Twelve Reasons to Move to Cities (and Why Eleven of them Need Rethinking)
Two quick points, in brackets, before we start. One, I’m speaking entirely into a UK context here, which means our many overseas readers will have to bear with me and/or contextualise what I’m saying, which you’re probably used to by now anyway. In the UK, there are sixty-six designated cities, ranging from seven million to two thousand inhabitants. (Don’t ask). Two, I love cities, love travelling in them, was born in London, lived in Islington and Southwark in my twenties, and count Rome, New York and Washington DC as my favourite places. My brothers and sisters all live in cities (in Pimlico, Peckham and Brighton), and are part of large city churches that they absolutely love. So I’ve got no axe to grind against cities. Just to get that clear.
With that said, here’s twelve reasons I’ve come across in support of the idea that Christians should prioritise cities – and some reflections on whether, and to what extent, they are accurate.
(1) The people live there.
Actually, in the UK, far more people live in towns and villages than live in cities. Population density is obviously higher in cities than elsewhere, but in this country, the total population is not. If, of course, the impact of an individual or church was limited to people who lived up to X miles away but not beyond, then churches in cities would reach more people than those elsewhere, because of population density. But these days, because of transport and communications, this isn’t the case; in fact, the chances are that the catchment area of my church in Eastbourne, in total population, is larger than the catchment area of many city churches, for the simple reason that most people can drive. My friend Martyn leads a church in a village just off the M27, and its catchment area - the number of people who could get there within, say, half an hour - is well over half a million people, and far greater than it would be in the centre of many cities. So yes, lots of people live in cities. But many more people don’t.
(2) They are under-represented by Christianity.
Well some are, and some aren’t. London isn’t; there are far more Christians, and churches, per head in London than in lots of rural parts of the British Isles. On the other hand, there are lots of cities, and more specifically lots of areas within cities, that are desperately under-represented by Christianity. If we want to live in areas where a clear Christian witness is most needed, though, I would suggest that the statistic we most need is the percentage of Christians in an area, not the total number of people who live there. It might even involve some people moving out of their church-saturated city to reach less churched rural areas (Welsh valleys, anyone?)
(3) Culture flows downstream, from cities to surrounding areas.
This one has become almost axiomatic over the past few years. A hundred years ago, you could divide society into important and unimportant according to whether they lived upstairs or downstairs; now, the split is not upstairs/downstairs, but upstream/downstream. Cities make culture and hence are ‘upstream’, while the rest of us live ‘downstream’, helplessly drinking in the cultural water flowing out from the cities. There’s got to be some truth in this: TV stations, major newspapers, galleries, universities, law courts and theatres are all concentrated in cities, so the cultural artefacts which the rest of us encounter are, inevitably, more concentrated there as well. But it has been enormously overstated. Universities, for sure, influence the nation, but many of our leading universities (Cambridge, Durham, St Andrews, Warwick, Sussex, Lancaster, Bath, Kent, and so on) are found in places that are barely urban, and only regarded as cities because they have universities. Other than that, a tiny group of cities - London, Manchester, Edinburgh - produce almost all the cultural capital in the UK; in fact, we could probably narrow it further to a handful of postcodes. Is there really that much more culture created in Tottenham, Hither Green, Neasden or New Cross than in provincial towns of equivalent size? So yes, cities produce the culture that affects a nation, but almost all of it is produced in postcodes that begin WC or EC, and almost none of the people who produce it actually live there. (Ever walked down High Holborn on a Sunday?)
(4) Cities are vitally important in the biblical story.
In modern terms, there is only one real ‘city’ in the Bible: Rome. No other city had a population anywhere near a million; Nineveh’s population when it ruled the world was roughly the same as that of Hastings (Jonah 4:11), and Jerusalem, Athens, Antioch and co would have been glorified market towns in our world. Having said that, cities are important in the biblical story, inasmuch as they represent nations, and two in particular, Jerusalem and Babylon, are practically personified as the people of God and the people of the devil. Whether that has anything to do with planting churches in UK cities today, though, is another matter.
