Sao Paulo – one of the world’s largest cities

I have been to three conferences on urban mission in the last nine months, with one more scheduled for August.  Urbanisation is a current theme in missions, as churches and mission agencies slowly wake up to the fact that for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas.  This means that the seething masses of unsaved humanity are predominantly to be found in cities, and increasingly in mega-cities, so it is there that we should concentrate our efforts to reach them.  Agencies such as Urban Expression, Redeemer City to City, Urban Neighbours of Hope and Eden Network are to be commended for spearheading this drive.

Many Christians avoid cities.  Biblically, cities can represent bad news: the first city, Babel, was a monument to human pride and self-sufficiency (Genesis 11:4) that remained a cipher for ungodliness right through to the last book in the Bible.  Cities are the opposite of the Garden of Eden to which we strive to return.  Even when we do move to cities, many Christians tend to congregate in the leafy suburbs rather than engaging with the inner city sink estates or peri-urban shanties.

The new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…?

At conferences on urbanisation at least one speaker points out that the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city, as if this makes urbanisation the will of God.  Yet this simplistic reading of Revelation overlooks the fact that the imagery in this book is primarily pictorial or allegorical and is not necessarily to be taken literally.  The city in Revelation has nothing to do with urbanisation.  In Revelation, Babylon is a trope for a humanistic, materialist, decadent and oppressive world system, and the New Jerusalem represents a restoration of theocratic shalom in which God is immanent.

It should be remembered that historically Revelation was written under the shadow of the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome (= ‘Babylon’) and the martyrdom of many thousands of Christians in the Colosseum, so the document reflects the desire among believers, both Jewish and gentile, for a place in which they could be enfranchised and safe.  Revelation does not describe the houses, transport hubs, offices and warehouses of the new city.  It simply states that there won’t be a need for a temple, and in a conscious reference back to the Garden of Eden, tells us that there will be life-giving trees and a river, and (most importantly) that God will live there among God’s people (Revelation 22:1-5).  Urbanisation is not the important issue; restoration of life and relationship is.

Restoring humanity to urbanity?

At one recent conference, Brazilian theologian Dr Rosalee Velloso Ewell asked participants to write down three words that described a city.  I imagine that most of us chose words reflecting a city’s creativity, industry and dynamism, or that described the noise, dirt, pollution and congestion.  Later in her presentation, she asked us how many of us wrote the name of a person.  Cue stunned silence.  One of the huge problems with cities is that they can become impersonal.  Cities have turned homes into housing and turned communities into districts, and we should remember that our missional work can become equally objective and systematic when it needs to be subjective and relational.

God does not love cities because God is in favour of urbanisation.  God loves people, and since people are congregating in cities, God’s love is concentrated in cities, not on cities.  Why should God not have mercy on millions of people who ‘do not know their right hand from their left’ (Jonah 4:11)?

But how many Christians are called like Jonah to the city, yet head for Tarshish instead?

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