Urban ministry – is it a biblical priority?

9th September 2014
Pete Nicholas
Blurred image of an urban scene

In recent years much attention has been given to urban ministry; that is churches having a particular focus on gospel ministry in city settings. No doubt there is a certain ‘cool’ factor that attracts many church planters (personal note – I’ve long since given up on the idea of being cool!) and no one can seriously doubt that urbanisation is an increasing feature of modern life. Just consider some of the stats: Over half the world’s population live in cities, five million more people live in cities in the developing world every month and by 2030 it is estimated that over five billion people will live in cities.

However, apart from the sheer weight of the statistics, or the gravitational urban pull, is urban ministry a biblical priority, or is it just one of a number of equally important contexts in which evangelism and pastoral ministry can take place?

The City in the bible – difficult beginnings

The city in the bible does not seem to get off to a great start. The first city in Genesis chapter 4 is a place built by Cain after Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. There’s a definite undertone that Cain is seeking the protection of his self-built city as a substitute for God’s protection. Also one of its notable inhabitants is Lamech – not a great advert for urban culture – he is the first polygamist in the bible, a murderer and shows no remorse or shame, boasting about what he has done (Gen 4:23-24 ). Then the city next occurs in Genesis 11 as a manifestation of human rebellion and pride, deliberately rejecting God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply throughout the earth instead seeking to unite together in one place, wanting to be like God with the city symbolic of all the ego and sin of humanity. Little doubt that many a commentator has lined up to say things like,

‘The city is the direct consequence of Cain’s murderous act and his refusal to accept God’s protection. Cain has built a city. For God’s Eden he substitutes his own, for the goal given to his life by God he substitutes a goal chosen by himself – just as he substituted his own security for God’s. Such is the act by which Cain takes his destiny on his own shoulders, refusing the hand of God in his life.’ (Jacques Ellul).

But before we get too carried away with the undoubted idolatry and pride of the city we note that the bible narrative ends up with God’s redeemed world, the New Creation, being depicted as a great city. Similarly one of the powerful images of God’s people in the Old testament is Jerusalem the light to the nations, the radiant city on the hill.  So is it just that God is choosing to graciously restore ‘even the city’ (as the worst of this fallen world) or is there perhaps a bit more than meets the eye? Well a good place to start is to go back to the first city and look more carefully at the text.

The central place of the city to God’s plan

When God gives the so-called ‘creation mandate’ to Adam and Eve (Gen 1:28 ) he commands them to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. This is not one command but two: the first is to be fruitful – to care for and ‘subdue’ the earth through endeavour and ingenuity so that it brings forth its blessings – we might label this ‘productivity’. The second aspect is to multiply. God wants his image shown uniquely in humankind to cover the earth, filling the earth with his glory – ‘populate’. So the creation mandate is about productivity and population.

Populate

When Cain builds the city we get seven generations of Cain’s line from him to Lamech’s sons (Gen 4:17-22 ). Seven is significant because in Hebrew thinking it is symbolic of that which is good or perfect so we should sit up and take notice. This is a way for the Genesis 4 text to tell us that the city is the context in which the kind of good population increase that God mandates in Gen 1:28  takes place. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising because today, as in the ancient world cities are places where people proliferate and populations grow aided by the security and opportunities found within the city boundaries.

Productivity

Then we get the fascinating detail of Gen 4:20-22  and the first obvious description of culture forming. Jabal is the father of tent dwellers and livestock owners – it is often commented that this is the early agrarian economy. Jubal is the father of musicians – symbolic of the arts, and Tubal-Cain is a metal worker who makes ‘instruments’ – technology and science. So here is culture-forming; the economy, the arts, and technology & science. But did you notice the names? They all have an abalending to them. In Hebrew the word yabal means productivity from the ground – literally fruitfulness. This is the second aspect of the Genesis 1:28  mandate to be ‘fruitful’ – productivity.

