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Jan.–Apr. 1984 · Vol. 13 No. 1–2 · pp. 61–66 

Reconstructing Our Urban Theology

Henry Ekkert

From “Peril” to “Doom”

And thou, Philadelphia, the virgin settlement of this province, named before thou wert born, what love, what care, what service, and what travail have been to bring thee forth and preserve thee from such as would abuse and defile thee. O that thou mayest be kept from the evil that would overwhelm thee, that faithful to the God of thy mercies, in the life of righteousness, thou mayest be preserved to the end.

My soul prays to God for thee, that thou mayest stand in the day of trial, that thy children may be blest of the Lord and thy people saved by His power. 1

When one looks at Philadelphia today, or at any other Metropolis one cannot but ask: did God ever hear the prayer of William Penn way back in 1684, two years after Philadelphia was founded?

The general attitude towards the city seems to be negative, pessimistic, almost despair. One only needs to read books like Future Shock, or The Third Wave, from the “secular” field and The Meaning of the City, by Jacque Ellul, from the “religious” field to see the pessimism, despair and judgment come out of those pages in big print.

In April, 1975, U.S. News and World Report carried a special section on “Cities in Peril” as its cover story. Crime, drugs, pollution and financial crises are pictured as the “high rises” of the city. One year later, April 1976, the same magazine had a 16-page special section with the cover title “Are Big Cities Doomed?” From “Peril” to “Doom” in one year is what the news analysts saw.

The Church is not left untouched by the moods and attitudes of society. Neither has she been able to cope with it any better. Many empty or near empty churches are proof of the churches’ struggle to survive in the metropolis. An evangelical church in Vancouver, British Columbia, sold its building to worshippers of the Buddha. In his book, Apostles to the City, Roger S. Greenway writes: {62}

Cities in Western nations are sprinkled with empty Church buildings (for sale at giveaway prices) abandoned by Christians who fled to the suburbs “where decent people live.” The Christian missionary enterprise, both home and foreign, has not fared well in big cities, and the reluctance of many missionaries to live and work in big cities has contributed to the city’s religious bankruptcy. 2

My father, who lived on a farm, struggled with all his power to stay out of the city for fear that his children would get “lost in the world.” Only after bankruptcy on the farm, to which his poor health contributed, did he move to the city and then only with great anxiety. His fears were allayed only after his last son was baptized and became a member of the local church. With tears of joy my parents praised God that all children were now following the Lord.

In his book, The City, What Is It Really Like?, Miller expresses the attitude of many Christians when he writes that “Too many of us have suspected the city of being the graveyard of faith.” 3 If our attitude is such, our actions will be accordingly. The Church’s antiurban bias has in fact handicapped the effectiveness of her mission. By the way we organize our church program we have told the “outsiders” that this is “our place of rest.” In North America the lower class and the unemployed have clearly received that message from their “neighbourhood churches.” In his book, Calling our Cities to Christ, Greenway writes,

By their locations, their architecture, their liturgy, their sermons, and their entire program urban Protestant churches have conveyed the message to the masses that these churches are not for them. 4

The city may be the creation of man, but that does not make it impossible for God to come to the city dwellers with His power and redemptive love. This ministry of reconciliation God has entrusted to His church. We, His Church, are responsible to make ourselves available to God for such ministry in the city.

If there was hope for a doomed city such as Nineveh, there must be hope for any city today including New York, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, London or Calcutta.


A single description of the people of the city is as futile as one definition for all the creatures of the sea.

In their book, The Radical Suburb, Orr and Nichelson trace the social make-up of persons that have given rise to the “expansive man.” {63} This “expansive man” is experience-enlargement oriented, able to adapt “easily” to new types of experiences. Mobility is an essential part for the survival of the “expansive man.”

In The Radical Suburb the authors describe the city man as follows:

At first glance, the radical preoccupation with experience looks like debauchery, a hedonistic extravaganza. It also looks exhausting and a little pointless, too mundane to be really exciting, yet too exciting to be like “Life with the Father.” On closer examination, though, the word “hedonism” seems out of place. Hedonism aims at a finished product: the state of maximized pleasure. But suburban expansiveness is less concerned about pleasure than about enlarging experience, being both interesting and interested. . . . 5

If the above is an accurate reading of the city-dwellers character, is it surprising that in the evangelistic city-crusade, for example, scores of people come forward in an altar call just to have the experience but then fail to make a long-term commitment to a local body of believers? What does this mean for the church’s method of reaching the masses? Has the city crusade reinforced the city-dweller in “his way of being”, i.e., always ready for the experience-enlargement but never ready for a long haul?

Orr and Nichelson further say that “adaptability is the way suburban radicality often manifests its sense of discipline.” 6 The parents, for example, are “anxious that their youngsters be adaptable.” 7 They also want their children to be happy. But neither lack of happiness nor the child’s possible superficiality will worry the expansive parent as much as will the child’s narrowness or failure to “adapt quickly as new experiences are thrown to him.” 8

“The expansive eleventh commandment: thou shalt be mobile,” 9 creates a tension between the old and the young, who, since the organization of old folks’ homes and “extensive care” centers, cannot ignore each other to the extent possible when the cities were younger and her dwellers were the labor force.

