Anabaptist context here. Not only are Anabaptists moving into cities at a rate far below Christians of many other denominations. More importantly, we also have a long heritage that values and often prioritizes rural living. But the data above shouts what should already have been evident from the pages of Scripture: The idea that people should leave the city so that they can experience optimal spiritual growth in rural environments is simply unreasonable. There simply isn’t enough farm land available for all urban converts to come join rural Mennonites. Mennonites are even running out of farm land for their own children!

Unless Anabaptists learn how to be faithful disciples of Christ within cities, several trends will become increasingly true:

  • Children of Anabaptists who find their needed living space in towns and cities will tend to join other denominations.
  • Anabaptism will remain a primarily rural phenomenon, with little direct impact on most of humanity.

I think there are theological repercussions, too, but we’ll stick with those sociological ones for the moment.

So, the city needs you, because you have the gospel that the city needs. What kinds of people in the city need you and the gospel?

Keller identifies “four important groups of people who must be reached to fulfill the mission of the church”:

1. The younger generation… In the United States and Europe, the young disproportionately want to live in cities… If the church in the West remains, for the most part, in the suburbs of Middle America and neglects the great cities, it risks losing an entire generation of American society’s leaders…

2. The “cultural elites.” The second group is made up of those who have a disproportionate influence on how human life is lived in a society because they exert power in business, publishing, the media, the academy, and the arts… Since cities now influence the culture and values of the world more than ever, the single most effective way for Christians to influence the culture of a nation is to have large numbers of them stay in cities and simply “be the church” there…

3. Accessible “unreached” people groups… The currents of history are now sweeping many of these formerly unreachable people into cities as rural economies fail to sustain old ways of life. Millions of these newcomers in the burgeoning cities of the world are more open to the Christian faith than they were in their original context…

4. The poor… Some have estimated that one-third of the people representing the new growth in cities in the developing world will live in shantytowns… An urban church does not choose between ministry to the poor and ministry to the professional classes. We need the economic and cultural resources of the elites to help the poor, and our commitment to the poor is a testimony to the cultural elites, supporting the validity of our message. (p. 160-62)

Of these four groups, which have American Anabaptists been most comfortable and successful in reaching? I think most of us would point to the fourth group—the poor. Organizations like Christian Aid Ministries have helped Anabaptists provide rapid response services after natural disasters, including in urban centers. Additionally, my unscientific observation would be that many of our few long-term urban efforts have focused on poor neighborhoods.

There are good reasons for this (we have a heritage of skilled manual service and material generosity). I suspect there are also sometimes bad reasons (scorn of the professional class, fear of education, inability to meet non-material kinds of needs). Consider the pointed questions raised by Allen Roth, in an article1 urging mission efforts in the materially-wealthy Canadian province of Quebec:

Might our neglect be due to a defect in us as a people… a lack of clarity about the Gospel itself and the need of all people for salvation, yes, even the prosperous ones who consider themselves superior to us? Are we unable and unwilling to share the Gospel unless we can hand some material benefits downward to those who “need us” and toward whom we feel superior? If… if indeed this might be the case, then God have mercy on us! (bold added)

I think we should continue our efforts to the poor, learning not only to hand out relief but also to live among the poor in long-term relationships. And I think we Anabaptists should also expand our vision to include the other three groups of urban dwellers that Keller identified.

One way to reach all three of these groups (youth, cultural leaders, unreached peoples) is to share the gospel with international college students. For example, consider a Foreign Policy article published earlier this month: “Leave China, Study in America, Find Jesus.” The article is part of a special series called China U. The description of China U. underscores the significance of Christian engagement with international students:

China U. is an FB series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

Indeed, how might a new generation, fluent in China and in America and newly won to Christ’s kingdom, shape the future of both China and America?

