On "loving the city" long-term (in contrast to well-intentioned hipster, neo-paternalistic versions)


bearden-pittsburgh.jpgThere seems to be competing visions about what it means to "love the city." It seems that many approach it from the perspective of justice and mercy (like the black church) or from the perspective of the arts and culture (hipsters) or some combination of both (well-intentioned but gentrifying suburban elites with short-term programmatic approaches) . My personal concerns about justice and mission, as well as the Christian tradition's teaching about society, beginning with subsidiarity and Althusius, lead me to understand that loving the city has little to do with opening up art galleries, coffee shops, "cool" pubs, organic grocery stores, etc., or making it a more enjoyable place for elites to live in and/or visit the city.

For me, loving the city, with respect to mission, has more to do with things like:

(1) Fighting for marriage."The marriage rate for African Americans has been dropping since the 1960s, and today, we have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. In 2001, according to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women in America had never been married, in contrast to 27.4 percent and 20.7 percent respectively for whites. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. In the period between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; but for blacks, it fell by 34 percent."

(2) Fighting against abortion, foster care, and for adoption. "In New York, for example, In NYC, Black's have a 59.8% abortion rate, Hispanics have a 41.3% abortion rate, Asians have a 22.7% abortion rate, and Whites have a 20.4% abortion rate "(prob b/c of the pill). One-third of all kids in foster care are black. There is real race bias in this system.

(3) Working against ethnic violence. "The alarming statistics about violence among African-American boys and men is so oft-cited that they have become clich├ęs: for example, "black men are the leading cause of death among young blacks [male and female]"; "1 in 146 black males are at risk of violent death"; and though comprising only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 43 percent of all murder victims are black, compounded by the fact that 93 percent of them are killed by other blacks."

(4) Rescuing urban children from substandard education. The Schott Foundation recently reported that only 47 percent of black males graduate from high school on time, compared to 78 percent of white male students.

(5) Helping hurting people to not self-medicate their pain with drugs and alcohol. "The 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that the highest rate of current (past month) illicit drug use was among American Indian/Alaska Natives (13.7%), followed by blacks/African Americans (9.8%), persons reporting two or more races (8.9%), whites (8.5%), Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islanders (7.5%), and Hispanics (6.9%). The lowest rate of current illicit drug use was among Asians (3.6%)"

(6) Working to fight HIV/AIDS proliferation. "Blacks/African Americans accounted for 52% of new HIV diagnoses and 48% of AIDS diagnoses in 2008. Of the total number of people living with HIV in 2007 in the 37 U.S. states and 5 dependent areas, 46% were black/African American; 32% white; 20% Hispanic/Latino; 0.8% multiple races; 0.6% Asian; 0.4% American Indian/Alaska Native; and 0.04% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander.

Among men diagnosed with AIDS in 2008, 52% of black/African American men, 63% of Hispanic/Latino men and 78% of white men became infected with HIV through male-to-male sexual contact. Among women diagnosed with AIDS in 2008, 77% of black/African American women, 75% of Hispanic/Latino women and 65% of white women became infected through heterosexual contact."

(7) Working to increase employment by supporting the growth of for-profit businesses that provide entry level positions as well as sustainable employment opportunities. As of Dec 2010, the unemployment rate for blacks is around 16% and for whites it's around 8.5%

These seem to be the most pressing issues that are destroying cities. I'm not saying that the arts, coffee shops, Trader Joe's, organic farmers' markets, pubs with European bear, and the like, don't matter but black men don't end up in prison because there were no art shows in their neighborhoods. But they will say that they never had a father (85% of youth incarcerated for any reason are from fatherless homes). It seems that having an HIV/AIDS care community is more needed than a Christian Study Center or a live music venue.

So if churches claim that they are "all about the city" you would assume to find an emphasis on, and money spent doing, the following: (1) discipling black, Latino, and immigrant men, (2) planting churches with minorities or disadvantage communities in the city, (3) establishing programs and relationships that strengthen marriage rates among the disadvantaged, (4) providing alternative living and community arrangements for women so that they do not abort their babies; adopting orphans above 2 years old, starting well-run orphanages, (5) not tutoring programs but actually starting new schools for disadvantaged children and become long-term public school teachers and administrators, etc., (6) caring for HIV/AIDS patients, (7) encouraging (by starting businesses or helping to provide incentives for) sustainable for-profit companies to locate near the unemployed and those who are low-skilled to provide employment opportunities that allow adults to care for themselves and their families. (8) supporting police efforts to fight crime, and so on.

