Tim Keller Redeemer Presbyterian Church

Why the City?
A. Urbanization In 1950 New York was the only world city with a population of over 10 million people. Today, however, there are over 20 such cities, twelve of which have arrived in the last two decades, with many more to come. All of these new giant mega-cities are developing in what used to be called the “Third World.” Why? In the 18th century a combination of population growth and technology brought rural Europe to its "carrying capacity", creating a surplus population. In every family there were those who needed to leave the countryside and small towns to make a living elsewhere. As a result there were 150 years of urbanization in which the great cities of Europe swelled to be the largest in the world. Many experts now believe this is beginning to happen in Africa, Asia, and to a lesser extent in Latin America, where the cities are literally exploding with new immigrants from the villages and rural areas. If urban-rural population in the southern hemisphere stabilizes at 75%-25% as it did in Europe and North America, then over the next few decades we will see over half a billion people move into the cities of Africa and Asia alone – i.e. one new Bangkok (8 million people) every two months.1 It is this urban explosion that has been the main vehicle, in the providence of God, for the most important new development in Christian history in centuries. While Christianity has declined in Europe and has only held its own (at best) in North America, it has been growing at many times the rate of population in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Now the majority of Christians live south of the equator. Christianity is growing more rapidly than any other faith, but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European nor Euro-American.2 Why? It is because of the staggering growth in cities. The millions of newcomers to burgeoning cities have characteristics that make them far more open to Christianity than they were before arriving. First, they are more open to new ideas and change in general, having been uprooted from traditional settings. Second, they have great need for help and support in order to face the moral, economic, emotional, and spiritual pressures of city life. The old kinship support networks of the rural areas are weak or absent, while the cities have “next to nothing in working government services.”3 Churches offer supportive community, a new spiritual family, a liberating gospel message.
This assertion and everything in the preceding paragraph are taken from the Economist article “The Brown Revolution” (May 9, 2002). 2 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2002), p.2. 3 Jenkins, p. 93.


“Rich pickings await any groups who can meet these needs of these new urbanites, anyone who can at once feed the body and nourish the soul.”4 B. Globalization The technological/communication revolution has led to an unprecedented mobility of people, ideas, and capital which is often called ‘globalization.’ First this means that major world cities are far more connected to other major cities around the world than they are to their own nations. On the one hand, the “business class” and other elites of New York, London, and Tokyo are able to identify more with one another than with the nonurban citizens of their own countries.5 But the strong connections between major cities are not only through the 'elites'. Huge, diverse immigrant populations in global cities tie each urban area more tightly to scores of other countries around the world than to its own regional locale. In other words, thousands of residents of NYC are far more connected to the Philippines, Haiti, Columbia, China, and Nigeria then they are to New Jersey or Connecticut. Second, these networked world-cities are becoming more economically and culturally powerful than the national governments of their geographical regions. Why is this? 1) The mobility of capital means national governments are now virtually powerless to control the flow of money in and out of their own economies, thus greatly decreasing their influence in general. The cities are the seats of multi-national corporations and international economic, social, technological networks. 2) The technology/ communication revolution means that national governments are powerless also to control what their people watch or learn. (This was a major factor in the collapse of communism in Europe.) As a result, it is the culture/values set of world-class cities that is now being transmitted around the globe to every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. A major city like New York or Los Angeles now is far more influential in forming the culture of residents in, say, rural Indiana or rural Mexico than are the national or local governments or civic institutions. We now have the overall major erosion of nation-state power in 800 years. Harvie Conn concludes that we are witnessing again the rise of the 'City-State". He quotes N. Pierce: “Great metropolitan regions...not states, not even the nation-states--are starting to emerge as the world’s most influential players.” (p.182) Thus, world-class cities are increasingly crucial to setting the course of culture and life as a whole, even in the areas of the world (Europe and North America) where cites are not literally growing in size.6 In other words, urban culture now reaches out far beyond the city limits into the suburbs and even rural areas. Kids in Iowa or even Mexico are becoming more like young adults in L.A. and New York City than they are like adults in their own locales. The coming world ‘order’ will be a global, multi-cultural, urban order. Sum: If anything, the city is even more influential now than it has been in the past. During the last 20 years we see increasingly in the ‘developed’ world that the young and the global citizens/ influencers want to live in cities. Meanwhile, in the less developed world, people are streaming by the millions out of the hinterlands and into the city. James Boice in Two Cities: Two Loves (pp.165ff.) suggests that if even ten percent of the evangelicals of the nation moved into the largest cities and lived out lives of love, truth, and servanthood, the culture would be fundamentally changed. The gospel alone can give us the humility ("I have much to learn from the city"), the confidence ("I have much to give to the city") and the courage ("I have nothing to
4 5

