People rarely have neutral feelings about cities – they tend to love cities or hate them.
It is easy to see why. Cities bring out the best of us and expose the worst in us. The energy and vibrancy of cities stir creativity, music, art, design, entrepreneurial spirit, and even community – things of true beauty. But it is in our cities that we are confronted with deep brokenness that leads to poverty, crime, substance abuse, disregard for others, homelessness, and hopelessness. Cities are both authentic and gritty.
When I was in high school and college, it was common for people to move to "The City" (meaning Oklahoma City) to seek “fame and fortune.” Young adults still flock to cities for the positives and often ignore or avoid the negatives. The city serves their desires, but these fortune-seekers are quick to take and slow to give back. People like this flit around in the safe spaces; guarding their eyes and their hearts against the pain around them. Others reject cities all together -- denouncing the good with the bad. As a Christian, I find all of these approaches lacking.
I truly love cities, but not just for the good aspects. I remain committed to cities because of the call of God on my life -- I am here more for the brokenness than the beauty. Rather than moving to the city to find fortune and ease, Christians should engage their cities with complete love and dedication; giving themselves away for the Gospel
Cities are easily misunderstood and quickly misjudged. People often take one aspect of a city and project that one thing onto the whole city. When I share that I am from New Orleans the responses are telling. Some talk fondly of long nights partying on Bourbon Street – something I have never done. Some assume that my neighborhood (Gentilly Terrace) is just like Bourbon Street. Others express fear based on crime and poverty. A few people cut straight to the rich culture – food, music, and art – areas where New Orleans really shines. Rarely do these people talk about my favorite part of New Orleans – the people.
While not exhaustive, the following biblical principles should inform the Christian approach to cities. These principles put the value on people and their need for a relationship with Christ.
In Matthew 23:37-39, we find Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem. Jesus isn’t worried about the Temple, the Pool of Siloam, or even the Roman occupation. His lament is for the lostness of the people and ours should be too.
Are we willing to risk our hearts by immersing ourselves in cities? It is much easier to curse the darkness and walk away than it is to genuinely care. It always costs you something to love the way Jesus loves, even if it is only our own comfort. I believe people are worth that cost.
Paul called the members of the church at Corinth – living in a city known for all sorts of sinful behaviors -- to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). This same ministry of reconciliation is evident in Jesus’ last words before His ascension – the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). Our primary goal as believers, wherever we are planted, is to spread the Gospel message. Christian also play a role in alleviating suffering and prophetically opposing evil in our cities. Our loving mercy ministries flow directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5) and illustrate how we have been changed by the Gospel. Still, Gospel proclamation and mercy ministries should not be at odds. If we truly understand the finality of a person’s separation from God, we will never downplay the importance of evangelism.
Paul’s time in Athens, Corinth, Damascus, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Rome, Thessalonica, and other cities illustrates his concern for cities. And it is just common sense that population centers are strategic places to share the Gospel. Paul didn’t just play it safe when he came to town and was often persecuted for the Gospel. Paul even preached to the elite on Mars Hill in Athens.
Putting aside the fears and reservations and taking on the hassles of cities won’t be easy - especially for those who are new to cities. I didn’t grow up in a city. In fact, I didn’t even grow up in a village. Home was on a small sheep farm 17 miles from Calvin, Oklahoma – a town of 325 people. We were 17 miles from school, 17 miles from church, and after the grocery store in Calvin closed, we were at least 25 miles from a grocery store.
God had to do a work in my life to get me ready for city life. If God can do that for me, He can do it for anyone He is calling to the cities.
Gary Myers is the director of communications at NOBTS/Leavell College, and he blogs at GaryDMyers.com.