If you needed yet another reminder that the economy is struggling, the U.S. Census Bureau provided one in April. Only 35.2 million Americans changed residences between March 2007 and March 2008, the fewest number to move in one year since 1962. When you remember that the United States was home to 120 million fewer residents in the early 1960s, you begin to understand the significance of this trend.
But contrary to a New York Times headline, the slump did not create this lack of mobility for Americans. The mobility rate had been steadily decreasing for decades before it bottomed out at 11.9 percent in 2008. Several factors have contributed to this trend. Home ownership rates have been increasing since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking moves after World War II. With two spouses working in many households, relocating causes significant economic upheaval. And as the Boomer generation ages, they are less likely to pick up and settle in a new city.
At the Culture Making website, Andy Crouch and Nate Barksdale took notice of this significant cultural trend. Soliciting reader input, they wondered about the consequences, both positive and negative, of the fact that we are staying put longer than our parents, who stayed put longer than their parents. Like so many big-city residents, Crouch and Barksdale said they have actually seen considerable turnover in the coastal cities where they have lived as adults. Maybe fewer Americans in the rural Midwest or industrial Northeast are moving, but vibrant neighborhoods in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco still churn.
Stephen Um pastors in one such Boston neighborhood with CityLife Presbyterian Church. Visiting Chicago in April for the Gospel Coalition, Um spoke "On Ministry and Revolving Doors: Practical Challenges and Ideas for Ministry in a Mobile Society." He argued that the Book of Acts has never been more directly applicable to the church's situation before today. As seen in places like Boston, our world is globalized, fragmented, pluralistic, and urbanized. So was the Roman Empire in Jesus' day, when multi-ethnic, globalized cities dominated the world. By God's provision, the gospel spread along trade routes connecting Jews and Gentiles alike in these cities.
"As both Acts and Paul's letters suggest, that gathering, and the instrument for that ingathering, was urban," Harvie Conn and Manuel Ortiz wrote in their 2001 book Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God. "Patterning the new community after the synagogue model dispersed through the Empire and turning from one centralized temple worship center opened new urban doors. In the cities power was located, and changes could occur; the mobility of a traveling population could carry the gospel."
Even so, mobility draws out strong responses depending on your perspective. Should we critique mobility like Wendell Berry, or embrace it like Richard Florida? Um recommends that we confront the idolatries, recognize the realities, and identify the opportunities. Urban mobility fosters consumerism, autonomy, escapism, and social striving, according to Um. He urged Christians to deploy the gospel to confront love of money and the selfish pursuit of unfettered liberty. Churches can promote interdependent community and teach a biblical doctrine of vocation.
Yet churches must also recognize the realities of urban mobility. Church members working long hours won't have much time to volunteer. And they will likely flee for the suburbs after they've married and started a family. Still, several opportunities have attracted pastors like Um to the city. Fragmented, transient neighborhoods are open to new churches. High-quality professionals demand the best from ministry leaders. And rootless residents appreciate time-tested liturgy in an environment where they can mix with neighbors.
"Unlike those who have resided in the city for some time, newcomers are often the city's contribution to potential church growth," Conn and Ortiz wrote. "Generally speaking, they tend to be more disoriented, not yet settled. They are looking for new roots, trying to fit into a setting that is unfamiliar."
Even outside the Book of Acts, themes of place and mobility weave throughout the biblical storyline from creation, to fall, then redemption, and finally consummation. God created Adam and Eve in his own image and placed them in the Garden of Eden, commanding them to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). When Adam and Eve disobeyed the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17), God banished them from the garden (Gen. 3:2324). In a similar judgment, the Lord cursed Cain to be a wanderer on the earth after he killed his brother, Abel (Gen. 4:12). A few chapters later, the whole earth conspired to build a city and tower that would reach to heaven, "lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth" (Gen. 11:4). But the Lord came down and confused their language, doing exactly what they feared by dispersing them "over the face of all the earth" (Gen. 11:79).
By the dawn of the New Testament, the Jews had returned to their homeland from exile centuries earlier. And even though they lived under Roman authority, this was the "fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4), precisely the moment and place God ordained for his incarnate Son. Born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, the Son of Man had no place to rest his head during his earthly ministry (Luke 9:58). After his death and resurrection, Jesus likewise told his disciples to go into all nations to baptize and teach new disciples (Matt. 28:1820). After his ascension, when the apostles wavered on this commitment and remained huddled in Jerusalem, God scattered them to preach the word, first to Samaria (Acts 8:4) and ultimately to the capital city of Rome itself.
So we see in the biblical narrative the call to settle in the Promised Land, the curse of exile, and the command to leave everything and spread the gospel around the world. Yet this time of transience is itself transient. Christians long for the day to come when the holy city, the new Jerusalem, will descend from heaven. Then, God will dwell with his people (Rev. 21:13). That Jerusalem will resemble today's globalized cities with worshipers representing every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 7:9). But if we never settle in the meantime, we may never invest our time, talents, and treasure into making our communities healthy and beautiful, the kinds of places that give the world a foretaste of this new Jerusalem to come.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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