The Primary Reason Cities Exist

“The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist.”

The quote above is from a book by Edward Glaeser called The Triumph of the City. It is a simple idea. In fact, it is so simple our gut reaction is to disagree. Surely there has to be more to cities than this! But, I think he is correct.

The primary reason for cities must certainly be human collaboration. Some will argue it is for protection, looking back to the old fort cities of antiquity. Others argue that it is the purpose of government. After all the empire needs a headquarters. Still others point out the economic advantage of cities. After all, cities are where the world makes its money. But if you peel back the surface, all of these are a form of human collaboration. Whether it is coming together for mutual protection, governing a society, or creating an economy, human collaboration is the reason cities make all this possible.

Now, let’s consider the Bible’s take on this idea. The Bible gives us an interesting look at cities. If you read the first part, you might leave with a thoroughly negative view. After all, the Genesis story of Babel agrees with Glaeser on human collaboration, but the consequences are not as rosy. Instead, the city comes together to build a tower to the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. However, by the end of the book, we find out that our eternal home in glory is actually a city. Tim Keller refers to this as the biblical tension on cities in his book Center Church. He explains it this way, “the city is humanity intensified — a magnifying glass that brings out the very best and worst of human nature — it has a dual nature.” In other words, it is a center of human collaboration that multiplies the best and worst of humanity.

Of course, this truth is easily redeemed. If there is collaborative power in human density, that means something for our mission.

For a church whose mission is to make disciples, then cities provide more potential disciples. This is the obvious advantage for the Great Commission. There are simply more people who need to hear the gospel per square foot than in less dense places. On top of that, globalization brings more kinds of people into that small space. Our cities not only have more people than ever, they also have more kinds of people than ever before. Nowadays, that unreached people group around the world that your church prays for on Wednesday nights may actually have a community across town from you. But I harp on this point all the time, and today I want to focus our attention elsewhere.

Cities are also the best opportunity to demonstrate church collaboration. In evangelical circles, we talk a lot about cooperation. We Southern Baptists have the Cooperative Program, where we pool our financial resources for missions and theological training. Outside of our circle exists all kinds of other networks of churches, denominations, and missions agencies. In fact, these overlapping affiliations can become a collaborative mess. Many of these collaborative efforts have positive benefits for the kingdom, but I do not want us to lose sight of something very important. Church unity and cooperation is demonstrated best when it is shoulder to shoulder, elbow to elbow ministry. The city gives local churches an opportunity to collaborate for the Great Commission like no other setting. Denominational or affinity-based cooperation is good on many levels, but geographic cooperation with the local churches in the same city makes this tangible and real.

No single church can reach a city. Cities need many churches to reach the many different kinds of people. It is not, however, enough for these churches to merely exist in the same space. They must cooperate and collaborate for the good of their city and the glory of God. In my estimation, regional or geographic partnerships of local churches are perhaps more strategic than ever. This is one of the many reasons I am excited about working alongside the Baptist association here in Houston. It is a collection of local churches all across the city, like-minded in purpose, and partnering together for the Great Commission.

Imagine the potential of churches, very different in culture and makeup, partnering together in evangelism, church planting, and missions right in their own city. Few things demonstrate the unity in the gospel like very diverse churches working together right in front of their city for the glory of God.

In a day when most church leaders are keenly aware of their national affiliations and networks, perhaps we should be looking for those churches right down the road with which we can link arms to reach our city.

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