These are not short-term programs that can be handled by any local church's deaconate nor any single faith-based non-profit. The real needs of the city require men and women working at multiple-levels who are thinking LONG-TERM about social, political, moral, and economic solutions that create a free and virtuous city so as to promote human dignity. A way of life that does not encourage dependence on charity and truly liberates those in the city to live in ways consistent with being made in the image of God. This requires churches to be honest about their limits and for church goers to think differently about their vocations.

If your program, missional church, or lifestyle are not about the things above nor has any long-term plan for addressing these things you may be in the city to consume it and gentrify it. Being a consuming "gentrifier," however, is also fine. Really, it is. It's ok because market forces and gentrification change cities for the good as well. Just call it what it is: market-driven, not mercy driven. You want the city to be homogeneous for your enjoyment. That's cool too, some would say.

As such, one would expect that on Sunday a church that's really "loving the city" making claims about "renewing the city," and so on, would have pews filled with single black and Latino adults, single moms, pregnant women, ex-cons, neighborhood children, substance abusing addicts, HIV/AIDS patients, the unemployed, and so on, in addition to those elites who have the opposite providence in order to transfer human capital and demonstrate solidarity with those who are disadvantaged.

Cities do not need more churches and organizations providing "ministry opportunities" but those committed to a way of life.


Amen ...

one of my concerns in the recent church planting craze, is that often there is an emphasis on different sorts of churches for different sorts of people...

Problems -

i) gentrifiers have their own church, the 'poor' have their own church ... (HUP ruling supreme although it is rarely mentioned)

as you seem to be hinting ( those who have the opposite providence in order to transfer human capital ) one of the greatest blessings those blessed with much can share is their cultural capitol (not in seeking to make clones but in however it can be utilised)to those who do not have it.

ii) As you have fantastically identified ... how can you say you love the city if your church does not have the different groups in the city represented and sharing each other's lives or if you are not making serious attempts made to get them into your church ... and if your number one priority is not to see the men (in it's broadest definition) of the city discipled.

I listened to your interview on the Reformed Forum, you seemed to be saying there are very few examples of churches like this in the US, in the Uk there may be even less.

I could go on ...


Former Philadelphia Eagle Pastor Herb Lusk pastors Greater Exodus Baptist Church in north Philadelphia. The church and its affiliated ministries include a welfare-to-work job training center, childcare center, charter school, adult education/university, substance abuse treatment program, pregnancy help center connected with adoption services and support for those who keep their babies, youth mentoring program, after school enrichment program, and much more. Of course they are black Baptists:)


This is great stuff! Thanks for reminding us that loving the city means being willing to invest long-term and do "unsexy" things.

These seem like things that churches in non-urban settings could take to heart as well. For instance, Asheville, NC, where I am a pastor, has a large immigrant population (mostly Latino) due to migrant agricultural labor. A lot of these concepts and suggestions could be implemented in smaller towns and even semi-rural settings.

On a side note, I saw Liberating Black Theology at Barnes and Noble here in Asheville the other day, and I exclaimed, "I know that guy!" It only merited strange looks from the folks sipping social justice lattes, though. Then they went back to reading The Economist and loving the city.

Colin, many are beginning to wonder if the current church planting craze is actually about the city or about something else. Good comments.

Gentrifriers seems very content with their all white churches. It's very interesting. Not quite sure what to make of it.

Yeah, there very few churches that do this.

haha, yeah, Julia, of course a black Baptist church will that holistic. It's the black church's tradition. Hopefully, others will catch on.

Great thoughts, man. Lots that I need to keep in mind.

Dr. Bradley,

I am a church planter. We are in the city of St. Louis, which is rapidly gentrifying. We planted a year ago, and the makeup of our congregation is mostly caucasian. When I read this blog I can feel myself getting heated. Some of that anger is really conviction, I know we need to be more diverse, and that really is my heart. While our congregation does resemble our neighborhood, it obviously doesn't resemble our city.

However, some of my anger comes from seeing all of your suggestions without any ideas or resources. I'm a young white guy, married to a black woman, in a mostly caucasian church, with a few black friends that are now coming to church. But It has been a struggle to even get these friends to commit to our church. I know you know that the racial tension in the Lou runs deep. And I would love to hear your thoughts on how those obstacles can be torn down.