What this means is that the Genesis narrative is making clear that despite sin the city is the context where we see God’s creation mandate being fulfilled; humanity is being fruitful and multiplying. Population is increasing in the security of the city and the human collaboration and collective ingenuity means that the creation is being worked to be ‘fruitful’ (in the holistic sense of that word) through culture forming activities. So on its own basis the text about the first city underlines the city’s central importance to God’s plan to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. Of course, this isn’t to downplay the sin clearly highlighted either, but it is to balance the picture; that the city shows the best and worst of humanity. It shows humanity multiplying and being fruitful in God’s world, but it also shows us being rebellious and proud.

Of course there is more that can be said and my aim here is not to give a biblical overview of the city, but surely if we are wanting to look at what the bible says about the city then the first city is the right place to start. Consequently when we have a careful look at the city then in the context of Cain and Lamech’s obvious sin we also see that the city is centrally important to God’s creation mandate.

What does this mean for us today? A few key things to draw out.

1. We shouldn’t be surprised that as the bible narrative develops the city retains a place of central importance (as mentioned above). The first city in Genesis 4 is central to God’s plans and so the city will continue throughout the bible narrative to be centrally important.

2. It is not surprising also that the city is centrally important to God’s commission to make disciples of all nations. Many have observed the focus the Apostle Paul has on cities and not withstanding some of the difficulties of relating the gospel mission to the creation mandate, perhaps now we can understand why. Cities are places of central importance for people and culture forming.

a. Regarding people Paul openly admits that he longs to have a harvest in Rome of people turning to Christ and growing in maturity (Rom 1:13 ) – where else would there be a bigger harvest than where the fields are most densely packed with potential fruit? Cities are full of people and so are therefore more densely packed with God’s image than anywhere else on the planet – and therefore they must have an obvious importance for gospel ministry – and so they do!

b. Regarding productivity cities have a formative influence on culture, which is why Paul acknowledges that a church being planted in Rome leads to the their faith being ‘proclaimed all over the world’ (Rom 1:8 ). Cities are disproportionately influential on the rest of the culture. Rural areas have local economies but economic policy is decided in the city, areas outside of cities have arts and technology but the city is where the arts colleges and technology hubs usually are. Consequently as the church takes root in the city the possibilities for a distinctive Christian influence on culture forming are significant. Consider the example of George Peabody. He was an American banker who became very wealthy through business in the Victorian era in London. He was also a Christian and through his Christian faith was moved with concern for the poor and the marginalised – building a series of ‘Peabody housing estates’ (some in the area where our church Inspire has planted) and setting up trusts to help the urban poor. Not only are these trusts and estates still running and helping the marginalised today, but many sociologists argue that he started the whole philanthropic movement. Just think of the influence he has had on culture, both through those who still benefit from the housing he provided and the billions of pounds that have subsequently been given away by wealthy businessman because of his formative Christian example!

3. Comparisons are odious (as my wife’s grandmother used to say). The importance of urban ministry does not also entail a denigration of other ministries. Cities are places of significance but that often causes pride. Consequently those of us who exercise city ministries need to be careful not to derive from these ministries a pride at ‘our very influential ministries’ that ends up looking down its nose at other vitally important ministries in other contexts. Yes, I do believe, that the church as a whole should have a focus on urban areas but not at the exclusion of other places and not by trying to squeeze those with different gifts and passions into a one-size-fits-all approach to ministry.

4. A challenge to middle-class ideals (and idols). City ministry is important but of course ministry is done by the church (not the staff team). Consequently it will require congregation members who are prepared to commit for the long-run to urban areas. This will mean sacrifice; perhaps in terms of education, certainly in terms of living space, and often in terms of the middle/upper class ideal of “10 years in the city then move to the suburbs”. This may not be right for everyone and equally it’s not to say that suburb or rural living is ‘second best’ (read the above point again!) but it is worth examining motives and asking – “Are my life choices/goals of where I live, raise a family, and send my kids to school shaped by an unchallenged cultural assumption or a prayed through biblical consideration?”.