Stephen Um is the Senior Minister of Citylife Church in Boston, an ethnically diverse group of professional and creative urbanites. He received his PhD in New Testament Studies from St. Andrews University in Scotland. This blog originally appeared on Redeemer City to City.
On Cities, Suburbs, and Countrysides
In recent years the evangelical world has experienced a growing emphasis on the importance of cities for gospel mission. The argument goes something like this: 1) the church is called to reach the world with the gospel, 2) the world is becoming increasingly urban, therefore 3) the church must respond to global urbanization by taking the gospel to the world’s cities. Many are in agreement with the basic shape of this argument. There are undeniable trends and statistics to back it up. I myself have written a book (Why Cities Matter) that I hope adds some substance to this argument. Furthermore, as a church planter and pastor in a major city, I am encouraged by the growing emphasis on urban mission because I see such a need for it in my own city.
However, it seems that right alongside the excitement surrounding the new urban mission field there is a growing sense among some rural and suburban leaders that their ministries are being devalued or brought into question when the strategic importance of cities is discussed. In a series of blog posts, I’d like to suggest a few points for both urban and non-urban leaders to consider as we seek to move forward together on gospel mission.
There Is a Problem
Many of those who serve in suburban and rural places have a right to be at least mildly offended by the way that the discussions surrounding urban mission have sometimes developed. There have been times when those with a heart for the city have spoken in a triumphalistic, cavalier manner—as though urban centers were the only legitimate place that God might call individuals to proclaim the gospel. This problem is particularly prominent among young leaders who, in their zeal to bring the gospel to the city, have sometimes over-inflated their own ministerial calling and, in the process, deflated the call that others have received to rural and suburban places.
Because this has been the case, city-ministry enthusiasts must be increasingly thoughtful about the ways in which we frame our urban emphasis. Though we believe that major shifts in urban migration patterns demand an intentional response, we must never underestimate the essential and innovative work that God is doing through many in non-urban settings. Let us find ways to be pro-city without coming off as anti-suburban.
And a brief word to my non-urban friends: even as we who love cities take a hard look at ourselves, I would encourage you to do the same. Have you become unfairly biased toward those who do ministry in cities? Have you demanded explanations or justifications from city-specific ministries that you do not equally demand from rural- and suburban-specific ministries?
My hope is that as gospel-shaped Christians in all contexts begin to value and celebrate one another’s ministries, we can drop unhelpful and divisive rhetoric in favor of an intra-family conversation about strategic gospel mission.
By Stephen Um