Has the Christian Church Forgotten Its Urban Roots?

Two pastors make the case that American Christians need to shed their "anti-urban bias" before their religion becomes marginalized.

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The early history of the Christian church is primarily an urban history, and this makes sense: Want to spread the word of a new religion? Your best chances likely lie in those places where would-be believers already densely congregate together. The Apostle Paul made this strategic decision in the First Century A.D., as he traveled through the Roman Empire planting churches.

"Paul is going to Athens, he's going to Rome, he's going to Philippi, to Thessaloniki," says Justin Buzzard, the founder of a year-and-a-half old nondenominational church in Silicon Valley. Much of the New Testament is made up of the letters Paul wrote to congregations in some of these cities. "This was a movement," Buzzard says, "that swept the great cities of the ancient world."

Stephen Um, a Presbyterian pastor in Boston and co-author with Buzzard of a new book about cities and God, pushes the argument even further, referencing the work of sociologist Rodney Stark. As plagues regularly swept through these cities in the First and Second Centuries, Christians were often the ones who stayed behind to care for the ill while others fled to the countryside.

"The term 'Christian,'" Um says, "was synonymous with an urbanist at that particular time."

There are also, of course, the contents of the Bible itself: Jesus ministered to people in cities. The story of his crucifixion and resurrection takes place in one, Jerusalem. Psalm 48, from the Old Testament, is an ode to God's citadels. Defining moments from Christianity's later development are inseparable from cities as well. Theologians have called the Protestant Reformation a "uniquely urban event," one dependent on the invention of the printing press and the subsequent spread of the gospels through densely clustered neighbors.

Today, this narrative of Christianity as a religion with urban roots is notable for an abrupt turn in the story over the last half-century, particularly in America: Now, cities are commonly described as the epicenter of secularism, with Christians and their mega-churches retreating outside the citadel.

Um frames it this way: "We believe there is an anti-urban bias within the Christian community."

He and Buzzard have written their book – Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church – as a counter-argument, calling on Christians to re-approach the city (and the religion's urban story), lest Christianity become irrelevant in the age of global urbanization.

"Oftentimes, it's been Christians who've been the slowest to see new cultural trends in what's going on,” Buzzard says. And if more Christians don't heed this call? "The consequences would be great. You'd have an increasingly marginalized Christian community in America, really not incredibly relevant to where the bulk of our population is living."

Buzzard's young congregation of about 300, Garden City Church, meets inside another church in Silicon Valley for Sunday afternoon services. Um's 12-year-old Presbyterian Citylife Church meets on the convention floor of a boutique Boston hotel near the Theater District. The two pastors situate themselves within the "larger evangelical community," somewhere in between fundamentalists and more liberal churches so all-encompassing Um suggests you can't tell what they stand for.

In their book, they address and describe Christians as a singular group, and undoubtedly some longstanding urban churches would argue with the broad idea that Christianity in America has taken on an anti-urban bias. Yet the authors intend the book for a like-minded generation of Christians who fled to the suburbs (alongside plenty of non-Christians) but who now may be open to returning. The point, though, isn't to treat the city as a problem to be solved, or a wicked place in need of salvation. Buzzard and Um aren't calling for sympathy and soup kitchens for the urban poor. Rather, they argue for the need for more Christians to understand cities, to become invested in them, to work to help them flourish.

In the midst of their argument, they make an interesting point about people who consider themselves urbanists but not Christians. So many people now talk about the promise of cities with a kind of religious faith, they argue. Take Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City, whose title is matched in near-religious fervor only by its subhead: "How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier."

"It's kind of like, come on, Ed! Yeah, cities are great, but you make it sound as if cities don't have problems," Um says. "We're not saying, as Christians, that cities are our ultimate hope. We're saying the God of our cities is our ultimate hope."

Perhaps cities have become associated with secularism because there's so much else to worship there: either the promise of cities themselves, or the prospects for good jobs or other forms of success.

"I've got a lot of people in my church who move to Silicon Valley thinking once they had their big job at Apple or Google or Facebook or Twitter, or once they came up with their big startup idea, then they'd be ultimately, completely happy and satisfied," Buzzard says. "A lot of what I deal with there is peoples' disillusion with the city."

This is the point where Buzzard and Um offer up their alternative: an introduction to God's grace. By making a credible, relevant impact on cities around them, Buzzard and Um hope that people will take this message more seriously.

It is here, though, that the skeptic chimes in: Buzzard and Um may believe that we would all be better off if we received this message. But what makes cities great is their diversity, including the diversity of religions (or of people who hold no religion at all). A city full of Christians would seem to defeat the point, depending on your perspective.

Buzzard and Um respond, though, that their hoped-for goals fall far shy of that.

"My hope would be that if my church shut down tomorrow, my city would notice," Buzzard says. "There would be people in our city going, 'Woah, our city is worse off because this church is gone.'"

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About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.