According to the article, the number of Chinese college and university students in America has multiplied more than four-fold in just the past 10 years. The article is full of fascinating personal stories of converts. Here are some excerpts with other data:

While firm statistics do not exist on the number of Chinese converts in the United States, it’s clear that a rapidly increasing number of Chinese students, including Cai, have come Stateside to pursue higher education; more than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China is the largest secular country in the world; young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have visited a Buddhist temple to pray for good luck before an exam, or celebrated traditional festivals with roots in Chinese folklore. Public preaching is forbidden there, and the Communist Party-state oversees all religious matters, often with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasizes patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview…

As a result, U.S. universities are the first places that hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely…

Some predict that the future of Christianity lies in China. After all, they argue, the popularity of the faith is declining in the United States, the largest Christian country in the world. Meanwhile, in China, even government figures acknowledge a growing number of followers, from 14 million in 1997 to 23 million in 2010. (This number is generally considered a low estimate.) (bold added)

Such reports are a reminder that we don’t always have to leave our nation to reach the world. Often “the world” can be found right here in the cities of North America. For example, consider this sample of statistics about where immigrant populations live:2

  • Los Angeles: 80,000 Thai
  • Minneapolis–Saint Paul: 25,000 Somalis
  • Chicago: 100,000 Indians and Pakistanis
  • Detroit: 130,000 Arabs
  • Indianapolis: 14,000 Burmese
  • Philadelphia: 60,000 Chinese
  • New York City: 100,000 Bangladeshis

You might be surprised at who lives in your nearest city. Iowa is reportedly the sixth-least diverse state in America. (In contrast, Georgia, where we plan to move, is the fourth least white.) Yet even here in Iowa you will find immigrants. For example, here is some data on my nearest city, Des Moines:

Total Population: 207,510
Foreign-born residents: 15,713 (7.9% of Des Moines’ total pop.)
Nations of birth: 71 different countries!

Here are the top fifteen nations of birth for Des Moines’ foreign-born population. To help you see some significance in this list, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

Mexico: 8,164
Vietnam: 1,865
Laos: 1,480
Bosnia and Herzegovina: 1,023
El Salvador: 934
Sudan: 934
Liberia: 735
Thailand: 711
Burma (Myanmar): 622
Guatemala: 527
Iraq: 462
India: 427
Korea: 313
Canada: 293
Germany: 281

(Yes, you could reach nearly 300 Canadians right here in Des Moines, without needing to head north to the border and the nearest dog sled!)

It’s hard for me to imagine, but apparently 32,658 Des Moines residents speak a language other than English at home. And 17,225 of those speak English “less than very well.” All that is right here in Des Moines, Iowa—in one of the least diverse states in the nation!

I say it’s time to make Des Moines a little more diverse. Maybe it’s time some Anabaptists move there and help love the world for Christ.

And what about Toronto? Here I’d like to challenge my Ontario Anabaptist friends. What would it look like for the conservative Anabaptists of Ontario to put aside some of their differences and band together with a vision for the Toronto harvest field?

The opportunities in Toronto are immense! Here’s the big picture, from a good little article called “Understanding Toronto”:

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth largest city, with a population of 2.8 million people (5.5 million in the Greater Toronto Area, commonly called the GTA). It’s a center for business, finance, and education. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in the world… It’s one of the largest cities in North America, and it’s one of the least churched. (bold added)

Just how multicultural is Toronto? Well, 47.9% of its population is foreign-born! Nearly half! And growing! In hard numbers, that’s about 2,642,910 immigrants in the GTA.

(By comparison, over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born—totaling 3.07 million immigrants, more than any other city in the world. On a national level, 20.6% of the Canadian population is foreign-born—the highest percentage among all G8 countries—as are 12.9% of those living in the United States.)

