87% of Americans now live in a city or suburb. God still calls people to rural areas, but this post will focus on the roughly 9 out of 10 of us who live in a metropolitan area. Your city is is your first mission field.
At the beginning of this series I wrote about the fact that all Christians are ministers. Here is another, similar truth: all Christians are missionaries. You were sent by God to your city because God wants you to be there so that you can proclaim the availability of the Kingdom of God to her people. Some of us never left the city where we were born. There is a Biblical pattern of God calling people to stay in their city and love their own people. (I think of James the brother of Jesus who stayed in Jerusalem as the other apostles spread through the ancient world.) Some people are called to leave home and go to a city or people far away. Some of us are more like Paul - on the move every few years to new cities. Some are like Thomas, who according to church tradition left Judea and went farther than any of the other apostles - all the way to India, staying there.
Regardless, most of us live in a city right now. I live in Cincinnati. It is my first and primary mission field. I lived in Las Vegas for exactly ten years, longer than I have lived in any other city. Las Vegas was my first home - my first love. I used to get choked up when flying home into the airport at night and seeing the lights of the Strip. (I still get a little weepy when I see her on TV.) I knew every street and alleyway in that city. I knew her people. I became a Las Vegan. I loved Las Vegas. I miss her.
I accepted a missionary transfer to Southern California in 2005. I loved LA/OC for different reasons. It was only 300 miles from Las Vegas, but the people and culture were different. They were more diverse. I lived in a neighborhood that looked like the United Nations. My son was one of only four or five kids in his kindergarten class who spoke English as their first language. I lived a few miles from Kobe Bryant in Newport Beach and a few miles from the gangs of Santa Anna. I loved California, too. I miss it.
Then came the next transfer. It was a completely unexpected call to the most unpredictable mission field of all: Home. I was born a few hours from Cincinnati in Ashland, Kentucky. I grew up 100 miles north in Columbus. I spent four really great years in Cincinnati in college. I never, ever thought I would be back when I pulled that tiny Ryder truck out of my Price Hill apartment complex in 1995 with my smokin' hot twenty-one year old wife and a pocket full of dreams. Now I'm back...and I get to love Cincinnati again. To dream for her. To pursue her and fantasize about her. To fall in love all over again.
I think the best leaders in a city are the ones who have fallen head over heels in love with their city. I see it more akin to a romance than anything else. For me, Las Vegas was sexy. She was easy for me to love at first. Then I saw her underbelly and her true nature. I had to fight through the reality that she was a very abused and abusive city who needed my constant love and forgiveness.
Cincinnati, at first glance, is a little rusty. Historians will tell you that she peaked 100 years ago. She needs a facelift in places, but the more you get to know her to more you love her. She has many hidden jewels. She has a future. God is going to breathe life into the dead places and bring healing to the generational wounds. I don't know if I am going to be in Cincinnati for the rest of my life, but it is a very real possibility. God called me here. My story is now embedded in the story of my city. I am now a Cincinnatian who loves Cincinnati.
I think that as evangelicals, we tend to understand the idea that God loves people. He pursues them and wants to love them, forgive them and be a loving Father to them. We get that God loves people as individuals. But, I worry that - at least historically - the evangelical movement hasn't fully understood how much God loves cities. I think of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, longing for her to allow herself to be loved by him. I think of Paul's prayer walk through Athens before his speech at Mars Hill. I think of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation. I find it interesting that Jesus would give prophetic blessings and warnings to cities and not to individuals. It makes me believe that God loves cities. He loves your city so much that he sent you there to proclaim the Kingdom and live within the reality of his coming reign there. He wants to redeem your city - to turn all of the emptiness and pain and violence around. As others have cleverly noted before me, the story of God begins in a beautiful garden but it ends in a beautiful city - the "new Jerusalem" where God himself is the King of the new perfect city made of equal parts heaven and earth.
Maybe you find yourself in a city you don't love...or one you don't even really know. Your job is simple...pursue her. It's not much different than when you first noticed that cute girl in Algebra class on the first day of school. If you had any game, you pursued her all year long. (I didn't have much, but I watched other people do this quite effectively.) You wrote her notes or strategically lingered by her locker between classes. You noticed when she said that she loves Skittles and happened to show up with some the next day. You wooed her. You got to know her so that you could someday earn the chance to love her.
Woo your city. Pursue her like the girl (or guy) of your dreams. If you aren't that into her yet, read Hosea and ask God to turn your heart to her. Weep for her. Pray for her. Serve her. Forgive her. Help her. Tirelessly pursue her heart everyday. Woo her. You're a missionary.