Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church

Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church


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Using sociological research and data, two urban pastors lay out theological vision and rationale for church planting, cultural engagement, and missionary impulses in our world’s cities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433532894
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 03/31/2013
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,246,684
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Stephen Um (PhD, University of St. Andrews) serves as the senior minister of Citylife Church in Boston, Massachusetts. He also serves as a council member for the Gospel Coalition. Stephen lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his wife, Kathleen, and their three daughters.

Justin Buzzard (MDiv, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the founder and lead pastor of Garden City Church in Silicon Valley. Justin writes regularly at JustinBuzzard.net, speaks widely at conferences nationwide, and is part of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network. He is the author of many books, including Why Cities Matter. He lives in Silicon Valley with his wife, Taylor, and their three sons.

Timothy J. Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He is the best-selling author of The Prodigal God and The Reason for God

Read an Excerpt



What will be remembered about the twenty-first century ... is the great, and final, shift of human populations out of rural, agricultural life and into cities. We will end this century as a wholly urban species.

Doug Saunders


It's ten o'clock on a Sunday morning. A PhD student at one of the top research universities in the world swipes her subway card and hops on a Red Line subway train headed for center-city Boston. As she does, she leaves the fifth-highest-ranked school in America, home to seventy-seven past and present Nobel Prize Laureates. Had she gone two stops in the opposite direction she would have found herself at Harvard. But she's headed for center city to worship with her church. Crossing the Charles River, she gets off at the next stop to connect with a friend who is just finishing a twenty-four-hour shift. He's an endocrinology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the oldest, most respected hospitals in America. A professing skeptic, he's a bit uncomfortable with organized religion, but the apparent normality of two Christian coworkers has made him more open to conversations about faith. Together, they ride one more stop to Park Street Station, walk through the oldest public park in America (Boston Common), skim the edge of the historic Theater District, and take an elevator to the sixth floor of a hotel, where they're just in time for corporate worship at a church planted only ten years ago.

Surgeons, lawyers, psychiatrists, athletes, musicians, teachers, investors, venture capitalists, professors, bakers, engineers, nurses, entrepreneurs, techies, and students en route to an even wider variety of vocations — all are gathered from around the city to hear and interact with the gospel. They come from a wide variety of ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many are new Christians. Nearly one out of every five is a confessing skeptic investigating the claims of the Christian faith. At the close of the service they will disperse throughout the city. Some will walk a few blocks for a meal in Chinatown; others will rush to Fenway Park to see the first pitch of an early afternoon Red Sox game. The city pulses with the energy of theater and live music, bustling shopping districts and booming financial centers, along with innovation and creativity that continually lead to breakthroughs in medicine, technology, and the arts.

Additional landmarks, hospitals, universities, and companies could be referenced, but perhaps more remarkable than these highlights themselves is the fact that they are all packed snuggly into a two-mile radius that approximately 225,000 people call home. Even more, this radius is simply a part of a larger city. It acts as the hub of the greater Boston area — home to 4.6 million people. What is it that gives this small patch of land such prominence? What led to such concentration of power and influence? Why the centralization of innovation and creativity? To answer these questions is to get at what it is that makes cities so vitally important on a variety of levels.

And so, in this chapter we hope to explore these and other questions about just what it is that makes cities important. What is their place in our world today? What role have cities played in our history? Will cities significantly shape our future? What opportunities and challenges do gospel churches face in cities? Difficult questions, yes, but necessary and exciting, nonetheless.

Remarkably, what we have described in Boston is not a unique phenomenon. We see people crowding together in cities more often than not. This happens throughout the world, and often on a much larger scale. It would seem that humans have a propensity for crowding together in densely populated, energy filled cities, even when wide-open, livable places are available and accessible. And, when we crowd together, big things happen. "On a planet with vast amounts of space, we choose cities."

As we proceed in this chapter we'll consider the history of cities, projections about our cities, and just what it is that makes a city a city.


In some sense, humans have always crowded together in cities. From the early chapters of Genesis, people are seen to be city builders. Within a generation of leaving the garden of Eden, humankind was building cities. This shows that city building has always been a part of our nature (Gen. 4:17). And when we look to broader world history, we find that cities have long been with us; they have always held an important place in human culture.