Here is an interactive map where you can learn more:

Where do these Toronto immigrants come from—and visit on return trips, carrying the ideas they’ve found in Canada? Here are the top birth nations (data from Statistics Canada). Again, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

India: 279,425
China
: 237,025
Philippines: 185,085
United Kingdom: 116,655
Italy: 116,240
Sri Lanka: 105,565
Pakistan: 99,295
Hong Kong: 99,285
Jamaica: 97,660
Portugal: 73,740
Guyana: 72,090
Poland: 64,095
Iran: 60,785
Vietnam: 60,555
United States: 55,630
South Korea: 48,785
Trinidad and Tobago: 46,915
Russian Federation: 35,200
Ukraine: 31,795
Greece: 31,185
Germany: 27,635
Bangladesh: 25,560
Romania: 24,515
Iraq: 22,145
Afghanistan: 21,185

All told, there are over half a million people living in Toronto who come from countries where you may have to risk extreme or severe persecution to reach their families overseas! And the religious needs are immense. For example, Toronto has Canada’s largest population of Muslims, at just over 424,900. Equally significantly, more than 1,165,000 Torontonians claim no religious affiliation at all. Ontario Anabaptists, will you rise to the challenge?

What about your own city? To find immigrant data for your nearest city, visit City-Data.com or Statistics Canada. And remember, behind every data point is a person who needs Christ.

The city needs you, so you should care about the city. And, who knows? Perhaps you will conclude that the city is the most strategic place for you to serve God!


Come back here soon for one more reason why you should care about the city. And, as always, I welcome your responses in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Allen Roth, “What About Neighbors Who Aren’t ‘Needy’?” The Alliance Newsletter (Vol. 16, No. 6), Nov./Dec. 2013, p. 1.
  2. Compiled by Destinations International, shared with me by Ian Miller.

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Why Should You Care about Cities? (1/3)

Thanks to God’s unpredictable providence, cities have found a special place in my heart. While I can live happily in many places, at midlife I find myself drawn to live in a city.

No one would have guessed this 30 or 40 years ago. I grew up near a town of 6,500 people—Parry Sound, Ontario. As I boy I was aware of two options for where to live: the northern “bush” (good!) and “down south” in Ontario’s farmland (bad!). At nineteen I moved to northwestern Ontario, just outside a town of 7,600 people—Dryden. Here I was mostly conscious of two options: the “bush” and northern fly-in First Nations reserves.

Then I was invited to move to Thunder Bay, Ontario as a “personal worker,” befriending First Nations youth. In this small city (109,000 people) I first glimpsed urban needs—in particular, the needs of city youth. So after my 2-year term ended, I ended up moving to North Bay (54,000 people) to train as a high school teacher. There I first closely interacted with both secular worldviews and other Christian denominations. I saw the needs of college students first-hand and helped lead the Christian club on campus.

Then I moved to New York City.  Woah.  Eight million people in a metropolitan area of 23 million. Culturally, it was like moving to another country. Actually, it was moving to another country for me, but what I mean is that I soon saw NYC is radically different even from the other parts of the United States that I had visited. I became convinced that it would be good for every urban resident to spend at least a year in fly-over America, and every rural resident to spend at least a year in the big city. This might be the only hope for Americans to start understanding each other enough to get along in a semi-peaceful manner.

Public school teaching, subway riding, and church leadership duties all provided great urban learning opportunities. I’ll skip those stories to mention that I also visited Dhaka, Bangladesh during this time. Talk about people! NYC felt half empty when I returned.

And then we moved near Leon, Iowa, a town of about 2000 mostly-farmers. Whiplash.

These experiences have taught me a lot about myself:

  • I can live happily in lots of different places.
  • I still think the northern lake and bush country is exceptionally beautiful. A month there each summer would be great…
  • I feel drawn to multicultural areas and, at least for this stage of our family, want to live in a city. It’s not just that I feel a duty to be a “missionary” to a city. I actually like the city—as long as I can escape to quiet, green spaces now and then.

So, I care deeply about cities. What about you?

Why should you care about cities? I’d like to share three reasons:

  1. God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

This post will discuss the first reason. I’ll plan to address the other two in upcoming posts. So, why should you care about cities?

God Cares about Cities!

There are many cities mentioned in the Bible—think, for example, of Enoch (Cain’s city; Gen. 4:17), Babel, Sodom, the Israelite cities of refuge, Jerusalem, Babylon, Antioch, Rome, and the New Jerusalem. Some were bad, some good, but God cared deeply about each of them.

