By Liz McEwan
It’s been 13 years since I first stepped foot in Cincinnati, Ohio.
My first good view of the city was from an overlook on the edge of downtown. The city looked small in comparison to my hometown of Chicago, but I couldn’t deny that it was beautiful.
Cincinnati is an eighteenth century river town, just a few short hours from both the Great Lakes and the Appalachian Mountains. From where I stood that day, I could see its entire urban core, where it lies nestled between the Ohio River and Kentucky to its south and large, steep hills to the west, north, and east.
It has taken a while for this city to rise above the underdog reputation it racked up during the past half century, but it only took me a year to love it. Cincinnati is a mid-sized city with a big heart and a deep history. It’s constantly reinventing itself, growing, and changing. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to find the city on a map; now I’m not sure I’ll ever leave.
My husband and I, with our three kids, live in the downtown neighborhood Over-the-Rhine (OTR). Fewer than 10 years ago, OTR made it to the top of a list of “America’s most dangerous neighborhoods.” In those days, there were multiple open-air drug markets and a vacancy rate that would have made you wonder if anyone actually lived here at all. After a few years and millions of dollars of investment, once vacant buildings now house upscale eateries and boutiques. The neighborhood has certainly changed, both for better and for worse, and we’ve seen it happen right outside our door.
The city is a mission field. I believed that before I moved here, and I believe it still. I would even go so far as to say that, in the United States, it is the most urgent mission field of the twenty-first century, one that Christians absolutely must engage with if they want to see the gospel take root in the next few generations.
Why Cities Matter
First, God loves people. Cities have more people per square inch than anyplace else in the world, so the density itself makes it a place of importance. In cities like Cincinnati, where the population of the urban core has had a recent drastic increase, there is plenty of room for new churches and definitely space for more Christian residents.
Also cities are the hubs of art, culture, economics, and government. If we believe that Christianity should have a place of influence in our country today, we have to claim a seat at the table in places of influence. When Christians disengage from our cities, when we take our money and our families and our investments elsewhere, we remove ourselves from the conversation.
Because cities are densely populated and culturally significant, there is space in the city for a broad range of urban ministry. Urban churches (and urban Christians) don’t just care for the poor and neither do they just care for wealthy CEOs. In Cincinnati, both demographics now live side by side and the church has a responsibility to both of them.
Cities have been abandoned by Christians and social conservatives as characteristically secular, liberal places. It’s time for that to change.
One of the unique callings of Christians today is to model faithfulness in the city. Cities are being populated by a new class of young professionals. But in neighborhoods like ours, there are far more restaurants open for brunch on Sunday mornings than there are churches open for worship. Many of these new urbanites were introduced to the Christian faith as children but are estranged from it. They need to see Christians modeling biblical families, good work, and godly culture in the context of the city. They need to know that it’s possible to both engage in their world and devote themselves to God. They need to see that faith is compatible with living a vibrant, creative adulthood.
On Mission in the City
We consider ourselves missionaries to this city, but not in the way you might think. No one is paying for us to live here. We don’t write support letters, and our congregation has not commissioned us for any specific ministry. My husband and I met in this neighborhood and spent many of our first days together here. We got married downtown and we felt called to build a life here.
When I say that we consider ourselves missionaries, what I mean is that we feel called to live on purpose, on mission, to the place we live and to our neighbors here. But the nature of our ministry changes day by day, just like our neighborhood.
My husband works for a nonprofit Christian housing ministry; I work two days a week for a different nonprofit that provides resources for community improvement projects. We work hard to disciple and educate our children, love our neighbors, welcome strangers, and support our local community and economy.
We are often discouraged because, even though we are busy and positively exhausted with good work, it’s hard to quantify the value of our ministry here. And living here is not always easy, especially with young children. There have been days when we were only moments away from posting a For Sale sign on the front door.
The Truth About Life in the City
City living is not for the faint of heart. Even though they are building expensive condos for empty nesters down the street, this is still a city. And every city has distinctly urban problems.
The city is busy, dense, and diverse and it requires daily interaction with people in ways that are not always easy or comfortable. The “best” neighborhoods are too expensive; affordable neighborhoods can be loud, dirty, and dangerous. Urban living is a lifestyle choice and living here requires adjusting our expectations about privacy, personal space, and autonomy.
But for all the ways that living in the city is a challenge, it is still a fantastic place to live and to raise a family. Traditional cities and towns (as opposed to newer, sprawling suburbs) are designed for people and, after a while, the difference is almost palatable. This is one of the things that makes our neighborhood such a joy.
In traditional urban design everything from street parking (rather than private garages) to the shared public spaces and amenities makes human interaction easy and natural. When going about our daily business in the neighborhood, we rub shoulders with people from every demographic and walk of life. They become familiar to us and we to them. Hopefully they become friends.
To be fair, God was gracious in allowing us a home on a really beautiful street—the kind of street where people come take family photos when the leaves fall or the trees bloom and people walk by saying, “I’d love to live on this street some day.” Not everyone in our neighborhood is so blessed.
Shalom in the City
This street wasn’t always this beautiful. Forty-some years ago, it looked just as vacant and blighted as the surrounding streets did. But a few people bought into the vision of a better city and bought the vacant buildings. They repaired the roofs and rebuilt the walls; they planted the trees along with their family roots.
This street is lovely today because someone chose to love it all those 40 years ago. The same is true about the most beautiful streets in every other city in the world. Restoration doesn’t happen by chance; it is cultivated through action.
The Bible is full of illustrations of the redemptive power of God transforming physical things as a symbol of the spiritual. When God sent his people to preach the promise of redemption, he sent them preaching and working. They rebuilt ancient walls, freed captives, healed the sick and brokenhearted, planted new gardens, and so on. Scripture teaches that the gospel has the power to (and Christ intends to) restore all of creation (Isaiah 60–62; Luke 4). When Christians participate in the work of both spiritual and physical restoration, the result is something akin to the Hebrew concept of shalom—the peace of God.
The story of creation begins in a garden and ends in a city. The New Jerusalem revealed in Revelation 21 is a glorious city in which all things have been restored, where God finally dwells fully among his people and his shalom is the law of the land. When we work to renew and redeem the broken parts of our communities (whether in a city or elsewhere), we get a taste of the kingdom of God and see a glimpse of the world to come. This is the “pearl of great value” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 13 and a mission and pursuit worthy of our great—and costly—investment.
We need more missionaries to our cities—but not only in the way you think.
Liz McEwan is a wife, mama, urbanite, musician, and blogger in Cincinnati, Ohio (ejmcewan.wordpress.com).