Why Cities Are Important to the Church's Mission


Cities are important for the church’s mission because, increasingly, that’s where the people are. Until very recently, humanity lived almost exclusively in villages or rural environments. As recently as 1910, only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today it’s over 50 percent urban, and that number may rise to 75 percent by midcentury. Paul Romer describes this radical change as human beings going from living in packs like wolves to living more like ants or termites.

The shift is primarily happening in the developing world. Africa is now urbanizing faster than any other continent. According to the UN, half of global population growth by 2050, about 1.2 billion people, will be in Africa. By 2050, 21 percent of the world’s population will live in African cities. China and India have also been urbanizing. Over 1 billion people around the world now live in urban slums, more than the combined population of the United States and Europe. As missiologist Ray Bakke said, “It’s no longer a grass thatch roof from a jungle. [Cities are] the new mission field of the future on all six continents.”

The Great Commission pushes us to reach every people group and location on the planet, but the sheer weight of demographics argues for a more urban mission field today. For every 100 million new urban residents, we need to launch 10,000 new urban churches just to hit a ratio of one church for every 10,000 people. This means we’ll need to start tens of thousands of new urban churches in the coming decades.

But What About America?

Urbanization looks different when we’re studying the United States. If you follow the Census Bureau’s classification, our country has long been filled with city dwellers—reaching 50 percent urban in 1920 and sitting at around 80 percent urban today. But the “80 percent urban” figure is misleading as the bureau says that any place with 2,500 or more residents is urban. Someone living in John Mellencamp’s “small town” home of Seymour, Indiana, is now technically a city dweller.

Also, when most hear the word “urban,” they think of higher-density areas with multifamily housing and mixed-use developments. They think of walkable streets laid out on a grid-like street plan that are accessible by transit. This description doesn’t characterize the places where most Americans live. The combined 2020 population of the traditionally urban cities of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Washington, Baltimore, and Miami is only about 20 million. If you add in urban districts in cities like Indianapolis (where I live) and even college towns, America’s urban population climbs to between 30 and 40 million, only about 10 to 15 percent of the country. Most Americans live in the suburbs, which grew up in a sprawling pattern because of the automobile.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker and writer on a mission to help America's cities and people thrive and find real success in the 21st century. He focuses on urban, economic development and infrastructure policy in the greater American Midwest. He also regularly contributes to and is cited by national and global media outlets, and his work has appeared in many publications, including the The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post.