Headlights flicker from the gridlocked streets, and the cacophony of car horns swells. Sidewalks and storefronts are a kaleidoscope of color. Mothers toting shopping bags and children intersperse with sharply-dressed businessmen, phones pressed to their ears. Here, in the city, cultures of the world mesh and merge. Here the air is never silent and the streets are never dark. Pounding music, loud conversation, the symphony of traffic – all beat the same life-pulse of the city, and of living, moving humanity.
For eighty percent of Americans, these experiences are everyday life. Pastoral images of living one’s days in an idyllic country farmhouse have been wiped from the American memory. And the trend is worldwide: the World Health Organization estimates that fifty-four percent of the global population resides in cities and projects that this number will eclipse seventy percent by 2050.1 A 2014 United Nations report classified twenty-eight cities worldwide as megacities – defined as urban areas with more than ten million inhabitants – and thirteen more are expected to join the ranks in the next fifteen years. In 1970, there were two.2 Regardless of one’s acceptance or displeasure, the urban lifestyle is here to stay.
The Anabaptist trend, however, has historically been one of retreat from the city. Persecuted European Anabaptists sought solace in the countryside and made their peace with the label “the quiet in the land”. Their legacy migrated with the Anabaptists to America and lives on in the rural lifestyles of twenty-first-century Amish and Mennonites. Yet modern Anabaptists who refuse to consider the cities around them reject biblical precedent, overlook the world’s largest mission field, and turn down opportunities to influence modern society for Christ.
Throughout the story of the Bible, the people of God stood for the cities in their land. Abraham, Jonah, and the prophets served as God’s messengers to cities, calling urbanites to repentance and interceding for their good. Even when taken from their own cities to dwell as captives in the capital city of a conquering nation, God’s people were commanded, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”3 After the death and resurrection of Christ, the Christian church began in a city, and the apostle Paul and other evangelists focused their church-planting efforts on the urban centers of the Roman Empire. Large regions of the known world were quickly reached with the Christian gospel as a result of the ebb and flow of the urban population. Finally, at the end of time, all of God’s people will be gathered into a city prepared for habitation by God Himself.4
An Opportunity and a Challenge
Just as in Paul’s day, evangelism opportunities are prevalent in modern cities. Never before have so many cultures been represented, so many languages spoken, and so many diverse beliefs held in cities around the globe – and in our own nation – today. The needs of our cities are great and challenges to the gospel abound, but Christians compelled by the Great Commission will recognize, along with author Jon Dennis, that cities “[teem] with potential communicators of the gospel.”5 The first-century mission strategy of the church may still direct twenty-first-century evangelism. Men and women from countries closed to Christianity, who may otherwise have no chance of hearing the gospel, are moving within a short driving distance of Anabaptist believers! Yet it’s hard to meet these people on a rural road in Pennsylvania or on a farm in Ohio. Anabaptists claim a heritage of full obedience to the commands of Scripture, including the Great Commission, so the question remains: if most of America’s unreached people live in cities, why do most of America’s Anabaptists contentedly make their homes in the country?
Jesus calls His church to be set apart from the world around them, using the memorable metaphors of salt and light. As believers, we are to boldly counter culture where it runs against the way of Christ and to affirm cultural pursuits of all that God declares good and praiseworthy. What better setting for this calling than in the city? Life in our cities dictates the direction of our nation. Laws are passed, trends are set, and opinions are formed in the city. Shouldn’t believers enter into this space with arms of love and words of truth? Despite the opposition and the hard questions that may arise, here is where the church of Jesus Christ shines brightest. Few sights proclaim the wisdom, power, and faithfulness of God more dramatically than the flourishing of a city church rooted in the Word, seeking the welfare of the city, and witnessing to the world. A light is noticed more readily in the dark than at dusk; so let’s not be afraid to enter the dark places around us and make them bright!
The city isn’t safe. How does one raise a godly family there? Urban Christians are too easily distracted and drawn from the faith. What’s wrong with a simple rural lifestyle? In the end, our objections often reveal the true loves and hidden idols of our hearts. We love the sunsets and stars more than we love people. We value personal comfort and security above evangelism. It’s not wrong to call the country home, to love the calm and quiet. But it is wrong to establish a lifestyle of comfort at the expense of human souls.
Every believer should live the life to which God has called him, in a setting that allows service to others and brings glory to God. Some Anabaptists may find their calling in the same place where their ancestors did, in the quiet of the countryside. Full and faithful lives may be lived there. But for increasingly many of us in the twenty-first century, that setting of service and glory must be the city.
|Seth Lehman loves God, his bride, and cities, in that order. He and his wife, Heather, live in Bloomington, Indiana, where they frequent the coffee shops, sell at farmers’ markets, and seek to share God’s love with their friends and neighbors. Seth is a senior studying mathematics and working as a tutor at Indiana University, and he enjoys gardening, playing piano, and reading in his spare time.
- Sengupta, Somini. “U.N. Finds Most People Now Live in Cities”. The New York Times. 10 July 2014. Web. Accessed 17 February 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/world/more-than-half-the-global-population-growth-is-urban-united-nations-report-finds.html?_r=0
- “World’s Largest Megacities”. Colliers. 20 January 2015. Web. Accessed 17 February 2016. http://knowledge-leader.colliers.com/worlds-largest-megacities/
- Jeremiah 29:7, ESV.
- Revelation 21.
- Dennis, John. Christ + City. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2013. Print.