It is widely known that more people alive today live in cities rather than the countryside. This is a radical shift from 1900, where only 12 percent of the world was urban. Urbanization is continuing at pace, moving toward a world that will be 70 percent urban by 2050. Malaysia is already 74.7 percent urban and increasing.
Why is this significant for the church? Urban life is repatterning the ways we work, think, and socialize. As evidence, around the world the growing political divide is an urban/rural divide. It is important for us, as Christians, to understand urban life so we can better make disciples of the growing numbers in our cities.
It may surprise some of you to realize that the idea of the city is a theme that runs throughout scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, containing more than a thousand references to the city. In fact, it has often been said: “the Bible begins in the garden, but ends in the city.” The faithful in Christ are destined for urban living in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2).
Cities often get a bad reputation from popular culture as crime-ridden and crowded. Christians further complain about the temptations of sin and the pressure of ideas that run counter to a biblical worldview. This has led many Christians to distance themselves from the city and its cultural influence, developing an anti-urban attitude.
However, if we are destined for an eternal city, urbanization cannot be considered implicitly evil. In fact, when God’s people in the Old Testament are given the Promised Land, they were not given an empty land with fields, they were given “large and beautiful cities that you did not build” (Deut. 6:10).
What does this understanding of the city have to do with us today? Everything. In this short article let me suggest three ways a biblical understanding of the city and the trend of urbanization in the world should impact our everyday lives.
- Cities are primary nodes of information, culture, and influence. The vast majority of our news, entertainment, and popular culture originates in cities. Cities are gathering points for the most creative, innovative, ambitious, disciplined, and learned people on earth. Too often we stand outside the city and complain of the influence of ideas contrary to the Bible, but do not inject ourselves into the fabric of the city to shape and influence the city. As city dwellers, we should actively integrate the truths of the gospel with our work, family life, and views on public policy.
- Cities draw the destitute, the desperate, and the damaged, all in search of hope. Every hour, thousands of the poorest in the world pick up their lives and move to cities, looking for work and/or refuge from war, persecution, and oppression. The hope they seek in the city is too often answered with empty promises. As Christians, we know our lasting hope is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sin is a destructive force in civilization, and our only path for overcoming sin is the way of Jesus, the only one who remained unstained by sin and who took the power of sin away on the cross.
- Cities are a gift to be shaped by the gospel. Most people come to the city to gain from it or take advantage of it. Historically and biblically, mankind collaborates to build great cities for personal gain (Genesis 11:4). This is what St. Augustine called the “City of Man.” But Christians are called, instead, to be caretakers of what God has given us (Gen. 1:28) and even seek the welfare of our cities (Jer. 29:7).
Jesus entered the world to start a new kind of community, the Church. As a new kind of community, the Church becomes an alternative city (the “City of God”) within our cities. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians embrace a life ordered by different priorities and ambitions. As the Church increases in the city, we increase the potential impact on the City of Man by proclaiming and demonstrating the gospel.