Earlier this year, Nielsen reported on the millennial generation’s draw to cities, with Austin topping its list of places with high concentrations of people in their 20s and early 30s.
"Breaking from 'previous generations’ ideals, this group’s 'American Dream' is transitioning from the white picket fence in the suburbs to the historic brownstone stoop in the heart of the city,” Nielsen said. “And their dreams have the power to affect cities and towns across the U.S."
Americans love their cities—the sprawling metropolitan areas and fun mid-sized hubs. Young people go for the jobs and convenience. Christians are also enchanted by city life, with its culture and mission opportunities. They bring up the Bible’s references to cities and Augustine’s use city as a metaphor. City of God begins, “Two loves gave birth to two cities,” and goes on to explore these two cities as the selfless love of God and the love of self.
We see cities as places of connection and relational meaning. As the movies would have us believe, cities are where our dreams grow and come true. Augustine also reminds us that the earthly city reflects in some ways our ultimate destination, the heavenly city described in Revelation: “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Rev. 21:2).
Until we reach the heavenly one, we are stewards of our earthly ones. Tim Keller and his ministry may be today’s most well-known example of what it might mean to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jer. 29:7). Despite the Redeemer Church website claim that “Cities are the best place to serve God and love your neighbor," that sense of urban calling can seem more compelling when you’re young, single or newly married, and childfree.
Writing for The Gospel Coalition, Montreal-based mom Emily Morrice said:
Certainly there are drawbacks for families living in cities, yet some secular families are immigrating to cities and staying in them, so these drawbacks aren’t stopping everyone. But Christian families continue to stay away, or in some cases, move away once children are born.
We made the choice to move away once we had kids—mostly for financial reasons. Now that we’ve moved to North Carolina from Chicago (and grown up a bit), we’ve found fewer opportunities to connect with friends. It seemed much easier to just “pop in” to Starbucks and feel engaged in a city. Not so in the area we live in now. While accessible to grocery stores, we also have a farm within a mile of us. Our dead-end street is quiet and low-key. At the same time, there are “suburban meeting places” we’ve learned to embrace that include the many parks and family-friendly YMCAs.
The area we live is actually becoming more diverse—and our church has a mission-centered approach, something you wouldn’t expect in the traditional Southern landscape. In many ways, it’s an exciting time. We have also been pleasantly surprised by the many opportunities non-urban living offers us to slow down and focus on our family.
Successful urban engagement can incite a deeply spiritual, other-centered life, however, it can also be detrimental to the quiet, contemplative life that encourages reflection and deep growth that some of us find in smaller cities, maligned suburbs, or rural retreats.
The urban push—for pastors, families, and millennials—has been met with admonitions for prudence. In Jake Meador’s discussion of famous agrarian essayist and fifth-generation farmer Wendell Berry, he writes, “Berry’s vision of community life and creation is most vital for urban evangelicals. For all the things we do well, I'm not convinced that we know how to live as communities of worshipers day to day.” Our fast-paced, high tech lives have us prone for sensory overload, making it especially difficult to slow down and achieve the attentive pace that is required for worship.
In literature, cities often represent both individual opportunity and alienation, and poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot held the bleak belief that cities were “a mechanized metropolis, driven by individualistic materialistic desires and the power of money.”
While this is a darker portrait than many of us would paint today, millennials are moving into cities and away from the country and suburbs, which means they have to guard against me-centered attitudes and make an intentional effort to leverage the proximity to produce communities that are beacons of light.
The city offers a unique opportunity to see God’s compassion rendered in service and community. As we remember this, we also understand that if we put the city on too high of a pedestal, we miss the occasions that God is working to give us ways to love him. We must never forget that the ability to transform can be negated by our tendency to conform regardless of where we live and work.
It's not that urban ministry is in need of a critique, or that we need to pit cities and suburbs against one another, but changing demographics require us to see that both contexts are shifting and offer their own challenges. Today's cities are more family-friendly and church-friendly than ever. Today's suburbs are more diverse. Both offer opportunities to contribute as we examine the ways God is working in our neighborhoods and world.
Briana Meade is a freelance writer and blogger. She is a contributor at Early Mama, where she writes about young motherhood. She graduated from Wheaton College in 2010 and taught with Teach For America in Chicago before moving to North Carolina with her now family of four. Find her writing at brianameade.com, and follow her on Twitter @BrianaMeade.