Though the particulars of the origins of the city are somewhat hazy (just as the details of early human history are hazy), we do know that religion was essential to all early settlements. Primitive urban societies are best characterized as shrine city-states. No matter the society or religion, priestly classes were instrumental in the establishment of the first urban settlements, and religious structures were consistently found at the center of the earliest cities. Wrapped up with a culture's religion were its commerce, politics, and power. In other words, the things that make a city a city — a place that is "sacred, safe, and busy" — were initially developed and managed by religious leaders and institutions. This central role of religion has led urbanists to view it as the prime, organizing principle for the first cities — "the city's ultimate reason for existence." The earliest examples of such shrine city-states date to around 5000 BC. Though much smaller than the modern megacities to which we have referred, all of the essential ingredients of an urban society were in place.

Following this embryonic stage, cities developed on a much larger scale and at a faster pace. The first major wave of urbanization began with the rise of imperial cities that functioned as capital cities for larger states and empires. Babylon would be the first of these cities to ascend to legendary status. Readers of the Bible will know it as the primary foe of the city and people of God (Jeremiah 20–21; Revelation 18). Also crucial was Alexander the Great's imperial vision that led to the development of Seleucia, Antioch, and "the first ... universal city, the supreme Hellenistic melting pot" — Alexandria. However, the greatest achievement of this initial wave of urbanization was the first megacity: Rome.

As readers of biblical and church history know, the capital city of the Roman Empire played a crucial role in world history. It would continue to be the dominant city on the urban horizon until near the end of the fifth century AD, when the fall of Rome would leave Constantinople as the only remaining imperial city. Following Rome's fall, cities developed throughout the Eastern world in places like China and Egypt, but the Western world experienced the Dark Ages. It is no coincidence that the darkest period of Western history coincides with the relative absence of cities. Without the safety, economy, and sacred space of developing urban centers, individuals were left to fend for themselves — decline was to be expected.

The second major wave of urbanization occurred in the middle to late Medieval era, when population, commerce, culture, and education were on the rise in European cities like Paris, Venice, and Milan. In these growing cities, religion continued to be a centralizing structure; "at the heart of the medieval city was the cathedral." Yet, this was also a period of transition, when commerce began to emerge as a new organizing structure for cities. New social and economic freedoms led to the growth of cities, and then naturally to the questioning of the reigning religious power structure: the Catholic Church. It was at the height of this wave of urbanization that the Protestant Reformation occurred. It was "a uniquely urban event." With the invention of the printing press, tracts and Bibles spread throughout densely populated cities and towns. The reaffirmation of the priesthood of all believers, along with the validation of secular vocation, created a new ethic for urban life — one that would help pave the way for urban advancements in technology, production, and social life for future centuries.

What came next in the historical life of cities? On the heels of expanding religious freedoms, growing commercial markets, and the questionable colonization of vast parts of India, Africa, and South America came the third wave of urbanization: the industrial city. Propelled by the Industrial Revolution's innovations in machinery, transportation, and production methods, on the whole, the population and wealth of cities exploded. By default, commerce became the new center of the city. Modern-day urban giants like London and New York had their major boons in this period. By the early twentieth century, the phenomenon of the industrial city had spread around the globe, leading to the incredible growth of cities like Tokyo, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. However, along with this urban progress came urban decay. Because cities function as a magnifying glass for humanity, displaying our best and worst potential, one might argue that the grand scale of the atrocities of the twentieth century was partly dependent on the grand scale of the cities in which they took place. Furthermore, the industrial city was simply not sustainable. A look at industrial cities like Detroit and Buffalo, which to this point have had difficulty reinventing themselves, shows us that a city will not thrive if it places a higher premium on material production than human innovation.

Cities have been with us since the beginning. But will they remain? Will all cities ultimately follow the path of slow decline that we see in many industrial cities? Or does recent history give us reason to hope that cities on the whole are on an upward trajectory? Where do we presently stand, and where are we headed?


As you read this book, we find ourselves in the middle of the fourth and greatest wave of urbanization; it is being identified as the era of the megacity, the megalopolis, the postcolonial city, and the global city. Today's reality is that cities are larger, more diverse, more powerful, more innovative, and more global than ever, and they are advancing faster than they have ever done in the past. From Shanghai to Moscow, London to Mumbai, New York to Seoul, São Paulo to Cairo, the world has never been more urban. Humanity's march toward the city has reached a new benchmark. In 1900 only 14 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas; that number had grown to 30 percent by 1950. In 2008 the world's population was evenly split between urban and rural areas, but in 2011 the world became predominantely urban. The numbers are even more striking in developed areas where, on average, 74 percent of the population lives in urban areas.

