Evangelicals and Cities: A Discussion in Need of Clarity – by Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter. This post originally appeared on Kevin’s blog.

Evangelicals and Cities: A Discussion in Need of Clarity

I love cities. I’ve spent time in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Chicago this summer. I love the energy, the opportunities, and the history of our nation’s big cities. I have no desire to discourage any Christian from moving to the city for ministry. Our cities have lots of people, and so they need lots of Christians, lots of churches, and lots of evangelical institutions. I’m all for evangelicals and cities coming together.

But what does that mean?

The evangelical advocacy for the city is a discussion in dire need of clarity. Case in point is yesterday’s First Things article by Gene Fant, This Time Narnia is a City. Fant argues that “something is afoot in Christian higher education,” and that something is “urbanization.” In explaining why he recently joined the administration at Palm Beach Atlantic University, Fant notes that he was “following a very specific sense of God’s leading to serve in an urban context.” He then lists several other examples of evangelicals moving to cities.

I have dear friends who have recently joined other urban campuses, notably David S. Dockery, the new president at Trinity International University / Evangelical Divinity School and Gregory Alan Thornbury, president at The King’s College in New York City (19.9M in metro area; began serving in 2013). In Chicago, Dockery joins Philip Ryken at Wheaton (started in 2010) and others who are serving a population of some 9.5M. Pres. Michael Lindsay (started in 2011) is poised to take Gordon in the Boston area (4.6M residents) to new heights. In 2012, Pres. Daniel Martin began serving at Seattle-Pacific, with a metro area of 3.6M.

Fant is careful not to denigrate suburban or rural ministry, but he believes the movement of Aslan in our day is a move to urban settings. Fant’s final exhortation is a summons to the city: “The moment we face as American Christianity is whether or not we will shed our suburban comforts for the challenges of urban life.”

Let me say it again, I am thankful for people who feel called to an urban context. Whether it’s to alleviate poverty or embrace diversity or influence cultural elites or simply to be where lost people are, I have no problem with evangelical appeals to be involved in cities. In fact, I am entirely for it! But if this ongoing discussion about evangelicals and cities is to be profitable, we have to figure out what we actually mean by cities.

What makes one’s setting “urban”? On the one hand, Fant exhorts evangelicals to leave the comfortable suburbs behind, but then he mentions a number of “urban” evangelical colleges and seminaries which can only be considered urban in as much as they belong to a large metropolitan statistical area. I love Trinity and Wheaton, but both institutions are in the suburbs. Gordon College (my wife’s alma mater) may be a part of the Boston metro area, but the campus is 45 minutes away on the North Shore, nestled with woods and water in one of the most idyllic, non-urban settings you can imagine.

What constitutes city ministry or an urban setting? Is it population density? Is it being within the city limits of a municipality with more than, say, half a million people? Or is it a million? Is it being in one of the country’s major metropolitan areas? Is it being in a center city environment? Depending on your definition of city, most of us are already in one. According to the U.S. Census bureau, 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Most of us don’t have to go anywhere to become urban. But if urban really means “center city,” then Moody Bible Institute qualifies, while Trinity, Wheaton, and Gordon do not. Most people would not consider Covenant College in a city setting. It is, after all, literally on top of a mountain. But Lookout Mountain, GA (pop. 1,617) is counted in the census as part of a metropolitan statistical area (Chattanooga) with 541,000 people. So depending on your definition, Covenant is urban.

I’m not trying to be pedantic. Defining our terms and using them consistently is critical to this whole discussion. Either Americans are already overwhelmingly urban (which includes suburbs like Deerfield, IL and little hamlets like Wenham, MA), in which case the call to leave the suburbs is self-defeating. Or, if what we really mean is that Christians should move to our nation’s urban cores, then most of the institutions mentioned in Fant’s article do not fit the bill.

On a related note, we should also think more carefully about whether “population in proximity” is the best way to assess possible strategic influence. Is Princeton less influential for being located in what amounts to little more than a nice village? Is working at School A with 1500 students in a metropolitan area of 7 million more strategic than working at School B with 50,000 students in small city of a couple hundred thousand? And does this skip over the exegetical question of whether there is any discernible city strategy to the mission of the early church?

We need Christians wherever there are people, and so it stands to reason we need more Christians where there are more people. Please, please, please, do not take anything in this post as a deterrent for serving in cities, moving to cities, or caring about cities.  This is only meant to be a genuine and friendly appeal to clarify what all of that means.

By Kevin DeYoung


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