Sorting by

Skip to main content

A Church for the City: Present Realities and Future Challenges

By October 30, 2014 No Comments

by Chuck DeGroat and Rachael Butler

How do you view the city? Terms of derision abound: Crime-ridden. Busy. Scary. Drug-infested. Liberal. Over-crowded. Hopeless. And the caricatures are as old as scripture. It was Cain, the first citybuilder, who killed Abel, the brother who tended the flocks. And there was David, the great warrior in the wilderness who became a great sinner when he moved to the city. And, of course, Jesus was born in a stable, but hisvia dolorosa was a busy downtown street.

Even Christians who would promote justice tripped on this anti-urban bias. The great Clapham sect of nineteenth-century England, which supported the courageous work of William Wilberforce, left the city for the suburbs. In Bourgeois Utopias, Robert Fishman explains that these evangelical Anglican reformers fled the “dangers, cruelties, bad language, suffering, and immorality that filled the crowded London streets.” In the suburbs, they built an idyllic paradise on earth, safe from the big, bad city.

We still fear cities today. Upon announcing a move to San Francisco, one family member said, “Why would you want to move there?”

And yet there is precisely where the world’s greatest brokenness and the world’s greatest opportunity collide.

The city is where you will find the sexually enslaved, the impoverished, the homeless, the AIDS victim, the addict, and the insane. The city is also where you will find the chronically busy, the insanely wealthy, the spiritually impoverished, the victim of radical consumerism, the hipster, and the technologically addicted.

Yet today’s most noted culture forecasters see a future filled with promise, with opportunity, with creativity, and with profound change for the city. Despite the stereotypes, the city is making a comeback. Indeed, the very notion of city is being redefined. But with that redefinition comes a challenge to the church. If these forecasters are correct, the church is faced with an extraordinary task: to see the future and begin to address what it means to be the church of that future right now.

The Urban Fall and Rebirth

In order to understand the challenges for the church today, we must first examine what many are saying about the city. Opening our minds to hear and see what culture forecasters are saying can be difficult, as the news is not always pleasant. But if there is even an inkling of prophetic truth in what they say, our world is in for a geographic Copernican revolution, the likes of which we have not seen in history.

For the first time in history, the world is more urban than rural. It is a stunning shift, changing everything from how economies relate to how culture forms to where people choose to live—an upheaval of almost everything we know to be steady and sure.

In 1800, only three percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1950, about thirty percent of the world’s population was urban. Today, fifty percent or more are urban. By 2030, fully twothirds of the world’s population (4.4 billion people) will be urban. But there is a story to tell beyond the numbers. In fact, it is a story that makes sense of why we live where we live today.

In their fantastic work Urban Ministry, Harvey Conn and Manuel Ortiz argue that the inklings of the migration from rural to urban settings started as a result of industrialization and colonization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The rise of technology necessitated a shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy. In order to support this new economic and social reality, cities became the center point for the world’s resources, pooling human capital, supplies, material resources, housing, access to ports, and transportation. Of this centering phenomenon, Conn and Ortiz write: “This new shift would underline what earlier centuries have continued to teach: cities are not isolated blips of society, independent nodes of administration and commerce. They connect things rural and urban, powerful and powerless, religious and cultural in connecting networks of dependency, holism and mutual interaction.”

Where the medieval city offered protection and security, the industrial city shifted toward radical individualism. The individual was a means of production. Profit-seekers disregarded the human costs in this new project. Working conditions were unsafe, unhealthy, and unregulated. Hours were long and unbearable. Pollution from factories overwhelmed the city. The labor class lived together in slums outside the business districts. Immigrants flocked to the city in pursuit of the American dream, bringing extraordinary ethnic diversity to America in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Alcoholism and addiction increased in response to this inhumane lifestyle. The city had become an unpleasant place to live and work. Given these conditions, it is almost unimaginable that people would stay.

Many, in fact, did not stay. Those who could leave made the transition to suburban “utopias” that offered an escape from the chaos of the city. In the early nineteenth century, the concept of the idyllic suburb was endorsed by evangelicals as a way to escape the immoral city. There began a great retreat out of urban centers into suburban communities by the upper and middle class, leaving the lower classes in the urban slums. As Conn and Ortiz say, the city became “the land of those left behind—the poor, the underemployed, the ethnic outsider.”

And then something remarkable happened. After its apparent death, the city began to experience a rebirth of sorts. According to sociologists Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser, the suburban utopia began to lose its shininess. Its illusory promise of an idyllic life could not hold. People began to reconsider the benefits of living in proximity to one another, of walking and biking instead of paying high fuel costs, of experiencing the energy that comes when vital souls cluster together with a common vision. A certain enlightened sensitivity toward global issues, a commitment to the poor, and environmental concerns, among other things, brought a diverse throng of new urbanites to revitalize the city.

