A visitor to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1971 would’ve seen a massive billboard that said “Will the last person to leave SEATTLE—Turn out the lights.” This billboard was paid for by a local real estate firm who wanted to humorously counteract the negative feelings in the city following deep cuts at the city’s largest employer, Boeing. During this time, Seattle’s unemployment rate was among the highest nationally and many worried the metropolitan area and its 1.8 million residents would never recover. They did. Investment and innovation by Fortune 500 companies like Amazon (2), Costco (12), Microsoft (15), and Starbucks (125) have led to a revitalized metropolis that has exploded to over 4 million, with little obvious scars of a bleak history. Good luck finding a nice house near the city center for less than a million. Mark Twain might say that reports of the city’s death were grossly exaggerated.
This is nothing new. People have always talked about the death of the city, worrying about too much traffic, too much crime, and too little parking. They’ve speculated that eventually people would give up on the urban project and retreat back to lush environments and isolation. Sure, some cities have declined. But the city as a place and as an idea has not. And it won’t stop here. The world is becoming more and more urban.
Today, more than half of people around the globe live in a city. This number is expected to exceed 70% by 2050. This is incredible considering that society was largely agrarian the first few millennia of human history. In this country in 1900, nearly 40% of people lived on farms and 60% lived in rural areas. In the United States today, only 1% of people live on farms and only 20% live in rural areas.
This presents a major challenge for churches (especially those from fellowships who came of age in 19th century America). It means that the unchanging gospel must constantly be recontextualized to meet the challenges of our changing environment. A theology that was structured for a rural world is insufficient to meet the challenges of the city.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the writers of the New Testament knew this and showed us how to contextualize the gospel. Paul often names the city when he addresses a church. Beyond that, his theology reflects urban sensibilities regarding rituals, conflict, and what parts of the Jewish tradition should reasonably be upheld by small, urban communities in Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. Peter’s advice to women who are married to non-believing men (1 Pet. 3) shows the spread of the gospel into non-believing homes. Meanwhile, John's letters confront false teaching in an intimate way that shows how vulnerable Christian communities would be in a world that does not support their values. That is life in the big city.
The same is true for the church today. We need a biblical theology of the city that meets our moment of urbanization, because a church that is not good for the city is not good for the world.
We need an urban ecclesiology of a multicultural church who anticipates the new creation of “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).
We need an urban soteriology that says people are saved not only from their own individual sins, but also that they can be liberated from structural ones.
We need an urban eschatology that affirms not only a heavenly afterlife, but also a renewed creation that demands care for the planet that God has placed under our stewardship.
We need an urban theology that affirms that the Father, Son, and Spirit are at work in Memphis to bring peace and hope. And we need to rise up as a church to join God in that work. Let’s pray that God gives us the courage to do that.
During the month of August I will share a series of teachings about being a church in the city. These messages will not only help us think about God’s view of the city, but will also help us imagine our future in Memphis. Please make plans to be here for those messages or to download them later. This will be a rich time to imagine our future together.
The city will endure and thrive. So will the church who loves it.