Why God Loves the Cities
I recently taught from Matthew 9:35-39 on Jesus’ missionary methods. There Matthew emphasizes that Jesus went into all the cities of Galilee. In passing I noted how disenchanted I’ve become with city life, having once lived in Los Angeles for 27 years. To me, cities are too big, too crowded, too dirty, too noisy, too God-forsaken. But – as I pointed out in my message – Jesus loved the cities, and so must we.
It was in an urban setting that the church was born 2,000 years ago, and in that setting it has grown and struggled, thrived and died. Years ago, while visiting Leeds in the United Kingdom to lecture at the university there, my host showed me the tired shell of a large edifice that once housed the Baptist congregation of that great city. As I looked at its sad façade I thought to myself: what is it about the city that makes it both a fertile field for the Gospel and the grim graveyard for church “sanctuaries”?
Since that time my wife and I have been privileged to minister in the African nation of Ethiopia and in the city where she spent much of her childhood. Addis Ababa, with a population of 3 million, is one of the world’s great cities. It has all the characteristics of urban society: anonymity, mobility, secularization, pluralism, heterogeneity. What Winston Churchill once said about London could, I suppose, also be said of Addis: a “huge prehistoric animal, capable of enduring terrible miseries, mangled and bleeding from many wounds, and yet preserving its life and movement” (The Second World War, 2:319).
In Addis the Body of Christ is alive and well – enlarging, expanding, and extending into every corner of Ethiopia. Here denominations such as the Evangelical Kale Heywot Church, the Addis Kidan Church, and the Meserete Kristos Church thrive and flourish as they give birth to new congregations in Addis and beyond. At the same time, a drastic transition is taking place in the city as thousands upon thousands of new immigrants find themselves surrounded by social change so profound it has rendered their communities almost unrecognizable. The inability of the churches to cope with this societal upheaval has brought a great crisis to the evangelical movement in the capital.
Enter a middle-aged American couple who recently moved from the city to the country as part of the so-called urban exodus. The great majority of these “rurbanites,” of course, are not going back to farms or to farm culture. Becky and I are the exceptions. We are learning how to farm and to fend for ourselves, and we gladly identify with the peasant stereotype of the country person. We thrive on the many advantages offered by rural living, including community orientation, simple social structure, population sparcity, social wholeness, and institutional simplicity.
It is precisely because of our love for our newly-found agrarianism that Becky and I must be intentional about evangelizing the city. Jesus loved the city of Jerusalem and wept over it, and He made it a point to visit the major population centers of His day (as Matthew 9 clearly teaches). So too the church of today can never be static but must adapt itself to its context of ministry, whether urban or rural. It is largely from the urban congregations in Addis that the Christian missionary enterprise is extending to the rural provinces. In some ways Becky and I use Addis Ababa much like Paul used Ephesus – as a center from which the Gospel successfully penetrated the whole of the countryside. And just as Paul used the School Hall of Tyrannus for instruction and training, so we often find ourselves being asked to teach or conduct workshops amidst the seminaries, Bible colleges, and denominational headquarters housed in the capital. Our work consciously strives to be based on the example set by our Lord as He “taught, preached, and healed” (Matt. 9:35-36) in His urban and rural ministries.
There is no need for any gimmick or strategy beyond this. The Good News compels our preaching, the message compels our teaching, and the love of God compels our healing. The message is both authentic and relevant: it speaks authentically to the human situation and it deals relevantly with any and every human need. Thankfully, in Addis we are able to carry on much of the work in the trade language of the day, English, just as Greek was the literary medium of the first century, making all subcultural groups a part of one huge network of communication.
This much we have learned: God loves cities like Addis Ababa. New Testament Christianity was an urban movement. The story of Scripture begins in a garden but ends in a city. The city brings out the highest – both of evil and good – in the spirit of man. God loves the city, not because it is lovely and lovable, but because He is God. Indeed, it is this selfsame love that is operative in those who serve in the city – that massive, anonymous sea of humanity – by demonstrating the presence of Christian compassion in the impersonal setting of its urban context.
It is abundantly clear from the New Testament that God’s love was at work in the cities of Jesus’ day. May His love also be evident in our work in today’s great cities.
August 8, 2006
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.