I love your passion, and it gets me fired up. But can you help out a church planter in the trenches who doesn't want to become a "market driven church", but also doesn't want to fall into depression from your sarcasm and end up writing an angry blog post of my own?


Todd, the only church in St. Louis I know that doing what I described (serving the community and looking like the city) is Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church. The church is in "da hood" on MLK and the congregation looks like "da hood."

The pastor is a Covenant Seminary grad. Here's a link to the ministries at their church: http://ftmbc.org/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogcategory&id=51&Itemid=134

Sadly, Pastor Jones gets ignored by "missional" evangelicals in the city for reasons that continue to baffled me. His church is the best model for how to do this. They are literally involved in all of the things I mentioned. If you're want to really learn about this go learn from those who are already doing it.

Having a predominantly white church isn't bad but if you really want it to look like the city, with all of the race issues you mentioned (that I am very aware of), you might radically have to change the model and vision for the church; and you'd likely loose a lot of people in the process. There's nothing wrong with neighborhood churches. They are needed. It could be that a neighborhood church is all that you're able to do right now(which, again, is good). Trust me, there are enough needs in your neighborhood to keep you very busy. The devil is active there. You don't have to be a part of "renewal of st. louis" fad that many have adopted in order to be a legit and important part of radically blessing your neighborhood.

There's nothing wrong with a church that looks like its neighborhood. Nothing. And you don't ever need to apologize for that. Actually, to me, those are the churches that are radically needed the most instead of churches trying to do things all over the city beyond their capacity or expertise. The parish model works well for a reason. Do your thing.

Dr. Bradley,

Thank you so much for you wisdom. I have been to friendly temple and really enjoyed my visit there. I work part time with Mission: St. Louis as well (I believe you are familiar) and have had some interactions with Pastor Jones. I'm not sure why he isn't more prevalent in the conversation either. I think I will try to set up a time to talk with him

I know your trips to the STL are probably less frequent now, and that you have many things to do when you come through. However, It would be cool to dialogue with you sometime about some of these things you mentioned. And... if you had time for coffee or lunch, I would totally buy!

Thanks again for the prompt response. Know that you have people in the Lou praying for you in NYC. Looking forward to how Christ will shape you during this season!



I think I agree with you. Well said.

Kindest Regards,

The only reformed church I know that is in "da hood" and looks like "da hood" is Ephiphany Fellowship in Philly. I am not sure if you are familar with them.


I have heard of them and listened to some of their teaching.. I like alot of what Eric Mason says. I heard him say that their congregation was a large percentage of students (I believe they are close to the university). Have they managed to do the 'unthinkable' and reach out to people of all socio economic groups and have lots of college student / incoming professionals ?

FANTASTIC article. Deeply challenging and convicting. My prayer is that God will give us grace to move in this direction, for the long term.

A couple of thoughts.

Church plants do take a little time to get off the ground, and we dont know what many of these churches will end up doing until they are a little more stable. Time will tell the fruit of many of these new churches being planted.

Are you a part of a church that is doing this yourself? Do you serve and volunteer and contribute to a local community that is embodying these things? If so, I would love to hear more of your personal stories of how this is happening. There is nothing more powerful that thoughts like these embodied in humble action.

Thanks again, very well written, and a great challenge to a young church planter in a "city center"

Good stuff, Ant. I do think a sign of new churches being "for the city" in the manner you mention has a lot to do with which neighborhoods people root themselves in... and like your comments to Todd, I think we need more churches that are intentionally focused on one's neighborhood!

Also, I think the trend toward "loving a city" also involves a responsibility to change culture, a la some Keller stuff and more recently Gabe Lyons... which is why there might be an emphasis on a Christianity that moves into the arts and is unabashedly excellent in areas of arts, entertainment, etc.

Ultimately, we need more elite Christians transforming mass culture! And we need more Christians transforming neighborhoods that are underserved!

We need both, I think. I'd be curious to see the rate of which "kinds" of churches are proliferating faster, though. I wouldn't be surprised if it depends on which "tribe" one finds oneself immersed in.

I was hoping to write something insightful to add to the discussion, but all I can really say is AMEN!