Jenkins, p. 94. See Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton U., 1991). 6 Harvie Conn, The American City and the Evangelical Church (Baker, 1994), pp.181-182.


fear from the city") to be effective in the city. Most Christians avoid the city because it is so filled with ‘the other.’ C. The Biblical Mandate 1. Old Testament - God invents the city -- so, as the city goes, society goes. God tells Adam and Eve to "have dominion", develop the earth, to bring forth the riches God put in nature (and human nature) at creation. A call to engage in the arts, science, enterprise, family life--to develop a civilization and society under God. But Adam and Eve soon failed their commission to be servants of God, cultivating creation under his Lordship. Instead, Jesus Christ comes as the "new Adam". He becomes the head of a new humanity who creates a world under God. But when we look ahead to the ultimate fruit of the work of the new Adam--in Revelation 2122--when we catch a glimpse of the climax of history, when the world is finally in the condition Jesus died to produce, we discover that the earth has become a city. God begins history in a garden, but he ends it in a city! In the middle of the City-to-Come we see the tree of life! Why? This is paradise restored. God's future world is urban. When God said, "develop the earth" he intended for Adam and Eve to build a city. Even today, in our broken world, cities continue to be the main way that the culture develops. As the city goes, so the arts, scholarship, communication, philosophy, commerce, etc. goes. From the beginning, cities have been centers of cultural power. Changes develop in the city and from there flow out into regions of city influence. Why? At the center of cities has traditionally been some common space--called a ‘town square’ or ‘marketplace’--that served as both a place for and a symbol of how people make commercial, political, social, and cultural connections in cities. In cities the number and diversity of human connections outstrips the possibilities for such anywhere else. (As testimony of this fact, the purpose of a convention is connection--a place people make connection with expertise, peers, money, and other resources--but the best way to facilitate these connections is to create a temporary city!) All the connections lead in the end to creativity--new alliances, new ideas, new art, and new movements. This is the third reason people who don't live in a city are at a disadvantage. They are marginal to the centers, the places of "cultural forging." How the city determines society/culture: The divinely-given ability of the city to do ‘culturemaking’ can be discerned at the most practical level by the urban resident. The city puts me together with unique numbers of people unlike me. The city attracts the minorities of any society who can band together for mutual support. Thus the city is deeply merciful to those with less power, creating safe enclaves for singles vs. families, the poor (and even the rich!) vs. the bourgeois, immigrants vs. longer-term residents, racial minorities vs. majorities. Thus the city will always be the most diverse human-life structure. Because I am put together (by its density) with unique numbers of diverse people, all my thinking and views are radically challenged. I am confronted with creative new ways to think about things, and I must abandon my traditional ways or become far more knowledgeable and committed to them than I was before. Thus I become vastly more creative, committed, skillful in all I am or do. Sin takes this divine-strength--the diversity of the city--and turns it into a place (also) of conflict and strife. The gospel is needed to resist the dark side of this gift.


The city puts me together with unique numbers of people like me. The city also attracts the strongest as well as the weakest (see above). The challenge of the city attracts the most talented, ambitious, (and restless, see below). Thus, whoever you are, when you come to the city you are confronted by far more people who are far better than you at whatever you do. Because I am put together with unique numbers of like-but-extremely skilled people in my field, I am radically challenged to 'reach down deep' and do my very best. More than that, I feel driven and pressed by the intensity of the density to realize every ounce o my potential. Sin takes this divine-strength--the culture-forming intensity--and turns it into a place (also) of both deadly hubris and burn-out. The gospel is needed to resist the dark side of this gift. Cities draw and gather together human resources and tap their potential for cultural development as no other human-life organizations structure can. 2. New Testament - God sends to cities--as urban ministry goes, national mission goes. Wayne Meeks The First Urban Christians and John Stott’s commentary on Acts point out how the ministry of the early Christians was remarkably city-centric. Paul's missionary journeys essentially ignored the countryside. When he entered a new region, he planted churches in the biggest city, and then left! Why? The reason for ministry in cities mirrors what we've seen about the nature of cities. He knew that once he’d reached the city he’d reached the society and culture. Meeks explains why it was so brilliant to target cities. Cultural cruciality. In the village, you might win the one or two lawyers to Christ, but if you wanted to win the legal profession, you need to go to the city where you have the law schools, the law journals published, etc. Global cruciality. In the village, you can win only the single people group that is there, but if you want to spread the gospel into 10-20 new national groups/and languages at once, you go to the city where they can all be reached through the one lingua franca of the place. Personal cruciality. In the village little changes and people live in very stable environments. Thus they are suspicious of any major change. Because of the diversity and intensity of the cities, urbanites are much more open to radically new ideas--like the gospel! Because they are surrounded by so many people like and unlike themselves (see above), and so much more mobile and subject to change, urbanites are far more open to change/conversion than any other kind of resident. They may have moved to the city out of a searching restlessness. But even if not, once they get to the city, the pressure and diversity makes even the most traditional and hostile people open to the gospel. Result? By year 300 AD, 50% of the urban populations of the Roman empire were Christian, while over 90% of the countryside was still pagan. (Note: Some believe that the very word "pagan" comes from the Greek paganus meaning a farmer or man of the country.) Because Christianity captured the cities, it eventually captured the society, as must always be the case. What captivates the cities also captivates the art, media, scholarship and the professions. Cities are the "culture forming wombs" of the society, made by God to be so. Rodney Stark looks at why Christianity spread so rapidly, and it was because the cities also had more social problems, and the love and service of Christians, the family life and character of Christians, was so striking. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as real hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachment. To cities filled with widows

