Urban ministry is a bit in vogue right now among Christians. This is good. I want Christians to engage the city—not just the young and urban professionals, but the inner city, the poor and all ethnicities.
The United States is growing in ethnic diversity. There are likely more people groups here than at any time in our history. Each of these groups needs someone to proclaim the good news of the gospel to them. Most of these ethnic groups tend to be in cities, making cities a great opportunity for the spread of the gospel.
While cities are an excellent place for gospel advancement, urban ministry is not without its challenges. Some of these challenges can be better explained by three words: depravity, longevity and community.
1. Depravity is everywhere, not just in urban areas.
Quite a few Christians view cities as depraved. Undoubtedly depravity seems more evident in a city because there are many people in close proximity. The reality, however, is that sin and brokenness are everywhere. In the midst of the overwhelming evidence of depravity is the opportunity for the gospel to shine forth. When sin abounds, the gospel can abound even more.
Cities are fundamental to God’s design and intent for the world, because while he begins his story in the Garden of Eden, the story ends in a city (Revelation 22). In light of this, Christians need to move away from their fear of the city and stop seeing cities as inherently wicked.
Instead, we need to see cities as good and full of opportunity. God is at work in the midst of depravity and brokenness. Some of the most vibrant Christian communities are found in cities. The gospel is going forth. Lives are being changed.
Christians who love mission should view our world’s cities as great places for gospel advancement. People are moving into cities (albeit at a slowing rate in the U.S.), which means churches should be moving into cities as well.
2. Loving a city means longevity.
Another challenge of urban ministry is longevity; this type of ministry is not a quick fix. I planted my first church in Buffalo, New York, among the urban poor, and spent six years doing the hardest work I had ever done. We grew slowly and incrementally. The 20-megaton growth of a suburban megachurch rarely happens in a downtown urban context.
It takes longevity—in many cases a lifelong commitment—to walk this journey and love a certain city. Too many people love the idea of the city but do not love the city to which God sends them. We have to love the city for the long-term and journey with it through all of the ups and downs.
Often, those who are radically saved want to leave the cycles of loss, despair and poverty that left them bound in sin for so long. If we want to encourage them to wisely re-engage with the gospel in the context they were saved out of, we must model faithful service ourselves. It will be hard and challenging because planting a church among the marginalized of society takes time.
3. Community is key.
Finally, the issue of community is both challenging and important in urban ministry for a number of reasons. Most urban centers are a series of smaller communities. These smaller communities are often based on a common identity or affinity like Filipinos, Latinos or Chinese. These groups can be a city within the city finding community with one another. Such communities may revolve around several blocks giving rise to nicknames like Little Italy, Little Mexico and Chinatown.
Economist Jed Kolko has demonstrated a perhaps unexpected group moving back into America’s urban centers: rich, white and childless.
Often the communities are isolated, unconnected and at times even hostile toward other communities. When people become believers they become citizens of another kingdom, holding dual residence in their earthly surroundings and the heavenly. The gospel creates a community that bridges gaps along the way, prioritizing love and brotherly kindness inside and across demographic boundaries.
So when we go into a city we recognize that there are numerous communities. We recognize that the gospel creates a better way—a gospel community. A kingdom-of-God community changes everything.
Hope for the City
Overall, the issues of depravity, longevity and community in urban ministry are not so impenetrable that the power of God cannot overcome them. I don’t make these points so you would be discouraged by the challenges that come with urban ministry. Nor do I contend that cities have more inherent value than small towns, farming communities or the ever-growing suburbs. I want to encourage those who would minister in urban centers to have hope.
I want you to be aware and place your trust in the God who cares deeply for those in urban centers. Be encouraged that he is at work, and be provoked to love and good deeds so that you can engage the city—your city—for the cause of Christ.
In this brief video, Tim Keller makes a compelling argument for why churches should pay attention to cities. It’s worth your 90 seconds.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.