The Idol of City Ministry

My fear is that for many, city ministry has become an idol, the thing that will give them value, significance, and security.

To summarize, I believe that prioritizing urban ministry can lead to making it into an idol. What is good turns into what is necessary to feel complete and secure. This hurts people, both inside and outside of cities, and it diminishes the very real ministry work being done in rural and suburban areas. It also has the potential to draw our attention away from seeking the glory of God to seeking the glory of the city.


“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I:XI.8

One of the things that struck me when I was writing the articles on the new city church planting campaign by Redeemer City to City and Tim Keller was the prioritization of urban ministry. This is hardly new. Keller and others have been writing for more than a decade to encourage city church planting and ministry efforts. As a native of one of the largest cities in the U.S. and a pastor’s daughter, I’m very glad for reminders that cities are important mission fields.

However, several recent articles, like this one, highlight the ministry needs of the rural and suburban mission fields. In the press to remember cities, we are in danger of forgetting the small towns. It’s one thing to encourage urban ministry. It’s another thing to prioritize cities over rural areas. This is the danger I see in the focus on city church planting.

Dr. Keller says in his article “Understanding the City” that it would be “disobedient” for the church not to focus the majority of its resources on cities:

Thesis: As much as possible, Christians should live, serve, and be deeply involved in the lives of our largest cities. They need to be involved in the life of the whole city, not just their own particular enclave. If you can live and serve in the city, you should.

The Christian church must concentrate the great portion of its resources on ministry to the city. It is our “reasonable service”. To fail to render it is as foolish as it is disobedient. (emphasis added)

This is more than simply encouraging urban ministry efforts. This is saying that ministry in cities is more important than other ministries. Keller explained his prioritization of cities in a talk he gave at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization:

Psalm 19 tells us that nature does reflect God’s glory. But human beings, according to Genesis 1, made in the image of God, reflect God’s glory more than anything else in creation. In cities, you have more “image of God” per square inch than anywhere else in the world. A missionary friend of mine once quipped, “The country is where there are more plants than people, and the city is where there are more people than plants. Therefore, because God loves people more than plants, he’s got to love the city more than the country.” … If you love what God loves … you’ll love the city.

I absolutely believe that urban ministry is important. There are lost people who need to hear the gospel preached in every city around the world. But there are also lost people in every town and village and farming community around the world. And they need the gospel just as much. My fear is that for many, city ministry has become an idol, the thing that will give them value, significance, and security.

Dr. Keller is well-known and often quoted regarding idolatry. In his book, Counterfeit Gods, he summarizes what happens when “good things” take a place in our hearts they shouldn’t:

The human heart is an idol factory that takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them. pg xiv, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters)

When “our hearts deify” those “good things” like city ministry, we turn them into idols:

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…

An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship. (pgs xvii -xviii, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters)

Why do I think city ministry has become an idol for many? Consider the language used in the recent Rise campaign:

We’re doing this for our city. Our longing is to see New York—and everyone in it—flourish. We believe the best way to serve the city is to embody the gospel in every neighborhood. The gospel doesn’t just change individual lives; it advances the common good. The increase in philanthropy, mercy, justice, racial reconciliation, integrity, and hope that occurs when more and more people live out the gospel is good for all of society, not just the body of Christ.

Nowhere in the material is it mentioned that they are doing this to glorify God. “The gospel” is mentioned many times, but the salvation of people from their sins and restoring relationship between God and man are missing. The “gospel” being proclaimed is very much a social justice version.

That isn’t to say that individual pastors and even churches involved in these urban ministries are not preaching the gospel and focused on saving sinners. I’m sure there are good examples. In fact, I’m fairly certain that all of the pastors and churches involved in the Rise campaign would agree that they want to glorify God in what they do.

But here is how the churches describe their purpose and mission:

The values of our church community are drawn out of the life Jesus embodied and our desire to emulate Him, so that Christ’s prayer of renewal “on earth as it is in heaven” may be a reality. Forefront

In fulfilling the great commission, Paul’s strategy was to plant churches in areas of influence to reach as many people as possible. Restoration Community Church

Join us in tearing away the layers of religion that have kept people from church for so many years and discover the joys of TRUE COMMUNITY with the family of God. Sanctuary Fellowship

Through a shared meal, authentic community, and the narrative of Jesus, we are transformed. We live lives of imperfect love and reckless generosity, engaging our neighborhoods in Brooklyn and beyond according to the gospel of grace. Because God invited us freely to his table, all are invited to ours. Hope Brooklyn

We hold a belief that God is at work to heal and renew the world that He created to be good. Our own lives are part of God’s renewal process, and God invites us into the work of making all things new. We do this by pursuing justice, engaging in social and cultural renewal, and being committed to prayer for the flourishing of New York City. Hope Midtown

