Cities are important for the church’s mission because, increasingly, that’s where the people are. Until very recently, humanity lived almost exclusively in villages or rural environments. As recently as 1910, only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today it’s over 50 percent urban, and that number may rise to 75 percent by midcentury. Paul Romer describes this radical change as human beings going from living in packs like wolves to living more like ants or termites.
The shift is primarily happening in the developing world. Africa is now urbanizing faster than any other continent. According to the UN, half of global population growth by 2050, about 1.2 billion people, will be in Africa. By 2050, 21 percent of the world’s population will live in African cities. China and India have also been urbanizing. Over 1 billion people around the world now live in urban slums, more than the combined population of the United States and Europe. As missiologist Ray Bakke said, “It’s no longer a grass thatch roof from a jungle. [Cities are] the new mission field of the future on all six continents.”
Cities are important for the church’s mission, because increasingly, that’s where the people are.
The Great Commission pushes us to reach every people group and location on the planet, but the sheer weight of demographics argues for a more urban mission field today. For every 100 million new urban residents, we need to launch 10,000 new urban churches just to hit a ratio of one church for every 10,000 people. This means we’ll need to start tens of thousands of new urban churches in the coming decades.
But What About America?
Urbanization looks different when we’re studying the United States. If you follow the Census Bureau’s classification, our country has long been filled with city dwellers—reaching 50 percent urban in 1920 and sitting at around 80 percent urban today. But the “80 percent urban” figure is misleading as the bureau says that any place with 2,500 or more residents is urban. Someone living in John Mellencamp’s “small town” home of Seymour, Indiana, is now technically a city dweller.
Also, when most hear the word “urban,” they think of higher-density areas with multifamily housing and mixed-use developments. They think of walkable streets laid out on a grid-like street plan that are accessible by transit. This description doesn’t characterize the places where most Americans live. The combined 2020 population of the traditionally urban cities of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Washington, Baltimore, and Miami is only about 20 million. If you add in urban districts in cities like Indianapolis (where I live) and even college towns, America’s urban population climbs to between 30 and 40 million, only about 10 to 15 percent of the country. Most Americans live in the suburbs, which grew up in a sprawling pattern because of the automobile.
Given these realities, are traditional urban areas still important for the church’s mission in the U.S.? They are, and here are three reasons why:
1. Every person matters.
The 30 to 40 million people who live in cities need to hear the gospel. We shouldn’t write off people living in urban environments, whether they’re smaller cities like Louisville and Birmingham or larger ones like Boston and Seattle.
2. Cities contain powerhouses.
Major urban centers are critical nodes because they control our country’s economy, industry, and government. Institutions that affect all Americans are located there. It’s technology in the Bay Area, finance in New York, entertainment in L.A., biotechnology and elite higher education in Boston, and the federal government in Washington that make those coastal centers some of the most powerful locations in the country. Decisions made at institutions like Google, Disney, the New York Times, the Defense Department, and Harvard have profound effects on us all. For these reasons, cities are strategic. If we want to see the gospel transform key institutions, the church must be present and robust in cities.
3. Change starts here.
Because the culture-shaping institutions of the country are in major urban centers, cultural change typically happens there first. When Pennsylvania Station was demolished in New York City, it catalyzed the historic preservation movement nationally. The modern LGBT+ rights movement was launched by New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in New York, San Francisco, or L.A. will eventually show up at your door.
Major urban centers are critical nodes because they control our country’s economy, industry, and government.
Churches in cities are exposed to cultural change early. For this reason, they often pioneer ways of responding to these changes. Even if urban churches fail to reach the culture (or capitulate in inappropriate ways) they can show the broader church what not to do. It may be easy to cast stones at urban church leaders from the comfort of a red-state suburb or small town. But it would be wiser to pay attention to the pressures they’re operating under, because those same forces will soon be everywhere.
Urban ministry isn’t the whole of the Great Commission, but it is important. For demographic, economic, political, and cultural reasons, cities—both globally and domestically—are a critical component of the church’s mission in the 21st century.