The facts about our present situation are undeniable, but questions naturally arise: Is the massive scale of urbanization accidental, or has a pattern emerged that will continue to shape our world in the coming years? Have cities reached their peak, leaving the pendulum to swing back toward a rural, agrarian society? Or will the momentum of urbanization move us into a future that is increasingly urban?

While prognostications have no sway over the future, "the most reliable predictions are those that follow established trends." In this regard, the undeniable trends of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have led researchers, with few known exceptions, to conclude that in the twenty-first century and beyond, our world will become increasingly urban. For example, the UN Population Division's massive study on World Population Prospects suggests that by 2050 the world will be 68.7 percent urban. In more developed regions, the number is likely to reach 86.2 percent. Amazingly, "by mid-century, the world urban population will likely be the same size as the world's total population was in 2004." These predictions are astounding in describing the urban shape of our future.

The growth is charted to occur on the largest scale in the developing world. In Asia for instance, between 2009 and 2050, cities will move from representing 41 percent of the population to 64 percent. Essentially, rural populations will decrease by approximately 531 million, while urban populations will increase by 1.67 billion. Further evidence of this coming shift can be found in China's recent transition to becoming a majority urban nation. In many respects this is something to celebrate, particularly in light of the fact that "there is a near-perfect correlation between urbanization and prosperity across nations." Of course, new challenges and problems will emerge, but cities have a unique way of creating solutions to their problems. Our world's economic wealth, technological innovation, and cultural development are based in part on the city's ability to examine its own urban condition. And there is no reason to believe that cities will fail to generate answers to their questions.

In short, all signs point to a very urban future. What do we need to know about cities in order to live well in this future? What should we make of the increasing concentration of power in urban centers? What makes cities so influential in our culture? What kind of opportunities does major urbanization present for the spread of the gospel? The rest of the chapter will seek to answer some of these questions, while giving big categories on which to hang our thoughts about the structure, meaning, and purpose of cities.


The past, present, and potential future show us that cities are dynamic communities, which come in numerous shapes and sizes. What they all share in common is a large number of people freely choosing to dwell closely with one another. This is the essence of cities: cities emerge when people choose to live, work, and play in close proximity to one another. Edward Glaeser's definition is helpful here: "Cities are the absence of physical space between people. ... They are proximity, density, closeness." He would even go so far as to claim that "cities are people." We think he's right.

If cities are people choosing to live in close proximity to one another, what reasons can be given for why human beings choose to do this more often than not? Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History, suggests three overarching categories for understanding what leads people to create cities: they keep us safe, they keep us social, and they shape our understanding and awareness of the sacred. To put it another way, cities are centers of power, culture, and spirituality. In what follows, we will develop these three categories as we seek to answer the question, what makes a city a city?

Cities Are Centers of Power

History shows that one of the driving forces behind the advent of the city was the need for safety. Speaking about the earliest examples of cities, Harvie Conn links this notion of refuge with the idea of the city as the seat of power: "Its walls marked it as protector ... whether small or large the city-state was the anvil of civilization, the center of power." In short, the search for safety in a lawless world led people to band together to create structures that would keep them safe. Walls, militaries, laws, government, and commerce are important elements of a safe human society, and they were all developed by cities. Today, these structures and their descendants are the means by which power is measured.

It is true that most members of developed societies have ceased to think of cities as places of refuge and safety, but the constant movement of immigration to developed cities by persons from less developed regions suggests that cities continue to play this role in our world. The opportunity to live in a well-governed society, to earn a reasonable wage, and to dwell in a well-built residence, continues to lead millions of individuals to leave their rural homes for the world's cities. In many ways, urbanization is the result of migration to centers of power.

When the structures are set in place for the proliferation of safety, wealth, and good governance, cities thrive. Using the United States as an example, it is no surprise that the center of its government and defense spawned a city (Washington, DC). Nor should it shock us that all of its other major cities grew up around the potential for economic gain (New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.). People flock to cities for safety and refuge. They remain in cities to gain proximity to these power structures, and once people settle into cities then they think of ways to make meaningful contribution to their advancement.


