What exactly is urban?

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Cites are a hot topic nowadays. The world is officially more urban than rural, and it does not appear that is changing anytime soon. People are talking about cities. People are moving into cities. Cities are claiming an ever-growing chunk of society. And on this march into the concrete jungle, the word urban is getting tossed around like a frisbee.

City planners are talking about urbanization. Sociologists speak of urbanism. Not only is urban becoming an ism and an ation, as a adjective it is used to describe everything from a neighborhood to a pair of boots (I’m looking at you Urban Outfitters). But, despite all of this word-slinging, what does urban actually mean?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Unfortunately, the term urban comes with a lot of baggage.[/pullquote]

This is an important question for those of us concerned with the Great Commission. The task of the church is to reach the ends of the earth, every tribe, tongue, and nation… and we do not get a pass on cities. In fact, with each passing year, it appears cities are the place where our mission will need to take place. Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard point out that, “by mid-century, the world urban population will likely be the same size as the world’s total population was in 2004” (2013,  26).

Unfortunately, the term urban comes with a lot of baggage. Since it is an overused adjective, it has been applied, often incorrectly, to a number of things. This only makes our work harder when we are trying to reach these areas with the gospel. A poor definition of urban results in a wrong understanding of the context, and that leads to bad ministry.

So, let’s dispel some myths about the word urban, and then see if we can come up with a more positive understanding.

What urban is not.

  • Urban is not a negative term. This is perhaps the overarching problem with the term in Evangelical circles. It has been pointed out before that an anti-urban bias dominates large quarters of our ranks. While I believe this is changing quickly, it is still true to some regard. In effect, many good church folk think bad things when they hear the word “urban.” It is often associated with high crime, high violence, or any number of factors that may describes areas in urban settings but, by no means, account for all urban neighborhoods.
  • Urban does not mean black. The reasons why this trope solidified are too many to name here. White flight was part of it (and yes, that was thing). There are other factors though, and whatever the case, associating urban with black culture runs off the rails for a number of reasons. First, urban areas represent the highest concentrations of diversity in the US, so it is simply silly to claim that urban describes one particular ethnic culture. Second, it reduces black culture to small, two-dimensional category. Fact is, “black culture” itself is a poor term, as there are myriad black people and communities across the country and to lump them into a one-size-fits-all category we like to call “urban” just doesn’t work. When the majority of Evangelicalism is white and suburban, calling black culture urban just increases an “us-versus-them” divide that bleeds over into our understanding of cities. That is helpful for no one. Do you think the terms “white culture” or “suburban culture” adequately describe all caucasians? I didn’t think so.
  • Urban does not mean poor. Some of the nicest, cleanest, and richest neighborhoods in the world are urban. In fact, the trend has now reversed, and droves of people are moving back into US urban centers. Gentrification refers to a process occurring in urban neighborhoods across the country where economic development and revitalization are bringing upwardly mobile people back into the city center. While low income neighbors will always exist in cities, the old idea of “inner city” no longer describes the urban environment. In fact, because of gentrification, low income neighborhoods are actually being pushed out into the suburbs in some areas.
  • Urban does not mean liberal or trendy. This idea cuts in two directions. First, many conservative suburbanites think of the urban area as some kind of liberal safety zone. The flip side is that many young millennials see the urban core as trendy, upcoming, and are infatuated with its allure. Both of these views are shallow. The city is more than a “liberal” hotbed to be opposed, and it is more than those trendy gentrified neighborhoods described above. Cities are complex collections of both poor and rich, conservative and liberal, good and bad qualities. So, urban does not describe any one of these labels.

What urban is.
Instead, it describes all of them as they relate to one another. The urban environments in the US defy this kind of labeling and stereotyping. Urban means more than black, but there are certainly many black neighborhoods and individuals in this setting. Urban means more than poor, but there are still large sections of cities that are economically depressed. Urban settings have liberal areas, and not-so-liberal areas, trendy sections, and not-so-trendy sections. We have to do better when it comes to understanding this rapidly growing mission field.

It is better to think of an urban center as a rich tapestry of different groups. In fact, urban does not describe one culture, it describes the intersection of dozens (even hundreds) of cultures all pressed on top of each other. For this reason, simple definitions will not do, and each and every urban setting is different from the rest. They are all unique, and just like a tapestry, they must be examined to understand how all the threads fit together.

Effective ministry to cities will realize this reality. Our call is to take the gospel into these places, and in order to do that, we must learn how to examine urban settings with understanding. Only then can we proclaim the gospel well in the midst of such density and diversity.

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