A New Kind of Urban Ministry
Christians no longer just want their communities fixed. They want them flourishing.
It is, without a doubt, the most surprising large-scale cultural shift in my lifetime.
Not that long ago, cities were places few people wanted to be. Across the northern United States, from Seattle to Pittsburgh, urban cores declined as industry and people decamped to sunnier climates. In the new South, the growth was in the greenfields of the suburbs, not the largely forgotten city centers. In the 1970s, you could drive down Atlanta's Peachtree Street and watch discarded newspapers float like tumbleweed past the storied Fox Theater.
Today those cities, and many more, are thriving in ways no one predicted a generation ago. Cities are the destination of choice for many young adults (at least, those who can find a job that will pay the outrageous rents that city-center landlords can demand) and the hub of revivals in food, architecture, and entrepreneurship.
Indeed, many suburbs are now taking cues from the walkable, mixed-use economic and social fabric of cities woven before the automobile. As a teenager, I had to trek all the way from my quiet suburban town to Harvard Square to find a coffee shop. Now that experience is as ubiquitous as it is standardized. Most Americans still live in suburbs—true for all ethnic groups and most income groups too—but our markers of the good life are increasingly urban. This is just as well, because more and more of us live in places defined by the density and diversity that are the hallmark of a city.
The best news about Christians and the city? The church never left, even when the city was at its worst.
Of course, there is a shadow side to these trends. First, not every city is thriving, and every American city still has dangerous and difficult sections. On the other hand, decline and danger are no longer hallmarks of cities—they have challenged countless suburbs and rural areas as well. Today the tumbleweed newspapers are more likely to blow past foreclosed homes in the Atlanta exurbs than the gleaming condos around the Fox Theater. Just as population and prosperity once associated with the suburbs have returned to the cities, so the challenges of the city have moved to the suburbs.
Second, thriving is in the eye of the beholder. When Jesus' disciples approached Jerusalem, one of them said to their teacher, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" (Mark 13:1). Jesus' reply was searing: "Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." Days earlier, at the sight of the Jerusalem skyline, Jesus had wept, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace!" (Luke 19:42). He understood that prosperity is different from peace—that rich and resonant Hebrew word shalom that is perhaps best translated "comprehensive flourishing." And prosperity is very thin without posterity—a lasting legacy of flourishing. In an age where wealth can flow in and out of economies, and cities, with astonishing speed, our cities may be thriving only in the thinnest of senses.
But there is something profoundly right and hopeful about the rebirth of the American city. Cities, after all, concentrate more divine image-bearing per square inch than any other form of habitation. After the Fall, true, all image-bearing is accompanied by idol-making. But America's renewed cities, and our culture's renewed interest in what makes for thriving places, are an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the biblical mission that is meant to prepare us for the city whose builder and maker is God.
Exodus, Exile, and Expectation
The best news about Christians and the city? The church never left, even when the city was at its worst. Famously, in many struggling urban neighborhoods the only functioning institutions are churches and liquor stores. To be sure, a certain number of churches left with their members to the suburbs two generations ago, and no one seized the suburban opportunity more vigorously than evangelicals.
But most black churches stayed put in their old neighborhoods even when many of their members had left. International arrivals started their own churches in neighborhoods (and buildings) other Christians had vacated. A whole generation of community development-oriented pioneers, inspired by Dr. John Perkins, planted roots in the toughest urban locations through the darkest days of the 1980s and 1990s. In May 1992, I arrived at Penn Station in Manhattan on a Thursday afternoon just as (overwhelmingly white) commuters were fleeing based on unfounded rumors that the riots in the wake of the Rodney King beating verdict were coming to New York. I spent that weekend at prayer meetings in every borough, and at every one the churches were packed with lifelong New Yorkers and new arrivals. They were all there long before New York was so cool—committed to prayer, mission, and the flourishing of the city.
What gave Christians this kind of staying power? Some were sustained by the story of the Exodus, which has given strength to generations of Christians who find themselves under the thumb of one Pharaoh or another. The words of the Negro spiritual, "Free at last!" ring true wherever people are tempted to despair over intractable social conditions.
More recently, though, many urban Christians have recognized that the model of Exodus, with its emphasis on escape, can sometimes justify disdain for the places and people we find ourselves among. Surely a move to the suburbs has seemed like liberation for many urbanites, but the Exodus paradigm is limited when it justifies washing our hands of responsibility for Egypt. There is another equally significant model in the pages of the Old Testament—the stories of Exile. While the exilic prophets never gave up promising a return to the Promised Land, they also exhorted the exiles that exile was an opportunity for faithfulness and mission. Jeremiah's injunction to seek the peace of the city where God had sent his people (Jer. 29) has become a touchstone for a generation of urban Christians.
The Old Testament models of Exodus and Exile are valuable in reminding us that "we have here no lasting city." It is especially helpful to embrace the lessons of Exile, with its radical suggestion that even when God's people sojourn among neighbors who want nothing to do with God, they should actively seek their neighbors' flourishing.
Yet Exile takes us only so far as a model for Christian faithfulness today. There is one overwhelmingly obvious difference between the Hebrew exiles and Christ-followers in 21st-century cities: the Hebrew exiles were captives. Churches in every American city, on the other hand, are full of proud citizens and hardworking visitors, not captives. Most of us are not hapless exiles; we are purposeful arrivals.
