This article was originally posted in The Great Commission Magazine of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can find the online edition here.
A generation ago, the ideal life was lived in the suburban confines of picket fences and gated communities. The term “urban” once referred to the poor, minority neighborhoods that remained in the densely populated city centers after white flight made the suburbs the destination of choice. Soon, the city center was branded as the “inner city” and “urban” was the adjective of choice for high crime, low income, poor education and minorities.
In response, suburban churches across America began to speak of urban ministry. It was the largely affluent suburban church’s call to charity for those less fortunate than us who lived in the inner city. Like so many other branded ministries, urban ministry became a thing we did instead of a lifestyle we lived. Urban ministry meant parachuting into the inner city for a day, painting some houses, playing basketball with some kids, and retreating just in time to enjoy family dinner around the dining room table. Certainly, this was well-intentioned, but unfortunately it was an inadequate response. Now, it is even more so.
Today the city has changed, and so have the needs. Urban was once a pejorative, but now it is a label to be celebrated. North America’s urban centers are seeing an economic and social renewal that is completely changing the face of the city center. Millennials are trading in their picket fence for a fire escape on a high rise, and it is once again good to be urban. Furthermore, the second great wave of immigration is filling urban centers with peoples from all over the globe. Refugee resettlement and immigration are happening more than ever. There is indeed a “new urban.”
Simply put, the negative connotations of “urban” need to be put to rest. Urban does not mean social needs ministry to the poor or minority peoples. Instead, we need to realize that the urban landscape is a rich tapestry of peoples: some rich, some poor, some black, some white, and some from all over the world. No, urban is not a kind of ministry; it is a place. An urban setting is one where a plurality of peoples live, work and play in varied social circles that occupy the same geographic space. Urban centers have always been hubs for culture. Now, they are hubs for a spectrum of cultures, all overlapping one another. If you want to understand the new urban, think in layers. Urban means layers of people, cultures and religions. And with new urban dynamics come new responsibilities for local churches.
We are called to go and make disciples. The Great Commission sends us to all places and all peoples. Paul first took the church to the cities, and few places are as strategic for that mission today. We must thoughtfully consider how churches enter into the new urban. Local churches must learn to witness from within the urban centers. This means more than field trips. It means residing and abiding in the heart of the city. It means planting churches and revitalizing existing ones. The gospel needs a witness in our cities. Looking in from the outside simply will not do.
Is everyone called to sell their house and move into the city? No. But Christ compels us to the cities, and that means some of us must go. We are called to the nations, and the nations have come to us. Perhaps it is time we tear down our picket fences and meet our new neighbors.