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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6 thoughts on “Why Should You Care about Cities? (1/3)”

  1. I actually find I’m falling in love w/ the city as well, though green, rural spaces are still a lovely, and necessary, occasional break. I realized that my perceptions have changed a bit a few days ago, when I learned that the city I was visiting at the moment had a population of around 5 million. My initial thought was something like “Oh, it’s really not all that big then!”

    A city’s a great place to see the glory of humanity and the brokenness of the world.

    At times, when the heat and the horns and the noise and the dust and the smog and the bugs and the traffic and the injustice and the chaos oppress, I think of George Macdonald’s poem Obedience. I first came across it in the years before moving, and for a long time couldn’t remember what the poem was. I was delighted to stumble across it again.

    1. My, what a deceptively “simple” poem, J. Thanks for sharing. That poem, and your situation, reminds me sharply that it can be rather misleading to talk of “the city,” as if all cities are alike. Truth is, each city is different, and some are very, very different from each other.

      I even notice this when comparing NYC and Atlanta; the former is a public transit city, the latter is a commuter city; the former is full of row houses and apartments; the latter has many more green yards and private driveways; etc. But the contrast is much, much greater when comparing either of these cities with, say, the London of George MacDonald’s time. Cities in his era, during the Industrial Revolution and after, were literally cesspools, full of human and animal waste and rampant with smog and disease. To move to a city was to court early death. As I said, his poem is deceptively simple; it might sound quaint and overly sentimental to our ears, but it was stark reality to him. And I suspect you share his experience to a greater degree than most of us urban dwellers here in America, too.

      Many blessings to you and your city, and thanks for the comment!

  2. While you are discussing this you could check out the observations on faith in the country vs faith in the city by Garrison Keillor just republished in the Leadership Journal Newsletter. Link http://lists.christianitytoday.com/t/418611711/15728367/601413/0/?c73c8e04=bGVhZGVyc2hpcC1odG1s&4f415564=MTU3MjgzNjc%3d&e5e2987d=NDE4NjExNzEx&x=151762f9 No need to post this on your blog just found it an interesting counterpoint based only on practical points.

    1. Interesting interview, Tim. In my mind, Garrison Keillor is an amazing story teller but, apparently increasingly, without a secure spiritual foundation. I rarely listen to him anymore, because I frankly don’t find him edifying.

      But he makes interesting observations and suggestions here, such as:

      “New Yorkers are terrific storytellers and have great stories of suffering and duress and how they have managed to survive these indignities. New York stories are about survival; they’re not about triumph. There is no triumph in the city. Maybe that makes them more Christian. Out in the West, hyperbole and bragging and exaggeration are part of so much of our stories.”

      And his implied warning not to see people merely as demographics and problems is also useful. Thanks for engaging.

  3. Dwight, certainly not lifting Keillor up very high but for practical observation of people he’s done well. I agree that God loves people and so cities will have His attention, but when we at the “story of cities” in Scripture it seems that God’s people have always done better out of cities than in them. Biblical faith, from my perspective of history, has not been preserved in the city but in the rural areas. It has gone back into the city, but in the end always succumbed to the pressure of assimilation from the time of the early church till now. In my observations of city ministries in Berlin, Germany; Washington DC; and Belize City the pressures of assimilation either erode the faith of the “missionary” or so constantly erode the new believers that discouragement finally wears down the church til it is barely hanging on, if that. I have yet to see personally, ( I would assume there are some) any examples of sustained second generation faithfulness in city churches except among the “missionaries” who have kept their families in close touch with their rural roots in a way that is not possible for those “pure” city dwellers they are trying to reach. Is there something about being so encompassed by what man has created, (including ideas) and not exposed enough to the revelation of God in His creation that shrivels most souls to impermiability? Does God really expect that all seed sown in cities lands on stony soil or is there a way of helping those who come to faith and their children be the good soil? How do you plan to work differently in Atlanta that might make that be more likely? Sorry for musing so long but I have long wondered what it would take, or if it is even possible, to have successive generational, obedient faith in the brokenness of cities.

    1. Tim, you have raised lots of questions, and they deserve a proper response. If I have time, I would like to devote a blog post to the question of whether faith can survive in the city. I don’t have all the answers to your questions, but I do think that enough people share your questions that I’d like to attempt at least some response, and in a place where more people may find it.

      Meanwhile, if you care to support the following statement with specific biblical evidence, that could help me understand you better: “When we [look] at the “story of cities” in Scripture it seems that God’s people have always done better out of cities than in them.” Good evidence would include the following:

      * Evidence about how well God’s people have retained faith in cities.
      * Evidence about how well God’s people have retained faith outside of cities.
      * A comparison of those two sets of evidence.
      * An examination of the above in both testaments, Old and New.

      Blessings, and thanks again for engaging!

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