Many Christian speakers, especially those from a similar school as Mark Driscoll, put a lot of emphasis on the cities these days. I believe it’s right for us to have a heart for the cities because Jesus has a heart for cities. Cities are like a magnet to anyone who loves people. There is an endless stream of people who you see every day. In a city you can never meet everyone. In a city, you can be in a crowd of people and still feel totally alone.
People wonder why cities are such unfriendly places, but the truth is, you simply can’t stop and say hello to everyone you pass in a city, still less, pause and have a conversation. If you want to be stared at, try breaking that city social convention and even smile at someone you are passing in the street. They may well look at you as if you are about to rob them.
This aspect of living in a city reminds me of my attempts to engage a McDonald’s server when out with my son. In a city, when faced with that kind of experience, you have a choice. You either join everybody else in retreating like a shocked tortoise into the warm, protective, comforting, secure environment of a well-developed shell, or you resolve to continue fighting that tendency. Of course, as a city dweller you will have to develop your shell, which is essential when your face is squashed into someone else’s smelly armpit on a rush-hour train. But please try and remember, you can poke your head out of your shell from time to time. It’s right for us as Christians to try and be nice to people. I gave a couple of examples of my more recent attempts at reaching out to people in the city at the beginning of the audio of my sermon on Psalm 121.
Whether we like it or not, the truth is that what happens in our cities is influential on the rest of our culture. The shapers and influencers tend to live in cities. Cities lead a nation. The cities do truly shape the culture. Driscoll claims that cities are “upstream,” and that a society is shaped by its producers of culture, who mostly live in cities. In the past Christianity was an urban movement and the cities led us towards godliness. Today, in both the UK and the USA, the church has become a rural phenomenon by and large as the cities have led the way in rejecting the gospel. Sadly, cities are now leading our nations astray. It’s time that this trend is reversed. I thank God for the many Christians faithfully serving him in towns and villages. But I wonder—is it time for us to think carefully about our strategy for reaching the nations? It is time that we called our cities to repentance.
There is no doubt in my mind that one of the best things we can do for the towns and villages is support the establishment of large churches in the cities. If we allow the perverse trend to continue that has led to Christianity becoming largely irrelevant in the cities, then we doom the Church to an ineffective existence, with the best that we can hope for being small pockets of success surrounding those churches which are growing within a town or village. Most towns have limited influence outside of themselves, except perhaps on nearby villages or other local towns. Cities influence whole nations and beyond. A good city church should spill over into planting other churches around it, and even distant from it. It is not an accident that in the New Testament we find Paul planting reproducing churches in all the major cities of a region, and then saying, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions” (see the whole of Romans 15 for the context).
City people are different from country people. They have a tendency as a group to hold their opinions more aggressively, and be more anti-God, so you will see more opposition. They don’t respond as well to church fetes and other community building activities, or at least not all of them. They are more likely to find a church from a billboard or an Internet website than country folk. Still, having seen such an advert makes them more likely to say yes to that invite from a friend, which remains the best way of growing our churches. The trouble is, city folk may not have many friends. In a city it seems to be less about the building than in the country. A village church can be the center of the community, even for unbelievers. In a city, a church can grow large without a traditional building of its own. Schools and even theaters can be quickly transformed into church meeting places.
When you live in a city, you join a tribe that is mobile. You find people moving from one city to another with alarming speed. That movement could be for a quick business trip, a month of training, or two years or more of work placement. It’s no use trying to persuade such people to stay in a city; they won’t feel loyalty to the local that is felt by many in the country. There are many cities of Europe I can fly to more quickly than I can drive to parts of my own country. Many people living in cities feel much more connected to cities in other nations than they do to the rural areas of their own country.
Cities are such transient places that they need—even more than towns and villages—churches that will provide some stability for them. Those churches need a core of people who have bucked the trend and decided firmly that they are staying for the long haul. Could you be one such person? Is God calling you to move from a village to a city and settle there? Can you establish a community in a place where everything about life is fighting to disintegrate that sense of togetherness? Are you called to be a part of a church plant, or maybe even to lead one? Are you called to commit to putting down some roots and bringing stability to a church within a city? Are you called to engage in culture-changing activities within the so-called “secular space” of the influential workplaces of the city? Will you be one of the laborers our cities so desperately need?