Loving the City?

Loving the City?

Urban Ministry and Urban Living often attract those who are infatuated or flirtatious with the mystique of the city and even some who profess to love the city. Some of us simply love the gospel and the density (crowded neighborhoods) and diversity (economic, ethic, educational, cultural, and age differences) of people who are found in the city – offering an opportunity for a strategic advance of the gospel.

We should be cautious about the phrase ‘Loving the city’ because it can be no more than a cliché of those who either do not know the city or those who have come to believe that it is mark of spiritual achievement when you can say, “I love the city.”

To be able to say “I love the city” you need to spend quality time with the city.You do not know the city because you may venture in to Penn Plaza or the Art Museum. Picnicking or playing soccer in Fairmount Park does not make you ‘urban.’  Eating at a nice restaurant in Manayunk or on South Street has not really introduced you to the city. Staying at the Hilton or the Marriot for a weekend does not constitute ‘having experienced the city.’

After you have lived in the city and have become acquainted with the city, you choose carefully when you might say, “I love the city.” I have seen enough of those who come enthusiastically to the city only to leave defeated and hating the city. Without a heart-felt affinity for the density and diversity of people in the city, a commitment to the gospel, and dependence upon God to endure the brokenness of the city, you could easily be driven away because there is so much about the city that could PO[1] any average person.  Here is a beginning PO’ed list:

  1. Slum landlords who collect outrageous rents but care nothing for their property or the neighborhood.
  2. Slobs – people who litter and trash the city, whether they drive a Mercedes, a Ford, a bicycle, or they walk.
  3. A school system that allows students to advance and even graduate knowing that they have not achieved an adequate and competitive level of education.
  4. The PPA (Philadelphia Parking Authority), a merciless system that legally harasses the citizens of and visitors to Philadelphia.
  5. Non-profits that take tax payer money and look good on paper but only do enough to maintain a semblance of legitimacy.
  6. Bureaucrats and politicians whose main occupation in life to keep their jobs or get reelected at any cost.
  7. Government funded drug addiction that places people on medication for life and convinces them that they will never be competent enough to live without a government pill or paycheck.
  8. Beggars who feign hunger or tell elaborate lies in order to get money for drugs or alcohol.
  9. Poor and blighted neighborhoods that are imprisoned in dependency on failing government programs.

 

There is more, but I’ll stop there. To focus on those things leads to a kind of despair that loses sight of the living hope we have in the gospel.

On the other hand there is much about the city that should generate excitement in most anyone. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. A church that begins to reflect the economic, racial, educational, and age diversity of the city and the world.
  2. Neighbors whom you actually get to know.
  3. Neighborhoods with a diversity of people, coffee shops, restaurants, and more within walking distance.
  4. The Art Museum, Water Works, Ben Franklyn Parkway, Kelly Drive, the Philadelphia Zoo, etc.
  5. Universities bustling with young people eager to learn and to live.
  6. Conversations with people from all over the world.
All of these are good reasons but some are fragile reasons for serving God in the city. For me, it is a good thing that I find fewer temporal things that excite me about the city. It keeps me from an idolatry that is so seductive and from the illusive dream that urban living is a path to happiness.

 

Frankly, if I forget that I am here to love and reach people for Christ, then there is enough about the city to drive me away or cause me to practice the outdated missionary model of living on a safe compound and only venturing into the city for ministry or sightseeing.

I am living here because I want to know and love the people whom the gospel offers hope — PPA agents, lying beggars, those who have lost any hope of being free from illegal and legal drugs that affect their ability to think, teachers and school workers who are dismayed at the enormity of the task before them, and slum landlords who need forgiveness and a new value system. The gospel of Jesus Christ has power to transform slobs, politicians and bureaucrats,  business leaders and non-profit directors, etc.  I am here not to look with disdain and hatred at the things which PO me, but to hear in them a voice crying for redemption. Of course, it is true that people everywhere need Jesus, but in the city there are more voices crying and more kinds of people in need of redemption. That is why I am here.

So, please do not be mistaken about an attraction to the city that seems like a ‘call’ from God. Let the deeper call of the gospel and the call to love all kinds of people attract you to the city.

If you approach the city like you might a flirtatious, attractive woman, you will soon find that she offers enough to get you interested but without any future for a meaningful relationship.

If you come to the city with infatuation, you will find that the image in your mind to which you have been attracted, does not represent reality.  The outward attractiveness will will soon be overwhelmed  by her harsh inner character that cannot be known casually.

If you come to the city, thinking that you ‘love the city,’ you will soon find enough in her to turn your heart and your stomach or enough to capture you with an idolatrous love that steals your heart from mission.

But, if you love people and love the gospel, and if you are not uncomfortable with density and diversity, then you will find enough people in the city to whom the gospel calls you and enables you to love and offer hope. And, when you love people and the gospel, you will experience grace to handle all those things which PO you and you will grow in thankfulness for the goodness of all those things that excite you, but never allowing them to capture your affections.

So come to the city – not because it is the best place to live  or because you ‘love the city’– come, because it is place where the gospel can touch many people and many different people; come, because it is a place where you will grow in experiencing God’s grace in the midst of a broken world; come, because you will grow to appreciate God’s common grace at work in the many cultures of the city.

Come to the city! And, if you choose not to come, pray for those who do and we will do the same for you, as you love people and the gospel where you are.



[1] For those of you who are not familiar with the acronym PO or PO’ed, you will need to look it up in an Urban Theological Dictionary.

4 thoughts on “Loving the City?”

  1. John, did you write this, if so, it would really be a blessing to have it published in the one of the many papers in Philadelphia. It is an excellent article and really make one think! Thanks for sharing and may may God continue to bless you, your family and the blessing of Grace Church.

  2. By far the best article I have read on ministry in the city. Wherever you live as a Christian you are on a mission to reach people with the gospel. Choose prayerfully and seek God’s direction where to invest your life and to reach people with the gospel.

  3. Kirsten and I were talking about this a few weeks ago, when we read about some extended family moving to the city to pastor there and such. What stuck out to us as odd was just the use of “a love for the city” to denote a calling. The odd part is that it automatically points to an outsider perspective. So if you go around talking about moving to a neighborhood to “love the city,” you put yourself in a weird spot with folks who’ve spent their entire life in a city anyway.

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