Excerpted from "Why Cities Matter"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Tim Keller 9

Acknowledgments 13

Introduction 15

1 The Importance of Cities 21

2 The Characteristics of Cities 37

3 The Bible and the City 57

4 Contextualization in the City 87

5 The Story Line of the City 107

6 Ministry Vision for the City 123

Recommended Reading 149

Notes 151

General Index 171

Scripture Index 173

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“God is moving the human community into cities. How will the church respond to this need and opportunity? With fresh insight, a compelling vision, and biblical reflection, Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard provide resources and answers to how the church can respond to this need. I’m thankful for their thoughtful contribution to this important subject!”
Mark Reynolds, Associate Director, Redeemer City to City

“The Bible is the story of a journey from a garden to a city. In the middle of it, it’s the story of the journey of the gospel from the city of Jerusalem to the city of Rome, transforming them both. Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard helpfully trace the journey, and prophetically show how it’s possible to be part of the story.”
John Ortberg, author; speaker; Senior Pastor, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Menlo Park, California

“One can’t effectively plant or pastor a church in an urban context without first developing a theology of cities. This book will be an essential guide to discerning leaders who know that cities matter and want to engage those cities well.”
Ed Stetzer, Executive Director, Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, Wheaton College

“Recent years have witnessed a torrent of books on urbanization and on urban ministry. Many of these are specialist sociological studies; others are ‘how to’ manuals so comprehensive that the Spirit of God could walk out and we’d never miss him. What has been lacking is a short, reasonably comprehensive, impassioned, and simply written survey of the trends and issues, combined with unwavering commitment to the eternal gospel and a transparent love for the city. Whether or not you agree with all its details, this book supplies what has been lacking. Written by two younger pastors on opposite sides of the country who share their devotion to Christ and their years of fruitful ministry, this book is neither sociology nor manual (though it has some features of both), but a clarion call to Christians to look at cities with fresh eyes and cry, ‘Give me this mountain!’”
D. A. Carson, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Cofounder, The Gospel Coalition

“Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard have done the church a great service in providing a clear and compelling argument not only for the importance of cities in our times, but more especially why cities matter to the church. They do a terrific job in teasing out a rich biblical theology of cities that roots their cultural analysis in a thoughtful and faithful framework. After reading the book, I wanted to call a real estate agent and tell them to find me a place in the city. It is not only where the ‘cultural action’ is today, but also where there is such a desperate need for thoughtful, faithful, and vibrant ministry. Um and Buzzard show us that cities are not to be shunned but loved with the full breath of the Gospel. You will not be able to think about cities in the same old ways after reading this book.”
Richard Lints, Andrew Mutch Distinguished Professor of Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

“If you care about your city, the gospel, and the future of Christianity, I highly recommend you read this insightful book by Justin Buzzard and Stephen Um. This book should be required text for anyone doing ministry in today’s world.”
Michael "Stew" Stewart , Founding Director, Verge Network and Conferences

“It’s only a matter of time. If you’re a true follower of Jesus, very soon you will be a happy urbanite in a city called New Jerusalem. This book is a call to get a jumpstart on that civic future now, as we labor to secure an eternal city for others. We need Christians wherever there are people—rural, urban, and suburban—but urbanization is happening so quickly worldwide that the church is in need of a special summons to the cities. These two pastors from Boston and the Bay helped renew my sense of call to the Twin Cities, and likely will do the same for you in your locale—or be the catalyst for some new civic venture God is moving you toward in our increasingly urban world.”
David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org; Pastor, Cities Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota; author, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines

“You don’t need to live in a city to read this book. You don’t even need to love the city to read this book. But you do need to know God loves the city, so the church should, too. Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard don’t shy away from the problems of the city as they offer a hopeful and compelling agenda for the church in our urban future.”
Collin Hansen, Editorial Director, The Gospel Coalition; author, Blind Spots

Why Cities Matter drips with passion, not for cities primarily, but for the gospel and its spread in this world. Teeming with people, cities are strategic contexts for gospel-living and gospel-spreading. While urban church planting is a growing trend in many quarters of American evangelicalism today, the influx of people to major cities is growing even faster. Through this book, urban pastors will be steeled and reinvigorated in their calling, many future church planters will make a run for a city, and some suburban churches (like mine, I hope) will take their next church plant downtown. But this book is not just for current city-lovers and future urban church planters—neither is it just for pastors. Whatever your present or future context, this book will challenge you to think more strategically about your dwelling, vocation, and church for the cause of Christ in this world.”
Ryan Kelly, Pastor of Preaching, Desert Springs Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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