“New York City? Why do you live there?” This is the typical question people ask when they find out that I live in the largest city in United States. I don’t mind the question, as it gives me the opportunity to promote urban dwelling.
Cities are important to God. A quick survey of the Bible reveals God’s interaction with cities throughout history. Of course, man started in a garden, which cannot be classified as urban, but that quickly changed as mankind began populating the earth.
Nineveh was huge. The book of Jonah describes it as “an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent” (Jonah 3:3b). And it was very wicked. God planned to destroy it as he had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. Out of His mercy, he sent Jonah to warn them of the impending destruction. They humbly repented and God relented from judgment. Jonah was angry at God for sparing the city, but God defended His compassion, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons…?” (Jonah 4:11a)
About 800 years later, another city was on the verge of destruction—Jerusalem. As Jesus looked at the city, the capital of His homeland, Jesus cried out with emotion in His voice, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37)
As we see in the examples above, cities often are places of great evil. Yet God loves and cares about the cities, and he raises up messengers to warn them of judgment and to call them to repentance.
We as conservative Anabaptists are not known for our eagerness to live in cities, and understandably so. Being the hard working people that we are, spacious, fertile farmland appeals much more than crowded, cement covered cities. Our tightly knit communities and families enjoy the safety of isolation and separation from the world. After all, the Scriptures call us not to be of this world. What better way than to live as far away as possible from “Sodom and Gomorrah”?
In His most famous sermon, Jesus described His followers as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” He states the obvious, “Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Matt. 5:15). He then commands, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Salt only enhances flavor when it is spread throughout the food. And light is brightest in dark places. Thus, one would expect to find Jesus-followers in some of the darkest places on the planet, especially the cities.
The early church seemed to understand this concept. Paul, the famous church planter, established faithful fellowships of believers in some of the largest, most evil cities of the day—Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and Philippi, to name a few. What was Paul’s heart cry? “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Cities are in great need of salt and light. With 54% of the world’s population living in urban settings, we as a movement must take up the challenge of evangelizing, making disciples, and planting churches in the cities of our nation, and around the world.
May we as a church movement feel the same sense of urgency as Paul. May we feel the same burden to plead with people and call them to repentance. May we be willing to sacrifice our safe communities for the scary cities, to proclaim the Gospel in the world’s centers of influence.
All Scripture quoted from the New King James Version.
In New Testament times, the people of God become city missionaries (indeed, New Testament writings contain few glimpses of nonurban Christianity). Finally, when God’s future arrives in the form of a city, his people can finally be fully at home. The fallen nature of the city — the warping of its potential due to the power of sin — is finally overcome and resolved; the cultural mandate is complete; the capacities of city life are freed in the end to serve God. All of God’s people serve him in his holy city.—Tim Keller