Florida suggests that the great revival of certain cities (and indeed, whole regions, as we will see) is due, in large part, to the “clustering force” of unique individuals who seem to feed off of each other’s energy, creativity, and vitality. Abandoning the illusory dreams of a protected and perfect existence, many returned to the city for opportunities they couldn’t find elsewhere. Florida writes: “In today’s creative economy, the real source of economic growth comes from the clustering and concentration of talented and productive people. New ideas are generated and our productivity increases when we locate close to one another in cities and regions. The clustering force makes each of us more productive, which in turns makes the places we inhabit much more productive, generating great increases in output and wealth.” What is revitalizing certain cities is a new migration of men and women who are attracted to the creativity of the city rather than the comfort of the suburbs, the activity bred by proximity rather than the anonymity bred by distance, the conversations started on front porches rather than the cloistering afforded by electric garage door openers. What many sociologists couldn’t predict fifty years ago is that people would choose some discomfort—higher rent, smaller spaces, less anonymity—over the comforts of space, distance, even home and car ownership.

This “clustering force,” as Florida calls it, attracts actors and filmmakers to Los Angeles, web programmers and software engineers to Silicon Valley, fashion designers and financiers to New York. Despite the global connectedness that technology offers to us, there appears to be a tangible creative benefit to living, mingling, and experiencing life together with other like-minded individuals. And it appears to be the case more and more, according to sociologists, that a young graduate will forgo a better job opportunity in, say, Fargo or Detroit in order to move to a place where kindred spirits are clustered together, engaged in doing creative work in a creative setting. So we are witnessing today the growth of cities like Austin, Park City, and Portland, and areas close to city centers such as Silicon Valley.

This also means that in these contexts, certain cultural elements are almost always present and growing—amenities such as trendy restaurants, an ever-active nightlife, museums, theatre, opera, and film festivals. The city, it seems, is a petri dish in which all of these things thrive, spreading the opportunity and innovation from the center. The city is where new movements begin. The city is where new technologies are cultivated. Historically, the city is where political, artistic, and social change starts, fanning outward to the suburbs and rural communities. This openminded posture to new ideas breeds spirited dialogue and an exchange of ideas. Consider a Silicon Valley company like Google, where one team invents something new and another team is simultaneously created to debunk it and create the next thing. In this diverse, vibrant, and experimental climate, the rules are being rewritten.

From City to Mega-Region

Not only are the rules being rewritten, but so are the geographical lines. Richard Florida argues that thriving cities are expanding and joining together clusters of creative souls within a particular geography to create “mega-regions.” In other words, the notion of city is being redefined.

In the 1950s, geographer Jean Gottman coined the term megalopolis, imagining regional neighbors joining together to become very large cities. Florida and others see it differently, though. Their megaregion is a new entity altogether, not reliant on old notions of city, but accommodating a new way of envisioning even suburban and rural life in proximity to the nerve centers of cities. The megalopolis is about buildings and infrastructure. The mega-region, in contrast, is about people.

Florida, Glaeser, and others argue that what we think of as city—Chicago, Detroit, New York, St. Louis—is becoming irrelevant. Instead, when people consider where to move, they’ll identify a thriving mega-region, perhaps connected to multiple thriving city centers. These mega-regions produce half of the world’s economic activity, two thirds of the scientific activity, and three quarters of all global inventions. In these clustered settings, the best statistics show that people are fifty percent more productive, according to Glaeser. The attractional force is clear—people are clustering for the opportunity, the creativity, the vibrancy not found in other areas of their country and world.

Essential to this sociological reality is the kind of person who locates herself in a mega-region. One particular manifestation of this notion of megaregion exists in the Bay Area of Northern California, stretching from San Jose in the south, up through Silicon Valley, into San Francisco, throughout the East Bay, and on to Santa Rosa and Sacramento. The Bay Area, of course, is the mega-region known for its technological innovation, attracting creative young entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, digital cinematographers like George Lucas, cultureshapers like the late Steve Jobs. The kind of person who moves to the Bay Area, then, will deal with realities like high rent, maybe even forgoing home ownership in order to engage the collective energy of the region and the opportunity that comes with it. This is a choice many are making, for better or for worse. As geographic lines shift, along with their accompanying cultural and economic repercussions, the church faces an extraordinary challenge.

A Challenge to Be for the City

What posture will the church take toward the city? Toward the mega-region? How will it address this cultural, economic, and geographic shift? Does the church have the foresight to engage the sociological trends with a missional strategy? And what is the best way to engage this “city of the future,” as urbanologists imagine it?

To be sure, this future reality is still seen by some as a threat—time to batten down the hatches for fear that these new urban realities are modern-day towers of Babel. For others, urban needs are considered important in a philanthropic sense, usually reduced to ministries of mercy—a financial contribution, occasional “missions trips,” and prayer. Many others have not heard of the trend toward megaregions energized by lively city centers, attracting new opportunity seekers, and simply do not have the categories for engaging these new realities with a gospel vision.

If sociologists like Richard Florida, William Glaeser, and others are seeing the future accurately, then the challenge will be to move beyond avoidance of the city, mere tolerance of the city, or even ministry in the city. Fred Harrell, pastor of City Church San Francisco, is often overheard saying that the challenge for the urban church is to become “a church for the city.”