(5) Paul targeted strategic cities in his mission.
Well, sort of, but not really, according to Eckhard Schnabel’s book “Paul the Missionary”, a brief (and very thought-provoking) summary of which is provided here.
(6) Jesus focused on the city of Jerusalem.
Jesus went to Jerusalem for religious festivals (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:10; 10:22; 12:12), and on the final occasion to fulfil Scripture by dying there (Luke 13:33). It had all-but-nothing to do with maximising strategic impact, or influencing culture - and he spent most of his time in Galilean villages.
(7) Influencers live there.
Again, some of them do, but a lot of them live in Godalming, and Tunbridge Wells, and Brentwood and Oxted and Amersham and Woking, because the rail links are good and it means they get a garden and a nicer school. And that’s just the ones around London. If we want to reach ‘influencers’ with the gospel, which we do, then we need good churches in every small and medium-sized town around our major cities, and not just (or even primarily) in the cities themselves.
(8) If you want to influence a nation, you need to be in a city.
This is a different point from the previous one, in that it concerns how Christians influence a nation, rather than how those who influence the nation encounter Christianity. And this, speaking personally, is the reason why I have been encouraged, from time to time, to move to a city. Can you really influence a nation from a backwater like the Sussex Coast? It’s the modern form of Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Well, yes. Rick Warren’s influenced quite a few people. So have Bill Hybels, Don Carson, John Maxwell, Joyce Meyer, Francis Chan, and (you get the idea). Maybe it used not to be true (although Martin Luther might disagree), but that’s the beauty of mass media: leaders can influence others around the world without leaving their church buildings, whether through preaching, writing, training, blogging or whatever. I’d read John Piper’s books if he was based in the Orkneys. I read Tom Wright’s, and he practically is.
(9) Cities make it easier to build big churches, and building big churches is important.
The first of these statements is generally true, so long as it is balanced by the point I made in (1). The second one I’m not so sure about, as I posted recently.
(10) Jeremiah called upon Judah not to live in the suburbs but move into the city.
Bunk. The verses in question in Jeremiah 29 are not urging city centres over suburbs, but insisting that the exile will be much longer than people thought, so they had better hunker down and get used to it (see the surrounding chapters and the summary of Jeremiah’s letter in 29:28). And to imply that the exiled Jews lived in the Babylonian equivalent of Chislehurst and should abandon it for Hackney is, in the light of what we know of ancient exile, somewhat implausible.
(11) Cities are the most multicultural parts of the UK.
This is uncontestable, although it can be misapplied. The bad way of applying it is to say that churches which are multiethnic are more biblical than churches that aren’t. Nobody bemoans a church in Pakistan that is full of ethnic Pakistanis, so why worry if a church in a middle class, white English village is full of white English people who drive Volvos and use table mats? The good way of applying it, though, is to say that if you want to influence nations, one of the best ways of doing it is to reach people from the nations on your doorstep, and then they in turn will reach others (which is how Newfrontiers in Ghana got started, and probably a good many other places I don’t know about). Oddly, though, some of the largest city churches in the UK are far less multicultural than my church in Eastbourne (which is no doubt the subject of another post).
(12) The greatest deprivation exists there.
This one is undoubtedly true, at least in Britain. As a reason for moving to cities, it appears to pull in the opposite direction to the previous reason, but statistically, it is much more evidently accurate (here’s a brief summary of some recent stats on it). If you want to be salt and light in the areas with the greatest social and material deprivation in the UK, then cities are your place.
So of these twelve, only the last one, in my view, deserves to be taken on board without reservation. But added to all these is the unspoken thirteenth reason, which I sometimes sense is lurking under the surface when I have conversations with city-dwellers, and it’s much harder to argue with than the others. Provincial readers, you can all wince with me:
(13) Cities are cool, and you know it.
Andrew Wilson’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption, is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.