Public Square & Theology 101

Why Cities Matter: A Love-Hate Relationship with Los Angeles

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I have always lived in Los Angeles.

More specifically, I have always lived in the South Bay suburbs of Los Angeles. My love-hate relationship with LA is understandable.

My father and I each had nearly 40-year careers in LA’s aerospace industry which provided well for our families. With the comparatively ideal weather and great access to ocean, mountains, desert, entertainment, sports, culture, and theme parks, what’s not to love, right?

The heart of downtown LA (or DTLA as we Angelenos call it) however, is another matter. As a child, DTLA represented decay and danger and remained mostly off-limits to folks that knew better. Of course, I grew up in a pretty sheltered, upper-middle-class neighborhood, and downtown LA in the 60s and 70s was well known for gang violence, riots, and urban decay.

Even through college in inner-city LA at the University of Southern California, students like myself were urged not to venture off campus due to the lack of safety in the community. The only car of mine ever stolen was while living at USC. So DTLA was largely a place to respect, fear, and selectively enjoy (who doesn’t love a Tommy Burger?). But not love.

So the notion of “loving” greater Los Angeles, including places like DTLA, as a city had simply never occurred to me. It would be like “loving” a local power plant. They are necessary, dirty, unattractive, and largely to be avoided.

But God is at work on my heart, and I’m on a slow journey to see the city anew.

I recently came across a wonderful book by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard called Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church. Building on the excellent longer work of Tim Keller’s Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, Um and Buzzard made several great points that are helping me see God’s heart and plan for the city.

As committed Christians seeking to love God and neighbors, Um and Buzzard state in biblical terms that cities are “places full of neighbors.” God loves people, and humanity’s migration toward densely populated urban areas has been accelerating dramatically over the past 20 years.

In fact, they write that “by 2050 the world will be 68.7 percent urban. In more developed regions, the number is likely to reach 86.2 percent.” Um and Buzzard aptly cite urban economics expert Edward Glaesers, who simply said, “cities are people.”

Aim of the Cultural Mandate

Cities are also where most of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 takes place.

Humanity’s call in the garden to fill, work, and rule the earth for God’s glory and our good, finds its clearest expression in the city.

Cities create what Um and Buzzard call clustered density and connective diversity, which serve to foster intense and increased levels of engagement, learning, and productivity. The incredible diversity, interaction, and leadership of various industries in Los Angeles, for example, make it poised to have unparalleled local and global influence for the foreseeable future.

Making something of the world was always God’s design, and cities are consistently the best places for producing innovation, industry, and cultural good. As Um and Buzzard state, “the city is mankind culturally formed.”

Serving in the City

Additionally, our call to service through our work finds ideal opportunities centered primarily in the city. Cities are where institutions are formed, learning centers and universities are spawned, creative businesses are generated, investment and banking companies are centered, local governments proliferate, and the arts and culture are inspired.

It is for these reasons that so many flock to these urban centers where the potential for economic and cultural flourishing are found. The deep desire of today’s millennial generation to make a positive difference in the world has driven large populations of young urbanites to locate in or near large city centers.

Believers who care about the shape of culture and the redemptive presence of God’s people in the world are well positioned for engagement and influence through choosing vocations embedded in city life.

Cities as Refuge

Also, cities are places of refuge. In spite of the brokenness and unrest so often present in our cities, they remain the place that diverse peoples move to for safety, economic security, community, and fulfilled hopes and dreams.

God specifically provided cities as places of refuge (Num. 35:9-15).

Even with rampant homelessness, corruption, racial unrest, protests, and strife, cities generally remain the best resource for those seeking to flourish.

Cities as Worship Centers

And lastly but probably most importantly, cities are centers of worship.

Um and Buzzard state this well: “Whether centered around a mosque or a financial district, a cathedral or an entertainment sector, all cities are built in honor of and pay homage to some type of ‘god.’ It’s not if you’re worshipping; it’s what you’re worshipping…” People in cities “turn to false gods, such as power, fame, possessions, privilege, and comfort…city living has a unique way of fostering spiritual openness.”

This should be seen as a great opportunity for more open conversations about spiritual beliefs among our non-Christian neighbors and co-workers.

Editor’s note: This article is republished with permission from the Center for Faith and Work Los Angeles.

Learn more about how we can participate in “God’s good work of restoring and reconciling the world to himself” in All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel

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Photo credit: Ron Reiring, (CC by 2.0). Exposure filter added.

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