As a church of Jesus Christ, Redeemer exists to help build a great city for all people through a movement of the gospel that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice, and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, the world. Redeemer NYC

Our mission … to create space where New Yorkers of all backgrounds can connect with God through Jesus Christ and move towards him as the center of their lives. We believe this is how we can experience Jesus’ promise of “life in all its fullness.” In John 10:10 Jesus described his own mission this way: “My purpose is to give people a rich and satisfying life.”  He made it clear that we can know God in a real and powerful way, and that this relationship with God is the source of “more and better life than you have ever dreamed of.” River

We believe that God’s unchanging message is so life changing, satisfying, and fulfilling that it must be communicated to each generation in contemporary, culturally relevant language, forms, and styles. Redeemer Montclair

Over and over again the message is that their goal, their passion is to make the city better. I think there are good reasons to be concerned that city ministry is becoming an idol. I think this is the result of misunderstanding cities both theologically and realistically.

The key verse for city ministry that is most often cited is Jeremiah 29:7:

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare. (Jer. 29:7, NASB)

From “Understanding the City:”

The Jews on the one hand did not expect to turn Babylon into a Jewish city- -they had not utopian or literally revolutionary schemes. On the other hand, the Lord’s directive forbid them from having a “ghetto” mentality or having a hostile attitude toward the city. They were to pray for the city, to live in it and grow in it and serve it and work for the common good (Jer.29:5-7).

Now if the Jews are given this mandate to Babylon, who surely had a great deal of warrant to hate this city as being cruel and oppressive, then surely any believer today must look at the great cities of their country in the same way. We are also exiles from Jerusalem here to spread the Lord’s shalom in the earthly cities. We must also see that we have been “sent” (Jer.29: 4) to our cities.

Certainly, the Jews in exile in Babylon were told by God to settle in and to pray for the welfare of the city. However, there was a very specific reason. Jeremiah was told to warn the people that they should not believe the other prophets who were saying the exile would be short. The message from God was that the exile would last 70 years. The people should not live as if they were going back to Jerusalem soon. They were told to live in Babylon and continue with their lives while they waited for the completion of the 70 years.

The point was not “be a blessing” to the city. The point was it’s going to be 70 years, be patient. And what did God promise would happen next? They would be brought home to Jerusalem. They wouldn’t be left forever in Babylon. And what would happen to Babylon? God promised to destroy it utterly for its part in the fall of Jerusalem, and the people are told to flee the city when that time comes:

Go out of the midst of her, my people!
Let every one save his life
from the fierce anger of the Lord!
Let not your heart faint, and be not fearful
at the report heard in the land,
when a report comes in one year
and afterward a report in another year,
and violence is in the land,
and ruler is against ruler.
Therefore, behold, the days are coming
when I will punish the images of Babylon;
her whole land shall be put to shame,
and all her slain shall fall in the midst of her.
Then the heavens and the earth,
and all that is in them,
shall sing for joy over Babylon,
for the destroyers shall come against them out of the north,
declares the Lord.
Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel,
just as for Babylon have fallen the slain of all the earth. (Jer. 51: 45-49, NASB)

The point was that Babylon was a temporary home, albeit for many years. This has a very good application to us today as believers. We are strangers and aliens (1 Peter 2:11) living in a city that is not our home. While we are here, we should seek to serve God wherever he has placed us. But we should remember that eventually, we’ll leave these things behind for something greater.  This is not a theology of city ministry, but a truth applicable to all believers everywhere.

Does God prioritize cities? It is true that Jerusalem was a special city with great significance. The heavenly city in Revelation is called the New Jerusalem. But throughout the Scriptures are cities more blessed or more important by virtue of being cities? Not especially.

The people at the tower of Babel were punished and dispersed when they tried to build a city and tower to reach heaven and make a name for themselves. Part of their disobedience was failing to “fill the earth” as God commanded. Making a city for themselves and staying put wasn’t an effort that God blessed then.

Sodom and Gomorrah were part of five cities utterly destroyed by God for their wickedness. After Lot’s family were safe, God wiped those cities from the face of the earth. The city of Jericho was also destroyed. Jerusalem was destroyed more than once. Revelation tells of the coming destruction of the great city Babylon (Rev. 17).

Cities, in and of themselves, are not inherently good or evil. They also aren’t the crowning glory of humanity either. Some cities are full of wickedness. Other cities are filled with those who worship the Living God. Jerusalem was special because of what represented: God’s dwelling place with man. It was a picture of the future spoken of in Revelation 21. There will come a time when sin and death will no longer separate us from God. And that is a glorious thought. But no matter how great our cities are here, they will never be as glorious as the new heavens and the new earth.

On the whole, there is nothing that indicates God’s preference or special blessing for cities. While we shouldn’t be afraid of cities or denigrate them, we should remember what Hebrews has to say regarding earthly cities:

For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. (Heb. 13:14, NASB)

As believers, our priority should be on the city that is coming, and that work can be done anywhere.

