We talk a lot about cities nowadays, and we should. The world is now more urban than not, and that does not look to change any time soon. The Great Commission is increasingly an urban mission. That being said, I think some of the language we use at times to showcase the importance of cities may cause people to overlook the complexity of the average US urban center.
Cities are engines of commerce, culture, and influence, we say. Cities emanate culture outward to the surrounding areas, regions, and even the world. Cities shape the world. While this is all true, if we are not careful, our description is a little too flat. The flow of culture, influence, and people is not one-directional.
Certainly, cities have a disproportionate influence compared to rural and even suburban areas. Think of the influence of Hollywood or Madison Avenue. It is no secret that advertising tells people what they want before they want it. In this regard, cities drive culture on a large scale. However, cities cannot do this alone. At least in America, cities need their suburbs.
Suburbs are important too.
Cities cannot exist without their suburbs. Because of the way cities developed in the United States (think about the automobile), most of our cities need suburbs to supply them people. Yes, many center cities are experiencing population growth right now, but the vast amount of commerce in cities depends on the large workforce that exists around its beltway. Not only do these people work in the city, they support the city by shopping and playing there. This is a bigger deal concerning culture and commerce than one would first think. If culture pushes out from the cities, then many of the people making decisions about it are actually suburbanites. That means this relationship is not as one-way as many claim.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The city may be a magnet right now, but magnets have two poles and as they attract they also repel.[/pullquote]
At current, cities are growing. That means more people are moving in than moving out. However, that does not mean that no one is leaving. With this new boom of urban renewal, it almost seems some forget people tend to leave the city once a family gets too big or if they get priced out of their neighborhood. Of course, this wave of gentrification is also causing displacement. Many who once lived in the city center in lower cost areas (thoroughly urbanite people) are now being forced to relocate to the suburbs around the city as their house is torn down and replaced with a Chipotle. This is also true of many international people groups that were once settling in urban cores. As the city center becomes more desirable for developers, people group communities are now settling in the suburbs. In addition, I am now seeing murmurs about millennials who moved in at the beginning of this urban renaissance wanting to leave as they have a couple of kids and start families. Seems the urban dream may no longer apply after child number two.
The city may be a magnet right now, but magnets have two poles and as they attract they also repel. This means the population of cities and suburbs rotate through each other. The relationship is one of give and take, a dance between the two. Sure, the city may lead, but they move together.
Why is this important for missions?
In order to reach the cities or the suburbs, we need to realize that they are tied to each other. If for no other reason, people moving back and forth means the culture of the population between the two is constantly shifting. The suburbanites of today are the urbanites of tomorrow and the reverse is also true. Instead of trying to draw a sharp line between them, we need to realize that a city and its surrounding suburbs create a system, a large network of relationships, and this influences how you will reach any of it.
This dance between the two simply underscores the importance of cultural discovery. Assumptions about either based on stereotypes for urban and suburban will not do. Instead, churches must do the work of discovery. Churches must meet the actual people that live in the areas where they minister and know the right questions to ask.
Also, this means that churches in the suburban ring (where the majority exist in most cities) have a real role to play in city ministry. However, this comes through communication and cooperation with others churches in the urban areas as well. If the urban and suburban areas relate to each other, so do the churches in each of these areas.
Church leaders, consider how you can partner with other churches in your city. Your people are moving in and out, and most likely so are theirs. These movements can be used for the furtherance of the gospel.