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3 October 2022

The modern city is a complex and enigmatic phenomenon. A conglomeration of a myriad of different people groups, cultures and languages, the city often defies simple characterisations.

What the American philosopher, Lewis Mumford, wrote about the city some 60 years ago still holds true today:

No single definition will apply to all its manifestations and no single description will cover all its transformations, from the embryonic social nucleus to the complex forms of its maturity and the corporeal disintegration of its old age. The origins of the cities are obscure, a large part of its past buried or effaced beyond recovery, and its further prospects are difficult to weigh.

Some readers may not be aware that the Bible contains numerous mentions and descriptions of cities. The word itself occurs some 1,250 times, and about 140 different cities are cited.

The Book of Acts gives an account of the first missionary activities of the early Christians who have been empowered by the Spirit on the day of Pentecost to be witnesses of the risen Saviour. And many of these were what we would describe today as urban missions.

The apostle Paul conducted missionary activities in some of the most prominent cities of his day: Athens (the intellectual centre of the Graeco-Roman world), Corinth (one of the most successful commercial hubs), Ephesus (the religious “capital” of the Roman Empire) and Rome (the political powerhouse of the Roman world).

Paul understood the importance of cities and their influence in the surrounding regions and made it his main strategy to bring the Gospel to these urban centres. As John Stott has rightly observed, “It seems to have been Paul’s deliberate policy to move purposefully from one strategic city-centre to the next.”

The Church’s ministry in the city is multi-faceted and complex because the city is an intricate and constantly morphing mosaic. The city presents the many hues and shades of what may be broadly described as the human condition, depicting both the majesty and the misery of man.

The city is full of energy and vitality, a bustling hub of human activity and social intercourse. But it is also a place of profound loneliness and alienation for some of its dwellers.

Some modern cities are icons of success, affluence and prosperity—exemplars of human flourishing. Yet, in the back alleys of these same cities we find poverty, marginalisation and disenfranchisement.

The World Health Organisation estimates that about one-third of urban populations across the world is living in slums and shantytowns. These ghettos are hotbeds of a variety of social vices such as crime, abuse, substance vending and usage and rape.

The Church’s mission in the city must be truly “incarnational” if it is to be authentic and life-giving. This means that the Church must be fully present with the people in the polis. She must reach out redemptively to the wealthy business magnates in the business area as well as the prostitutes in the red-light districts.

Incarnational urban mission also entails investing in the city. This means utilising the various economic systems strategically in the service of the common good.

Then finally—and most importantly—the Church must intercede for the Shalom of the city. Walter Brueggemann and Patrick Miller define Shalom as “a harmonious, properly functioning, life-giving order to society”.

And because Shalom can only be achieved when human beings are rightly related to God, the Church must pray for the spiritual transformation by the power of God of every city-dweller, their regeneration and sanctification.

City churches therefore have a profound responsibility of sharing the Gospel of life and hope to every inhabitant. They must bear witness to the public truth of the Gospel with the unwavering confidence that the message of the cross can bring salvation and change lives.

The early Church gradually won the entire ancient Graeco-Roman world to Christ by bringing the Gospel to cities. The Gospel transformed these cities by humanising their dwellers.

As Rodney Stark has depicted it so well in his fascinating book, The Rise of Christianity:

To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with widows and orphans, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.


[1] Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961), 3.

[1] John Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church and the World, Bible Speaks Today Series. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 293.

[1] Margaret Chan, “Hidden Cities: Unmasking and Overcoming Health Inequalities in Urban Settings”, WHO/United Nations Habitat, 2010.

[1] Walter Brueggemann and Patrick D. Miller, The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship (National Book Network, 2006), 169.

[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), 161–162.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.