Dr. Bradly,

I first want to say thank you for your bold words, they ring true and are deeply necessary among the 'missional' conversation.

At the same time, I want to push our thinking a little more as to 'how' these 'wrongs may be righted' by the kingdom. As a Public High School teacher in the inner-city, I am often discouraged by the sheer size of the Empire I fight against everyday. I agree we need to be here for the long term, and I agree that the pains and injustices you've pointed out must be dealt with. Yet, I fear that these injustices are more symptoms of the systematic oppression plagueing our society. For example, what is deemed as 'progress' in our public schools is the 'raising of standardized test scores', not the success of our high school graduates to be able to engage a college education and glean the skills to be able to critically tackle the problems our cities face.

What I am concerned about, with what you have suggested here, is that we must consider a way to tackle the root source of these problems, systematic oppression embedded within the ideals of America as a nation (consumerist capitalism and the ethics of the mighty dollar). Yet, many of the ways people may 'fight' these injustices demand that we 'put on the clothes' of the very empire we are trying to topple. As a teacher, I am forced to put my students through grueling 'test preparation' that does nothing other than make the district look better (and thus keeping me from developing creative, critical thinkers that can engage the problems of this world). Secondly, I am fighting against the pragmatic notion of education, that my students merely want a piece of paper that will enable them to get a higher paying job (the flip side of this is that they earn the paper, but due to drop-out fears and pressures, the diploma no longer means that these students have the skills older high school students needed to have in order to graduate).

So, where do I stand? Along the lines of John Howard Yoder, we as christians must take a more powerful, political (in Yoder's terms...not governmental) stance, living in loyalty to a kingdom which subversively overthrows the oppressive empire of the world.

In summary, I agree with you, but I think we need to be wary of the means by which we seek to 'right these wrongs'. Do we sell ourselves and try to commandeer the systematic institutions already in place (as I'm attempting within my High-School), or do we look at the power structures of the cross (willful poverty, service, and submission?)

(sorry if any of this is confusing)

I have so many questions. According to the history I've been reading, I feel like so many of the problems go back so far that it just seems impossible. So-- some historians blame slave law of the 18th and 19th century, where black men were emasculated. Marriage was illegal and could not be honored when slaves were sold off, masters took the women, etc. Women had to learn to fend for themselves and not count on men. I've then had others argue that the white men of the 18th and 19th centuries were RIGHT when they said the black people's moral makeup didn't allow for them to be any better anyway! Outrageous that people believed that back then, I'm speechless when people let on that they still believe that now.

We moved to KCMO, and I put my kids in schools that are not only majority black but majority poverty. Yes, the schools are struggling- my son comes home with Cs because the teachers are so overwhelmed by the sheer number of misbehaved kids that they don't grade kids individually- they just give everyone a number each day, on a scale of 0-5, based on their BEHAVIOR as a class. That number at the end of the semester is the GRADE. It isn't about what they are learning- it's about how they behave and the standardized test.

Everything comes back to the marriage problem, your #1 up there. Kids are raised in all kinds of homes, broken or simply alternative (some single parent homes are fantastic, some homes with fathers are abusive messes, and frankly every family I know that is made up of 2 gay parents are the healthiest I know). I'm struggling to figure out WHAT CAN I DO??? I just feel like the little boy with his finger in the hole in the dike. I don't always see how I can be effective.

I fed one little boy who was in a single-father household. He came daily, craving attention and eating anything and everything I let him eat. I tried to keep boundaries with him but he was at my house so much I couldn't watch him 100% of the time, and we kept finding him alone in my kids' bedrooms... then my kids' earned money disappeared after he'd been here. I gave the kid a coat and hoodies. I gave him 2 meals a day, occasionally 3. I gave him attention and advice about bathing and hygiene. He started calling me mom. Then he takes the money my kids earned raking leaves? And lies to his dad, saying he earned it "raking grass." His dad gave us the money back and forbade the boy from coming to our house ever again. Do I believe this boy, that his dad is mean and abusive? He looked like a concerned and caring father to me.

We've had black men walk down our street and caution my husband against giving beggars food, telling my husband they'll just sell the food when they get around the corner and use the money for a hit of crack. The black men are walking between the Section 8 housing on the next block and the bus stop or store, my particular street is close knit and friendly to one another, but closed to the "outsiders" walking down our street. I call the cops for street fights, drug deals, all that I can watch from my bedroom window. There are Projects at either end of my block.

