26 Jul 2006

God & the City

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Books, Contemporary Ethics, Ministry, Mission, Preaching

God and the City

Two hundred years ago in 1800 nearly 95% of the population of America lived in rural areas. Today this has drastically changed. According to the U.S. Census Bureau over 75% of Americans live in cities. This same reality is also true of the world as a whole. The world is becoming, or already is, urban!

The urbanization of America and the world has had a profound effect upon us – even though we are often unaware of it. Many of the tensions filling the Churches of Christ today are, in my opinion, not biblical in nature but related to conflicts between urbanism and ruralism.

But urban environments provide unique opportunities to serve God as well. The city, for example, has changed the way missions are done. We used to think one had to go to Africa, China or South America to be a missionary. But since we rarely sent any missionaries, God brought the people to us. Los Angles is now the second largest Mexican city in the world; New York is also one of the largest. God has brought the nations to us. Ministry in the city can change the world.

The Apostle Paul was an urban missionary. When we read the NT, do images of cow pastures come to our minds? If so then we have seriously misread the NT, especially Acts. Paul labored in some of the largest urban enviroments in the world of his day: Ephesus, Corinth, Athens, and Rome. These were urban megacities. Paul even taught in a city university for two years in Ephesus (Acts 9.9). For more on the city in early Christian life see either Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul or Bruce W. Winter’s Seek the Welfare of the City.

The Lord Jesus himself was familiar with cities. Though Jesus did talk about sheep and goats, he also used urban imagery. Jesus grew up in Nazareth a mere three miles from the sprawling urban center Sepphoris. It was a city on a hill that could not be hid! Jesus, more than likely, worked in this city while growing up. The Lord’s use of images from the city, especially the theater, are grounded in this setting (see Richard Batey, Jesus and the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus).

The city is daunting for sure. And some want to withdraw and abandon the city, especially the inner city. But we have never had the opportunity to impact more people with the Good News of the Gospel than in, and through, the city. God is the God of the city, too.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple

16 Responses to “God & the City”

  1. Bill Good Says:

    Bobby, I was reared in a metropolitan area of 500 persons more-or-less. When I left home at the ripe old age of 17 and went to work in a city, I thought that the cities were full of sin but not the countryside.
    That may have been true in the Forties but not today. America needs missionaries. Meth and crack knows no boundaries.
    The Stone-Campbell movement as a whole has neglected the cities. I have lived in Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, Canada and Metro-Portland. When at one time our division was the result of the Civil War, today’s division is as you say rural v. urban. Sadly, neither try to understand the other. The “Macedonian Call” still exists. But, who is listening?

  2. Alan Says:

    Good thoughts Bobby.

    I think that part of our problems are a reflection of the fact that many our understanding and practices were done at a time when most people lived agrarian lives. The way we gathered, the times we met were based on rural life cycles.Many of us now live in urban settings with very different rhythms of life. One was good for one culture isn’t always good for others. I have lived in both environments which probably explains my odd way of seeing things. I have to think we tried to apply agrarian thinking to urban problemes and it creates serious tensions.

    Even though I operated my grandfather’s small farm during the days following my high school graduation, I did not live life with a rural outlook simply because that is not the way I was raised. I grew up in big cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, and Seattle. My grandfather’s old Ford wagon was a functional hay hauler, but I could see hot rod. It ran and he thought it would be a waste of money to try and make it anything different.

    The teachings of Jesus I believe are organic and adaptable to any cultural situation we find ourselves. We run into problems when we try to force rural thinking into the gospel for urban folk, and urban thinking onto rural folk. We often force American ways of thinking on non-Americans. That does not mean we all can’t be one in the kingdom. If not then our god is too small.

    I am a Vietnam War vet, 2 tours. What was a culture shock soon gave way to learning about a different people. Who knew that a few years later, after I returned to civilian life that I would be presented with a ministry to Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese in my country in an urban environment. I was soon engulfed in teaching English using the Bible as well as teaching and preaching the good news of Jesus with the help of interpretors (a Cambodian on one side and a Laotian on the other). Going to a foreign land to learn how to be a missionary in an American city of a quarter of a million people. Who would have thought it.

    God has now put me in Portland, Oregon. Another urban center.


  3. cwinwc Says:

    Bobby –
    I never thought of Paul’s ministry as having a “urban” (except Romans) focus by what you said makes so much sense. Good thoughts.

    BTW – I was raised in the Baptist Church and I remember folks using terms like “country church” and “city church” to describe individual Baptist Churches. Ours was a self-proclaimed “country church” and one of it’s “distinctives” was the fact that our Pastor would never allow a (sorry Greg) guitar to be played during worship. A guitar was the sign of a “city church.”

  4. Mark Says:

    Good post, Bobby. People are definitely moving to the cities, and we have got to be aware of the missional opportunities around us. We are going to have to get over ourselves, and be willing to learn new languages and understand new cultures. Let’s hope we don’t dilly-dally for too long and miss out on these opportunities.

  5. Darin L. Hamm Says:

    What is next? I’m interested to hear what you have to say about what a church should do.

  6. Orange Grover Says:

    Woo Hoo! Keep us thinking! I love the idea that God has brought the nations to us!
    WayFarer’s Trek

  7. Velcro Says:

    Great Post, Bobby.

    I love the city. So many people in such a small area. What a great ministry opportunity.

  8. Mathew Says:

    I grew up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, specifically in North Saint Paul. I lived for many years in a rural area. I live various places in Polk and Burnett counties, Wisconsin.