My second concern about the prioritization of city ministry is a misunderstanding of the reality of living in cities. A good example of this can be found in Kathy Keller’s article, “Why You Should Raise Your Kids in the City.” In this article, she presents an idealized and romanticized view of the city.

Kathy Keller writes that cities (particularly New York) are better for children all around. She believes they are spiritually better because kids will actually see evil and sin for what they are and that Christianity becomes more plausible. She believes that cities are financially better for families. Because of public transportation, you don’t need a car. There are free events to go to. Renting is cheaper, and city living means no yard or lawn to care for. You have less space, so you have fewer things. All of these make cities financially better.

Kathy Keller also writes that cities are culturally better. Cities have the best of human culture to offer. Restaurants are better, and cities are just more exciting that the boring suburbs. She also believes that cities are better for kids because they have hip, urban Christians as role models. She believes because of the great diversity in cities, there is less peer pressure. And since no one has cars, you don’t have to worry about teens and drunk driving. Thanks to mass transit, you can send your kids off to appointments on their own.

In addition to the ways she lists that cities are better for raising kids, Kathy Keller mentions several perks for urban ministry families. Airfare is cheaper flying from larger cities. You can take great vacations, and wealthy families may loan you their vacation homes when it’s convenient to them. Cities give families access to the best of the best.

While it may reflect her situation as a pastor’s wife in Manhattan, her description of life in the city and the perks of city ministry are foreign to my own experiences as a pastor’s kid in an inner city church. I grew up in the 4th largest city in the U.S. My dad’s church was in a low-income area on the east side of town. Our church was poor and without my mother’s work we would have been too. My mother worked so that there was food on the table and clothes on our backs. We were better off than many, but by no means well-to-do.

Our city doesn’t have a lot of mass transit options, and due to the sprawl, you really need a car. You also are likely to have a house with a yard. Drunk driving is an issue, although the one time we were hit by a drunk driver we were driving through a rural area.

There are lots of great restaurants here, but you have to be able to afford to eat out. The cultural offerings are wonderful, if you can afford to buy tickets and access. There are some great free concerts and events, though.

The schools I went to had great diversity, but there was still considerable peer pressure. Even in Christian schools, there was pressure to do drugs, to drink, to be sexually active, and to reject the faith. Yes, we got to see sin and wickedness. There were a lot of homeless guys who came to the church regularly for help. Sometimes they were drunk. Sometimes they were violent. It was often risky.

One time my dad pulled over, with us all in the car, to stop a guy getting beat up. That certainly wasn’t boring, but it was pretty scary. The city isn’t all bright and shiny. There is a lot of beauty here, but it can be a dark and dangerous place.

As for wealthy families loaning you their vacation homes, I guess that can happen, if you have wealthy folks in your congregation. We did have a sweet older couple with a little beach house that they let us use occasionally. Those were great times.

Don’t get me wrong; I love living in the city. But I don’t idolize it. There are many great and wonderful things here and lovely people too. I have very sweet memories of growing up in the city. I enjoy the opportunities and access we have to events. And yes, airfare is cheaper than when we lived in smaller towns. But very often, the city can be a harsh and violent place.

As Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote in Evita:

The city can be paradise for those who have the cash
The class and the connections, what you need to make a splash
The likes of you get swept up in the morning with the trash
If you were rich or middle class …

I’m not saying people should avoid moving to cities, but I am saying that they should have a realistic picture of what city life can be.

To summarize, I believe that prioritizing urban ministry can lead to making it into an idol. What is good turns into what is necessary to feel complete and secure. This hurts people, both inside and outside of cities, and it diminishes the very real ministry work being done in rural and suburban areas. It also has the potential to draw our attention away from seeking the glory of God to seeking the glory of the city.

When the family that has struggled for generations living inner city finally decides to move where there are better opportunities and less expense, we shouldn’t discourage them because in our minds city ministry is of primary importance.

When rural families are falling apart and communities are in desperate need of the Savior, we shouldn’t turn our backs on them because the towns are small and not influential. When the Shepherd looked for the lost sheep, He didn’t decide that the ninety-nine were more important because there were more of them. Thank the Lord that He cares for even the one lost lamb. Shouldn’t we also, no matter where they are?

When a pastor is called to a small town church, we shouldn’t pity him or look down on him. His work is vital. It’s not merely a stepping stone to a larger, urban church. We need all types: small town, suburban, and urban churches. People are dying every day without knowing Christ. There is so much work to be done.

City ministry is important. It is a good thing. But it is not an ultimate thing.

Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith. (Gal. 6:9-10, NASB)

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She is also a homeschooling mother of 3 boys and member of a PCA church. This article first appeared on her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and is used with permission.