I feel helpless sometimes. I want to help. But I'm white. The suburban white people including my parents and in-laws think that I'm some kind of liberal commie pinko for using the words social justice, and they don't understand why I want to live "in that black 'hood." My kids are awesome- after homeschooling they are fitting right into their mostly-black schools and making friends and inviting kids over- all the other white kids for sure, but my oldest son is making plenty of black friends too. Where we used to live in Austin, TX, our church was at least half minority, multiethnic and their friends were of all colors. I didn't raise my kids to ignore color- I agree with another writer who said ignoring color breeds racial prejudice because that which you refuse to talk about with your kids becomes a scary mystery. I taught my kids to embrace color.

But I definitely see differences. I see women walking with small children who treat them less than pets. Ignoring children except to fuss at them and cuss at them. Treating them like they aren't really people. Kids less than school age are just conditioned to be treated like animals- then sent to schools and herded like animals too. I see people who just drop wrappers from the candy bars they just bought in the Family Dollar. They don't even consider for a moment what the are doing. They just drop the trash. They just walk into the street without considering that anything exists outside their personal space. If they fall or get hurt, they blame everything but themselves. Why such helplessness? Is it learned? Is it from when they were slaves and few break out of the old learned behaviors? How do we fix it?

I just don't understand.

Amy, I will let the experts answer some of your tougher questions, but for now, 1. No it is not from slavery (Black marriage rates were higher than white marriage rates at the beginning of the 20th Century; many contemporary writing suggests that black children were better behaved/less spoiled than whites) 2. Yes, of course it is learned.

Read Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple. Those essays describe the same behaviors in the white cockney British. Draw your own conclusions about the "why."

Great post and I appreciate the points you draw out.

The only issue I took is the point about "fighting foster care." I may agree with you, if by that you mean fight the disproportionality that is in the foster care system. There is indeed a major over representation of minorities, primarily African American, in the foster care, juvenile justice, probation & parole and correctional systems. There are currently active groups working on addressing this and I think the Church can play a huge role in helping by intentionally fostering minority children.

If the statement is to end foster care in general, I can't agree. The alternative is group homes and RTC's (Residential Treatment Centers), which are not a step in the right direction.

This article hits so many heart strings. For the past 3.5 years, I have spent a night a week going to Love Park in Philadelphia to share food with and talk to homeless men. It took quite the spunky woman before me to get this ministry off the ground; through my persistence and that of other dedicated members, we've kept it slowly plodding along, often stepping on the toes of our mostly Asian pastors. (I am white; so was the woman who started the ministry.) We know we're not solving anything. We have absolutely no training or professional skills to help these men. We just want to talk to them, pray with them, encourage them, listen to them and meet them where they are.

One thing they harp on (and most of them are African American or Latino... rarely we meet a white guy, and once a Thai woman) is how much they screwed up their education. I tell them that I am thinking of becoming a teacher (I go to Temple University, and I have visited "da hood" a number of times), and they encourage me but warn me of how hard it will be. My boyfriend, who teaches at West Philadelphia, experiences this everyday. To throw a wrench in the mess-- he's Asian. He's one of three Asians (staff and students) in the whole school. If anyone is stepping out of his comfort zone into the danger zone, it's him. And there are plenty of stories of how the racism between blacks and Asians in Philly is becoming worse than that between blacks and whites.

I guess what I'm getting at is the same question as the others: what do I do? Sure, I can become a teacher; but then am I to let myself be sucked into the system? And am I not perpetuating the race divide as a white woman instructing mostly minority children, trying to "civilize" them the way I've been "civilized"? And how do I mobilize a predominantly Asian church, many of which are international students, to get out on the streets and love this city? To befriend those that are unlike them? To do more than evangelize with words but also love with justice-inspired action? I feel like I'm fighting a hurricane with toothpicks.

All of those things are wood hay and stubble if people are not given the life changing Gospel

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Anthony Bradley published on January 8, 2011 9:14 AM.

Book Notice: The Power of Pro Bono was the previous entry in this blog.

Bill Zeller's Painful Suicide Note--Sexual Abuse & PTSD + A Conservative Christian Home = Suicide is the next entry in this blog.


Executive Editor


Senior Contributor


Senior Contributor