    Life has changed since when I grew up. You still knew the people around you and could discuss different things. Now people keep more to themselves. People very seldom know the people in their area.

    In Paul’s day, it was possible to go to the marketplace and discuss about Jesus there. This was similar to when I was growing up. Now we need to tell people about Jesus. These people are usually not interested in what you have to say. More and more become upset if you try to discuss with them about Jesus.

    People are interested in spiritual things, though. They do not associate churches with spirituality. We need to see how to show our spirituality to others as expressed through Jesus’ body, the church.

  9. Danny Says:

    Right on bro V! We participate in our city’s inner-city ministry and struggle to staff our part.

  10. Jim Frost Says:

    Bobby: A great scratch on the surface of a very important subject.
    I don’t think Jesus intended for us to go out and find people just like us, anymore than he did.
    The church is about people, so shouldn’t we go to where the most people are.
    People are being reached in our cities, by the millions, by drug dealers, sex peddlers, and Christian teachers. It is a race to see who gets to the people, especially the youth, first. So let’s tie on our running shoes and go where the people are. The cows can take care of themselves.

  11. Ben Overby Says:

    It’s interesting that Jesus, by contrast, spent most of His ministry teaching in little farming or fishing villages, and in the hard-headed region of Galilee no less.

    As we look into our cities I think we’ll be overwhelmed if we don’t see them as a composition of smaller villages. Neihborhood’s aren’t what they used to be. Much has been written about the lack of community within our communities. I think this cultivates fertile ground for a gospel that’s rooted in Trinitarian community. People crave community, not religion, but community isn’t a church you visit a few times each week. If we can get our churches on the move, pushing out into the neighborhoods with house churches, simple churches, small groups, et. al., then we can model Trinitarian community for the lonely neighborhoods, spreading a warm and inviting glow within a world that knows it was made for relationships.
    We can evangelize the city, but we have to do it one tiny village at a time.

  12. Frank Bellizzi Says:

    Good thoughts and observations. You’re so right about the world being brought to us. This is occuring both in-person and by way of cyber space, the flattening of the world, etc.

    Re. immigration, I suspect that between NYC and a couple more North American cities, there are more Guyanese living out of their country than in it. If not, it’s close.

    The thing that I find frustrating is that, once the world arrives on our doorsteps, of necessity the immigrants create communities that turn out to be no less isolated from white American culture than the homeland. How do Christians break through?

  13. Blogging by Tina Says:

    Good thoughts as usual, Bobby!

  14. Dee O'Neil Andrews Says:

    Bobby –

    Very good post and I agree with you. I think Ben Overby is right on in his comments on reaching out to the small “villages” within the larger cities.

    “We can evangelize the city, but we have to do it one tiny village at a time.”

    When I was practicing law in New Orleans, I was always talking with other attorneys and people I met and worked with every day about Jesus and spiritual things and telling them about the wonderful fellowship I was part of. But the church I was with was out in the suburb we lived in (Slidell, Louisiana at the time) and was too far away for any of the people I talked with to come by part of it or to experience it.

    Thus, I tried my best to find fellowships and churches closer to where they lived to connect them with and I encouraged them to be part of those groups. At the same time, I was talking with our neighbors in the corner we lived on and people I met around town in Slidell when I was out and about and strongly encouraged them to come visit with us at Bayou Oaks c of C, as well.

    I saw the value in and need for reaching out to those close by where we lived. They were part of my own community and needed the community of the church, as well. I invited my neighbors across the street to come with us to Bayou Oaks and they did and were both baptized into Christ about 3 months later. But the main reason was not because I asked them to come (which is where we have to start, of course, on the other hand), but because of the wonderful fellowship and “community” of Christians they found when they got there. THAT was what appealed to them and made them come back and come to our small home group (that I happened to be having in our home at the time) on Sunday evenings and to bring their kids.

    We as Christians have got to start with people around us close by even in big cities, I think. We need to have fellowships that are conducive to people wanting to be part of them. We’ve got to be Jesus to all people and bring them hope and love and all they so desperately want and need. The things that Jesus brought and brings through us individually and as his body if we will but DO IT.

    I’ve always believed that our mission work as individual Christians begins with the people closest to us wherever we live or go. Sometimes our hardest work is to get other Christians around us on board, first, before we can reach out to others, but that shouldn’t necessarily stop US from reaching out.

    Just some thoughts this afternoon on the subject, but maybe from a little bit different perspective.

  15. Niki Says:

    Hello from an urban/city missionary. I’m from LaCrosse, WI, but my family and I now live in Denver, CO. We are part of a team ministry called Dry Bones. We work with the hundreds of homeless streetkids and young adults that populate the downtown city streets. One of the things we tell the youth groups that come to experience some of the life on the streets is this: We aren’t taking God to the poor and homeless – He is already there – and He’s waiting for us to join Him in His work. Check out our website sometime at http://www.drybonesdenver.org. America already has missionaries my friend!

    Unfortunately a lot of churches only want to send their money “overseas” because THAT is considered mission work. I’m very grateful that not all churches feel that way and though I would never want to take away from the good that is being done in the name of Jesus in other parts of the world, it’s hard being on the frontlines right here in the U.S. as well. All of us (our team) raise our own financial support to do what we do. We love what we do, so I’m not complaining. We have found that God does indeed provide so that we can provide as well. Yes, God is in the city – we see Him everywhere we go.

    Great discussion here!

  16. Anonymous Says:

    Excellent, love it! »

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