Three main challenges exist for the church that wants to be for the city: the challenges of being anchored in a missional ecclesiology, committed to reaching the center, and prepared to move toward discomfort.

Anchored in a Missional Ecclesiology

The great British missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin argued that the church does not do mission; the church is mission. Mission is not peripheral but is fundamental to what it means to be church. Newbigin was convinced that if the church got this big idea, then no church, denomination, or institution would ever be able to ignore the real, contextual realities and the challenges they present. Churches will need to ask: Where are we located? What are the men and women in this region really hungry for? What will this mean for our local ministry? What changes will we need to make?

Responses will vary between the polarities of accommodation and avoidance. But the kind of approach we advocate does not fall into the ditch of either accommodation (radically over-identifying with culture) or avoidance (radically dismissing culture and context). To be sure, the kinds of trends we expect hold both extraordinary opportunities for the church and subtle seductions. The church in mission will need to appropriately identify both the opportunities and the risks.

In this sense, missiologists see the challenges of the next fifty years as closely resembling the challenges the church faced in the first centuries of its existence. In particular, the church in North America will be especially shaken by the shift from being in a position of power and comfort to being in a position of humility and risk.

Committed to Reaching the Center

Increasingly, there is a focus on reaching the city center in order to influence the broader urban area. Tim Keller calls these city centers “nerve centers,” where critically important activity is clustered, where decision makers locate themselves, where influencers work and reside. Reaching this nerve center is crucial for mission, and will require a more nuanced strategy. While the church can help people in need with critical ministries of mercy, the church should also set its sights on the nerve center, where significant systemic change originates.

Our church, City Church San Francisco, is a fantastic experiment in center-city strategizing. At City Church, you will find worship and preaching that is historically liturgical but eminently comprehensible, where significant intellectual and spiritual questions are addressed with respect. Seekers and skeptics know they are in a church, but they are made to feel welcomed and respected. Their questions are not ignored. In fact, download a few sermons and you will notice a theme—City Church expects that skeptics will come, because the table has been set for them. Members and regular attendees feel comfortable inviting their skeptical friends, not because worship is somehow “dumbed down” or made to be seeker friendly, but precisely because skeptics will encounter Christian worship in its historic forms, and have it explained in a way that is inviting and comprehensible. Gimmicks won’t work, especially in the midst of crisis and difficulty.

In churches like City Church San Francisco and others, you will find initiatives geared toward centercity urbanites, people living and working near the nerve center. You will see the Newbigin Fellowship, a nine-month training program where twenty- and thirty-somethings gather to discuss issues of faith, science, technology, the economy, relationships, worldview, and more. You will see a ministry to artists and culture-shapers. You will see groups for venture capitalists and entrepreneurs meeting downtown. You will see, in other words, a strategy that seeks to reach the city through ministries of both mercy and justice, addressing both immediate needs and systemic ones.

In his provocative work on church and culture, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues that so much of apologetic work is geared to ideas, complete with bloated and triumphalistic notions of cultural change. But Hunter challenges Christians to engage in “faithful presence” among “elites, networks, technology, and new institutions”—in other words, within the nerve centers.

Prepared to Move toward Discomfort

Talk to experienced urban church planters and they will tell you that everything is on the table—every approach, every method learned in seminary or found in books, every surefire strategy. Each city is different. Each pastor’s personality is different. While ecclesiology remains solidly anchored, methodology is pliable. Talk to pastors in a secular city like San Francisco and you will quickly learn how they work alongside one another rather than quibble over lower level doctrinal issues, largely because mission necessitates unity and humility. What unites many of these pastors is a commitment to move toward discomfort, suffering, and brokenness, taking Christ’s incarnation and Kingdom engagement as their starting point.

Most pastors will readily admit that their seminary idea of the perfect church was a flourishing church in an idyllic location, with able and willing volunteers, people hungry for great preaching, a study filled with many books (and plenty of time to read them), and a rich and passionate prayer life. This was the Christendom church dream. The next generation of pastors cannot expect comfort, but complexity.

In her classic work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed, “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

The city has been reborn. In the coming decades, urban nerve centers will energize entire regions, creating extraordinary need for new church plants, faith and work initiatives, campus ministries, justice and mercy ministry, seminary education, and much, much more. Let us be a church for the city.

Chuck DeGroat is vice-president of Newbigin House of Studies and a pastor at City Church San Francisco. He is the author of Leaving Egypt: Finding God in the Wilderness Places.

Rachael Butler serves on the faculty of the Newbigin Fellowship and is a clinical therapist in San Francisco.

Sources cited

Harvey Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, The City, and The People of God (IVP Academic, 1989).

Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (Basic Books, 1989).

Richard Florida, Who’s Your City: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life (Basic Books, 2008).

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (Penguin Press, 2011).

Jean Gottman, Since Megalopolis: The Urban Writings of Jean Gottman (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961).

Timothy Keller, “Our New Global Culture: Ministry in Urban Centers” (