The Urban Challenge

Bill Echols
East Orange, New Jersey

"There are three great areas of our world which the churches have not really penetrated. They are: Hinduism, Islam, and the culture of modern cities." This statement is found in one of the documents published in preparation for the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Amsterdam in 1948. If it is true of the churches of the world, it is even churches of Christ of America. Most of the metropolitan areas of the United States, especially in the East, are practically untouched with the gospel of Christ.

I believe the reason for this is an anti-urban bias in the minds of my brethren that has almost become a matter of faith. Far too many 'brethren, especially preachers, either aloud or to themselves say, "God made the country, but man made the city." The cold, hard facts are that man made many of the most conspicuous features of the country, which provide examples of the avarice of man equal to that of our cities.

Another reason we have neglected the cities is the fact that many preachers come from rural areas and small towns. Thus, if a man moves to the city, he brings into his work a distaste for city ways, and this feeling is largely unconscious. Cities must not be looked upon as unavoidable duty, but rather as a positive and exciting opportunity in which is involved the whole future of the church.

The cities of America and the world present one of the most exciting opportunities of our age. Unless we act we will lose the whole city. City churches should be at the heart of our efforts to win America to Christ. There are millions of "unchurched" souls in the central cities. The key to the whole metropolitan complex lies in the inner city. From here it will flow out into the suburbs. This is not the shouting of a city-dwelling zealot, but the call to return to New Testament methods of evangelizing. Paul established the church in Thessalonica, the most important seaport of Macedonia. From there "was sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad" (1 Thess. 1:8). On another occasion he made Ephesus, a great city, his base of operations. Two years of preaching resulted in "all they which dwell in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 19:10). We are trying to do it backward. We hope that by establishing the church in "Peanut Junction," the gospel will filter into Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Newark, Jersey City, etc.

More efforts must be directed toward our cities. More funds must be spent on the cities. We spend too much on villages. Until vie have the money to spend on all, we must choose wisely. The cities of our land are the only rational choice we can make.

Why are the cities of such importance? Thirty-five percent of the population growth in America today is in the inner city. Thirty million people moved last year. The city served as a "port of entry" for many of these. By 1980 the nation will have fourteen gigantic cities.

The "urban renewal" will account for sixty percent of our total population. There are 130 cities in the U. S. claiming a population of 100,000 or more. There are one million less people on farms than ten years ago. This is no longer a rural nation.

But there is more to it than just population figures. Nearly one-half of the people in urban areas have no religious affiliation. Research shows that fifty percent of the people in urban areas who claim to be Protestants are not connected with any local church. Sixty-five percent of the Jews are not with a synagogue; and thirty-five percent of the Catholics are not connected with a church. Our image of a "missionary" is unrealistic and inadequate. We think too much of overseas or some rural areas, while the cities are looked upon as a Siberia. The cities must be thought of as places to commit our lives as preachers. Many times it is our rural churches that have money, while at the same time the city churches are very poor.

What are we going to do to meet this challenge? As one sectarian said, "Littering up the landscape with expensive Gothic is no answer to the missionary task of Christianizing America." Yet many of my brethren are actually fleeing from the heart of the city to the far edges of suburbia. If we move out of a neighborhood, we are running away from our task. My brethren will run quicker if their neighborhood becomes multi-racial. Thus we leave the impression that we are interested only in white, Anglo-saxon Protestants, and many times this is exactly right. A church I worshipped with many years ago in Dallas, Texas, sold its building and moved because some negroes moved into the neighborhood.

The growth of cities and the influence of urban civilization on our lives give new urgency to a consideration of the church in the modern metropolis. Most churches have abandoned their responsibilities to the cities. We have failed to understand the process of urbanization, which is revolutionizing most aspects of, our life and thought. Fear and flight in face of the urban challenge can only be self-defeating.

In almost direct proportion to the increasing importance of the city has been the withdrawal of the Protestant churches. Today one out of every eight people in the U. S. live in a city of more than a million people; four out of every ten within twenty-five miles of such cities. If the Lord's church gives up the cities as the Protestants have done, it virtually gives up America. Yet that is precisely what it is doing. The record of one of the oldest denominations is probably typical. During the quarter century of 1930 to 1955, while the nation's population was increasing by nineteen percent, and its own membership by forty-one percent, the number of its churches in sixteen of the major cities of the U. S. declined by twenty percent.

Much criticism, some justifiable, has been directed toward the Manhattan church of Christ, but they must be given credit for staying in the city and seeking to bring some message to the millions that reside within a few miles of their meeting place. Oswald Spengler said, "It is a quite certain, but never fully recognized, fact that all great cultures are city born . . . world history is the history of city men. Nations, governments, politics, and religions--all rest on the basic phenomenon of human existence, the city."

It is true that many times our cities are places where corruption is prevalent, but it is likewise true that within the cities reside thousands of honest, sincere souls.

The Bible tells the story of many cities. While brethren who seek to justify their flight from the city like to refer to Sodom, Gomorrah and Babylon as examples of dissolution, the Bible also speaks of Jerusalem and the New Jerusalem. These express the hope that the cities of man may yet become the cities of our God.

Brethren, the pioneer preachers moved with the frontier. Today this nation is facing a population explosion on the urban frontier. Are we ready to move with it? What strength are we pushing into the major metropolitan areas? These areas present tremendous opportunities, and great difficulties. They also offer a soul satisfying reward.

Truth Magazine VII: 7, pp. 13-14
April 1963