and orphans, Christianity offered a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity...I am not saying the misery of the ancient world caused the advent of Christianity...people had been enduring for centuries without the aid of Christian theology or social structures. I am arguing that once Christianity did appear, its superior capacity for meeting human problems soon became evident and played a major role in its ultimate triumph...for what Christianity brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture. (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, p.161) 3. God's Urban Alternative When Israel made Jerusalem its capital, God directed that the temple be built on Zion, an elevation within the city, so that it rose above the city as its 'skyscraper'. But unlike the skyscrapers of the "city of man", designed for their builders own prosperity (e.g. the skyscraper of Babel built "to make a name for ourselves"-Gen 11:4) God's city is different. "In the city of our God, his holy mountain is beautiful in elevation--the joy of the whole earth." (Psalm 48:2) The urban society God wants is based on service not selfishness, and on bringing joy to the whole world with its cultural riches, not just the individuals within it. Jesus probably had Psalm 48:2 in mind when he spoke to his disciples and said to them: "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill..." (Matthew 5:14). Jesus calls his disciples to form a society that is an alternate city within the city. A mini-city where sex, money, and power are used in life-giving ways. A mini-city where people who cannot get along outside can get along inside. A center where artists show it is possible to produce cultural products that bring hope to people rather than just despair and titillation. Somebody might ask: “But can't Christians be an alternate city out in the suburbs?” Well, of course. Absolutely. I have just discovered over my years in New York that it is considerably easier to show the world God's urban alternative in an actual human city. In racially homogeneous towns it is pragmatically harder to show how the gospel uniquely undermines racial barriers (Ephesians 2:11ff). In places where fewer artists live it is pragmatically harder to show the gospel's effect on art. In economically homogeneous places, physically removed from the human poverty that is so pervasive in the world, it is pragmatically harder for Christians to realize how much money they are spending on themselves. 4. Global Cities and the Mission of the Church What are the implications for mission? First, reach the city to reach the world. In general, missions should concentrate more on cities than on anywhere else. I think the evidence is overwhelming and obvious for this. This of course is no argument for neglecting any particular people group or part of the world. The church needs to minister the gospel wherever there are people! But many of the current ‘unreached people groups’ in remote areas of the world may be gone within twenty years (into the cities!) The problem is that white evangelical Protestants who control the U.S. mission apparatus are themselves overwhelmingly non-urban in background. They neither understand nor like urban life. But It may be helpful to those who harbor misgivings about cities...to reflect on the fact that urbanization as a present fact of life for most of the human family is a reality under the providential control of God. In Acts 17:26-27 the apostle Paul observes: “...he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Viewed in light of these verses, city growth is