We see this clearly in the story of Jonah and Nineveh. Listen to God’s words to Jonah. These final verses of Jonah are the punchline of the whole book:

“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jon. 4:10-11)

In his masterful book Center Church, Tim Keller explains the significance of God’s argument:

Here God makes a case for the importance of the city from the sheer number of the human beings in residence. He is saying, “How can you look at so many lost people and not find compassion in your heart?” This is a critical reason that the city is so important today. We might call it the visceral argument for the city. God “has compassion on all he has made” (Ps 145:9). But of all the things he has made, human beings have pride of place in his heart, because they were made in his image (Gen 9:6; James 3:9). Cities, quite literally, have more of the image of God per square inch than any other place on earth. How can we not be drawn to such masses of humanity if we care about the same things that God cares about? (p. 141, bold added)

Notice also how this passage divides God’s creation into three levels: plants, animals, and humans. To care about plants is proper and good. To care about animals is even more natural and good. And to care about humans is the most reasonable and good of all.

Jonah didn’t work to care for his plant. Traditionally, most Anabaptists have worked to care for plants, as well as animals. This is good! But, according to God’s divine economy, there is something that is much more important for us to care about and care for: our fellow human beings, including those gathered in each “great city.”

To put it bluntly: If I care more about plants and animals than about humans, my thinking is messed up. I am not thinking and living in a godly, God-like way. (Thus, if I am a farmer, which might indeed be God’s call for me, I better be farming for God’s sake, which will include farming in ways that intentionally prioritize love of neighbor over preoccupation with plants and animals.)

More from Keller:

My colleague at Westminster, Harvie Conn, told me about a man who said to him, “God made the country, and man built the suburbs, but the devil made the city.” The theology behind this statement is dubious to say the least. And theologically, it is not a good idea to think of the countryside as intrinsically more pleasing to God. An urban missionary, Bill Krispin, explains why. Bill once said to me, “The country is where there are more plants than people; the city is where there are more people than plants. And since God loves people much more than plants, he loves the city more than the country.” I think this is solid theological logic… Cities, which are filled with people, are absolutely crammed full of what God considers the most beautiful sight in his creation. (pp. 169-70, bold added)

I might want to tweak Keller’s “solid theological logic” to note that it is people, not cities themselves, which God cares so deeply about. And people are not always a “beautiful sight” in God’s eyes. As Keller says elsewhere, “a city is simply a magnifying glass for the human heart. It brings out whatever is already inside”—both good and bad (p. 169). But his central point remains: God cares about people; most people are found in cities; so God cares deeply about these urban communities.

We also see this in the book of Acts. From the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (hat tip to Keller):

There is a sense in which the city is vindicated in the history of the early church—not in the sense that the city is mainly good or cordial to the gospel but in the sense that the city is where most people now live and where the influential power structures exist… It is no exaggeration to say that in Acts the church is almost exclusively associated with the city. (p. 153, bold added)

Keller again:

In Acts 17, Paul travels to Athens, the intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 18, he goes to Corinth, one of the commercial centers of the empire. In Acts 19, he arrives in Ephesus, perhaps the Roman world’s religious center… By the end of Acts, Paul has made it to Rome itself, the empire’s capital of military and political power. John Stott concludes, “It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic city-centre to the next.”1 (p. 148, bold added)

If we still have any doubt that God cares about cities, then Revelation should put those doubts to rest. Here all of humanity is summarized in two great cities: Babylon the harlot, and New Jerusalem the bride. In the imagery of Revelation, you will live in a city. The only question is which one. And, until then, part of the Christian commission is to enter strategic earthly cities (Jerusalem, Samaria, and more), calling people there to join the Jerusalem above.

If God cares about cities, so should you! And, who knows? You just might discover that, like me, you enjoy the city, too!


I encourage you to visit the new blog Radi-Call, the project of some thoughtful and creative young Anabaptists who, as I understand it, became friends at Elnora Bible Institute. By happy providence (not human planning), their last post is called “Loving the City.” Author Seth Lehman covers some of the same ground I am plowing in these posts, and speaks eloquently.

Come back here soon for two more reasons why you should care about the city. Meanwhile, as always, share your responses in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World, Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1990), 293.

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