The church has to take into account all these factors when she plans her strategies to serve the city-dwellers effectively. The church needs to be flexible in her methods wherever and whenever possible without manipulating the people nor compromising her integrity as God’s agent to reconcile people to God.

In his book These Cities Glorious, Janssen writes that “despite human indifference and divisiveness, the great cities have always acted as melting pots.” 10 Although this might seem exaggerated there is some {64} truth to that, especially of the inner city. But the city also segregates people economically. This is partly the result of the “success” mentality. The church should take advantage of the ethnic melting process. But the church must resist economic segregation from becoming dominant in her life’s sphere. Greenway’s comment is certainly appropriate when he writes

. . . the church must move quickly to make its impact on the city, or the city will soon have reshaped the church. If the city shapes the church, we can be sure that the church will no longer be the servant of God with the redeeming power for the salvation of men, but will have become a slave to the secular thinking and lifestyles of urban society. 11

A Theology for the City

When the Swiss Anabaptist George Blaurock faced expulsion from Zurich in the Reformation Era, he told civic officials he would rather die than leave the city. He cited Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s” as the basis for his preference. Beyond sheer courage, Blaurock espoused the theology of place—a biblical mandate for urban concern. Without that kind of theology, the church may never reach the urbanized world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. 12

One asks himself, when did that statement of our forerunner become reversed to say “I better leave the city lest I die in it?” What is the urban church’s agenda? Is it the preoccupation to keep its membership from “drifting into the world”? Is it “flight” to keep the world out of the church? Is it her struggle to stay alive?

The Church must give up self-interest over people needs. “He who loves his life shall lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel shall find it.” Vern Miller writes:

Human needs at all times must transcend property or business interests or even the vested interests of the church. As Christ gave His all for the world so the church is to give her all for humanity. The needs and hurts peculiar to each neighborhood determine the thrust of the ministry for the local church. Its impact must be at once social and spiritual. 13

If the church is in a struggle for survival, it is in it together with all society. The struggle of society is the struggle of the church and the well being of society is also the well being of the church. For the members of the church are also members of society. {65}

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens and eat their produce.

“Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease.

“And 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 have welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

The message of God was clear. Don’t seek to destroy the city. Don’t seek to flee it, but build it. Not decrease, but increase. Seek its welfare and pray for it. They were to consider the city their home. A place where God had placed them. It is extremely important to know that I live where God wants me.

For many Christians to live in the city is their choice—a religious decision. Roger S. Greenway writes:

Christians are not their own, but they belong to God, and the Lord has assignments for all his servants. The question of where one selects a home and establishes residence is a religious question . . . It must not only be compatible with, but a result of one’s understanding of God’s will for his life and the task God expects him to carry out in the society. . . . To the extent in which individuals, families, and churches are convinced that urban presence is God’s will for them, they will accept the challenge to remain in the city and bear witness there. 14

The church must be able to look beyond the evils of the city and see the beauty and the good that it brings. Without the city we would not know the richness and diversities, the creativities and opportunities of mingled cultures. The stimulation, the contrasts, the aspirations that come with the city are needed by us. Lawrence H. Janssen writes:

The church needs the city because man needs the city. More important, the city and man in the city need the church . . . As sweeping changes take place to intensify the pain of people who need to learn to live together, the church must see the beauty of the city, both as it is and as it can be, when it becomes reconciled to God. . . . But it is not for the city or parks and theaters and markets that the church must be concerned, but rather for the city of men, for men are the concern of God. 15 {66}

The church will need to clarify her priorities. If she has only enough money either to put up a meeting place or help people with a social problem, what will the church decide to do? Only a “wholistic” approach to urban mission can satisfy both the biblical injunctions and the needs of the city. The city is complex. It has become identified with confusion, rebellion, faithfulness and injustice. Babylon has become the symbol of the evil in the city. But the Church was born in a city and the city remains her home. She has a mission in the city and to the city. “Babylon has fallen and it will fall, says the prophet. But while it stands the Christian goes there because he must and because he wants to go.” 16


  1. Robert Lee, ed., The Church and the Exploding Metropolis (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1965), p. 27.
  2. Roger S. Greenway, Apostles to the City: Biblical Strategies for Urban Missions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 18.
  3. Vern Miller, The City: What is it Really Like (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1970), p. 17.
  4. Roger S. Greenway, Calling our Cities to Christ (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), p. 27.
  5. F. Patrick Nichelson and John B. Orr, The Radical Suburb (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1970), p. 26.
  6. Ibid., p. 166.
  7. Ibid., p. 166.
  8. Ibid., p. 166.
  9. Ibid., p. 186.
  10. Lawrence H. Janssen, These Cities Glorious (New York: Friendship Press, 1963), p. 18.
  11. Greenway, Apostles to the City, p. 12.
  12. David Frenchak and Sharrel Keyes, eds., Metro-Ministry (Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook Publishing Co., 1979), p. 14.
  13. Miller, p. 41.
  14. Greenway, Apostles to the City, pp. 32, 33.
  15. Janssen, pp. 79, 80.
  16. Martin E. Marty, Babylon by Choice: New Environment for Mission (New York: Friendship Press, 1965), p. 5.
Henry Ekkert, an MBBC and MBBS graduate, is presently pastor of the West Park Community Church (Fresno) and is looking forward to and is preparing himself for city ministry.

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