not something to be perceived as entirely the work of the devil, but as part of God’s providential plan in history. God’s redemptive purpose behind urban growth is that ‘men should seek him and reach out for him’. By means of these enormous gatherings of people, God provides the church with one of history’s greatest opportunities for evangelization. Pressed together in metropolises, the races, tribes, and diverse people groups are geographically more accessible than ever before. In some cases the processes of change that new urbanites pass through make them more receptive to the gospel. If this is the case, world urbanization should be viewed in an eschatological as well as missionary framework. God in our time is moving climactically through a variety of social, political, and economic factors to bring earth’s peoples into closer contact with one another, into greater interaction and interdependence, and into earshot of the gospel. By this movement God carries forward his redemptive purposes in history. A sign of our time is the city. Through worldwide migration to the city God may be setting the stage for Christian mission’s greatest and perhaps final hour.7 Second, reach the city to reach both your region and ‘overseas.’ The old distinction between 'home-missions' and 'foreign-missions' is made obsolete by global cities--and yet the city is more than ever the key to both! One urban church in Queens has planted three daughter churches: one in neighboring College Point, one in the neighboring Bronx, and one in the neighboring Philippines! Why? The church reached so many Filipino immigrants in its neighborhood that the new Christians wanted to plant a daughter church among their friends and relatives in their country of origin. Each major city is now a 'portal' to most of the nations of the world. That is where they must be reached. But not only are cities the key to what used to be called 'foreign missions', but they are the key to 'home missions'. You can't reach the urban centers from the suburbs, but you can most definitely reach the suburbs from the city. Regional people-flow is from the urban center outward. Students grow up, singles get married, immigrants make money and want more space--and all of them move out from the center to the suburbs. Ministries that begin and thrive in the city will eventually spread all through the suburbs, following their converts out to their new neighborhoods. But ministries that begin in the suburbs only reach inward toward the city center with great difficulty. Third, reach the city to reach ‘the culture.’ As we have seen, cities more than ever influence the culture and values of the world. The single most effective way for Christians to influence the culture of a nation is to have large numbers of them stay in cities and simply “be the church” there. Also, for all the reasons noted above, we would find increasingly that ministry which is effective in a world-class city has remarkably wide applicability, especially with the emerging generations. (See more on this in part 2 below.) Fourth, reach the whole city to reach the world. As we have seen, there is no part of the city that can be neglected. First, the poor cannot be neglected, because God has always worked mightily among the urban poor. 'Word' and 'deed' ministry will have to be combined, both in ministries to Christians within the community and outside of it. The church's attitude toward and work with the poor will be a significant sign of its validity to others. Second, the immigrants-the 'nations'--cannot be neglected, because they are far more open to (and more conscious of their need for) gospel ministry than they ever were in their homeland. Third, the 'elites' cannot be neglected, because they are disproportionately powerful and must be called to use their educational, economic, and cultural power for the service of others and the Lord. The church in the city must show its concern for the peace of the whole city (Jer 29:7).

Roger Greenway, "World Urbanization and Missiological Education", in Missiological Education for the Twenty-First Century: Essays in Honor of Paul Pierson (Orbis, 1996).


Fifth, reach the whole city to reach your own heart with the gospel. In the city you'll find many things that will challenge your grasp of the gospel. You will find many people that seem 'hopeless' to you spiritually and morally. But if the gospel of grace is true, why would you think that their conversion be any more a miracle than your own? You will find people of other religions and of no religion who are wiser, kinder, and deeper than you. Even after growth in grace, lots of Christians are weaker people than lots of non-Christians. But if the gospel of grace is true, why did you think that Christians are basically 'better' kinds of people than nonChristians? After a while these and other examples will begin to show you that even though you may intellectually understand the doctrine of justification by faith alone, you functionally assume salvation by moral goodness and works. Early in Redeemer’s ministry we discovered that it was not enough for Christians to feel pity or even just affection for the city. Staff and leaders had to humbly learn from and respect New York City and its people. Our relationship with the people of Manhattan had to be a consciously reciprocal one. We had to see God's 'common grace' in them. We had to learn that we needed them to fill out our own understanding of God and his grace, just as they needed us for the same. We had to be energized and enriched by the city, not just drained by it. Even Jesus so united his heart with the people he ministered to that he 'needed' their friendship (Matt.26:3641). Ministry in the city, then, will help you grasp the gospel of grace in powerful ways. You may even come to see that you spiritually need the city more than the city needs you. 5. Christians and Cities Christians complain ‘we are losing the culture’, but relatively tiny social groups who live disproportionately in cities have far more influence on the culture than evangelical Christians who live disproportionately outside of cities. Jim Boice (in his book Two Cities Two Loves, p.167ff.) asserted that since 50% of the U.S. population lives in cities then only if at least 50% of evangelicals lived in cities can we expect to see ourselves having much cultural impact. He added that only if we lived disproportionately in cities (more than 50%) would we see great cultural impact. I wrote him and asked any readers had responded such a revolutionary proposal and he told me that people have just politely ignored it. Few institutions have had greater impact than MTV. (Example: The erosion of Hungarian ethnic identity in Romania.) I pass Viacom every time I come up from the subway on the north end of the 42nd Street station. Some at Redeemer know quite a few folks who work there. They say they are very, very young, very, very wild--deliberately chosen to be both. None come to us-none yet. But our folks know them. Why? Why are we that close to having an impact on this cultural power? Because we live and minister in a big city. Simple as that. The gospel and the city. If ten percent of those living and working in the central major cities were Christians living out lives of love, truth, and servanthood, the culture would be fundamentally changed says Boice. Where do we get the power to do that? The gospel alone can give us the humility (“I’m a sinner-I don’t have all the answers--I have much to learn from the city”), yet the confidence (“I have Christ-I have much to give to the city”) and the courage (“I don’t need people’s approval to feel significant, I don’t need comfy life to feel secure, I don’t need to be surrounded by people just like me--since my own Master moved in with hostile people and loved and served them--I have nothing to fear from the city”) to be effective in the city.


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