Learning To Love The City


In preparation for life in the big city, the biggest of all cities actually, confirmed by recent estimates, I have been reading Tim Keller’s “Center Church“, a book written about understanding the uniqueness of urban ministry. Keller’s book has done much to bolster what I learned recently from Perspectives (particularly YWAM’s Tim Svoboda) as well as challenge me to unlearn some of the non-biblical misconceptions I have held about the city.

One thing that Center Church has taught me is how different urban ministry looks from rural ministry and even the suburban ministry that I have grown up in. Though I technically grew up less than 25 miles from 3 major cities (San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose), when it comes to church ministry, I might as well have been 1,000 miles away. City life is very different from suburban life; it only takes the average suburbanite a few hours in the city to realize that they either love it or hate it. Cities are high energy,diverse, chaotic, gritty, to name a few adjectives, while suburbs are general the exact opposite. City dwellers tend to dislike spending time in the suburbs and vice versa. Which proves Keller’s point: ministering to the people of the city looks very different than ministering to the people of the suburbs.

I’ve always held a love-hate relationship with the city. While I love the diversity and creativity the city offers, I dislike the busyness and chaos. I love the hundreds of great restaurants but loathe hunting for parking spaces. It’s always been a relief to me that I can get in my car or on a train and be in the heart of the city in less than an hour, but I can also return home to the peace and quiet of my suburban neighborhood to escape it.

But if I’m completely honest with myself, I don’t always love the diversity of the city either. Keller explains that the city is not inherently good or evil, but more like a magnifying glass of men’s hearts. Bringing such a large mass of humanity into a relatively small area is going to bring out both the best and worst in people. And in that diversity, I find myself eyeing people as I walk down the street, making judgments in my mind as to who I can trust and who deserves my compassion. And this is my challenge because God calls us to be compassionate on all people, not just the ones we think deserve it.

Walking for an hour through the streets of San Francisco, I pass people of all walks of life. Pierced and unpierced. Businesspeople and homeless. Straight and gay. Young and elderly.  Black, white, and every color in between. And in my head, I am making judgments about them and whether they deserve my compassion. I help a lady carry a suitcase up a flight of stairs. I walk past a homeless man holding out a cup with a few coins without more than a glance in his direction. I have passed judgment on these people with my thoughts and actions.

It was a good, hard lesson today, because as much as I look forward to ministry in Tokyo, I know in many ways I have romanticized it. In Tokyo, just like in San Francisco, there will be the temptation to decide for myself who is deserving of God’s compassion through me. I will see those most in need on the street and look right through them on my way to something else. And everyday, just like now, I will have to be reminded that God didn’t reserve His compassion for any group of people, but his grace is free for all.

Lord, let me see your people through your eyes every day, and let me learn to be generous with compassion.

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