In such a situation, the metaphor of Exile is quite misleading. Exiles have little responsibility for the powers that be. Even the Daniels and Esthers who rise to the heights of power are always marked as outsiders. But what if God's people were among the insiders—as, in a liberal democracy, every citizen is to some extent? What if the God-fearer is not just deputy assistant to the mayor, but the mayor himself or the one to whom the mayor is legitimately accountable? At that point, the language of Exile starts to ring hollow.
Is there a biblical model, then, that describes better the situations of churches and Christians in cities today—that retains the valuable features of Exodus and Exile while accounting for our responsibility for our communities? Yes, and it is rooted in the 50 days that make us Christians—from Resurrection, through Ascension, to Pentecost. This story redefines our relationship not just to God but to our world. It is a story summed up in one word, Expectation, that keeps us rooted in and responsible for the flourishing of the world precisely because we have a hope outside of history in the usual sense.
Resurrection anchors this story. The exiles had Isaiah's words of hope for future restoration. But in Jesus' resurrection, the restoration of all things has already begun—it is not just future, but here in its earliest stages. It is not only possible, but achieved. Resurrection empowers us to live infinitely more boldly than exiles who wait to see whether God will come through.
The Ascension is a crucial element of Expectation. That the risen Jesus no longer is confined to a single place or time means that he is Lord over every place and time. The fact that our humanity is represented in the very presence of God means that none of us has an excuse for taking our humanity lightly. But the fact that Jesus is absent, enthroned in heaven but not yet recognized as Lord of creation, calls for a profound dependence on God. "Is now the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" Jesus' disciples asked him after his resurrection. This is the hope of Empire, another possible biblical line of thought—the hope that the work of restoring the world will be finished straightaway, with people like us in control.
For whatever reason—and quite literally only God knows—that is not the way restoration is meant to happen. Rather than an imperial takeover, Jesus commissions his people for what has turned out to be a lengthy and thorough process of bearing witness to his lordship—but also one that has touched vastly more nations than one people group in Palestine. Jesus wants every place, not just Jerusalem, to be restored to flourishing, full of thriving bearers of God's image.
The Ascension, with its hope both fulfilled and delayed, calls us to a discipleship that our dreams of Empire would not. Indeed, it calls us to wait for a power beyond ourselves—the power that comes at Pentecost. Amid Pentecost, the far-flung first apostles find themselves witnessing, and suffering, in marketplaces and palaces, inside synagogues and outside temples—spread like leaven through all the institutions of the ancient world.
When we say "this is our city," then, we are staking a claim to a certain kind of Christian responsibility. Not the plundering flight of those in exodus, but a tenacious commitment to increasing the deepest well-being of the cultures we inhabit, as we testify to the one who secured that well-being with his own self-giving love. Not the dream of displacing one people with another, but the recognition that every nation is the object of God's saving purposes. Not the chastened diligence of exiles captive to an earthly power, but the eager investment of those sent to a place by the Spirit's power, graced with more resources than they deserve and a longer view of the world's story than anyone else could imagine.
From Charity to Comprehensive Flourishing
This kind of vision will require new kinds of civic engagement. For generations Christians have been providing charity for those who suffer most from the idolatries and injustices that cities concentrate. The "rescue mission" model of Christian charity has restored dignity to countless people who otherwise might have been lost or forgotten.
The community-development model, however, looked beyond individual cases of acute need to ask what it would take to restore whole neighborhoods. In communities where this model has been pursued wholeheartedly, it has borne amazing fruit. At Christianity Today, we've had the privilege of covering this patient, courageous cultural transformation many times, and will continue to do so.
But precisely because the community-development movement has focused on neighborhoods that have lost access to the institutions that sustain comprehensive flourishing, it sometimes has left other parts of the city unaddressed. It is not just tough urban neighborhoods that need shalom. What would bring comprehensive flourishing to those who commute in and out of the city every day? What would bring it to neighborhoods where high housing prices create a monoculture of affluence? What would bring it to law firms, hospitals, and universities?
These, too, are part of the city, and to neglect Christian presence there to focus on the most obviously broken parts of society may mean missing the much greater vision of Expectation. As Katelyn Beaty reports in our feature on Portland, addressing a problem like commercial sexual exploitation requires not just charity and direct service, not just attention to a few blighted neighborhoods, but creative leadership throughout law, business, and education. It requires Christians to take up their calling as bearers of shalom in every neighborhood and every one of the city's structures.
All this prompts the multiyear project we are calling This Is Our City. We want to explore this new urban landscape, and the stories of Christians who are seeking comprehensive flourishing within it. The six cities we are profiling in print and online differ dramatically from one another in size, economic climate, and ethnic and racial composition, and in their history of Christian presence, leadership or abdication, at crucial moments. But they all have stories worth telling. Wherever we live, we can learn something from these cities about faithfulness to our own place.
We hope that as you read these articles, watch these films, and create your own responses—at ThisIsOurCity.org—you'll have in mind the seventh city covered by This Is Our City: your own. Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem, died for Jerusalem, rose from a tomb in Jerusalem, and ascended from a hill outside Jerusalem, now commissions us to live that same crucified-and-risen life in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities. For it is in these confusing and exhilarating places, where image-bearing and idol-making intermingle, that we can most wholeheartedly join the prayer of those first expectant followers: Come, Lord Jesus.