Defining "Urban"

The "new" Urban

Urban. A word that when left undefined can have unlimited interpretations. To some urban speaks of the older run down areas of a city. To others urban is synonymous with the African-American community. Before defining and justifying the need for urban apologetics, it's best I clearly define what I mean when I say urban. One of the best definitions I have heard on the topic came from my good friend and fellow urban church planter Dhati Lewis who says urban is simply defined as density with diversity. I think his definition is accurate, simple and to the point. Urban is anyplace the masses gather to live life according to the convictions of their worldview.

A generation ago the definition of urban was exclusive to the poverty stricken neighborhoods that housed ethnic minority people groups, primarily the African-American and Latino communities. Included in this line of thinking was idea that the urban reality and its unique issues only existed inside of a concrete labyrinth composed of inner city streets. Although poverty and it's problems may have crept into some suburban communities that were nestled and tucked away from the large scale woes of the inner city, bordering buffer communities kept the majority of the cities issues at bay. This understanding of urban may have been true during the turbulent Sixties but today it is no longer the case. The realities of urbanization and the browning of America alongside gentrification or urban renewal have reshaped the metropolitan area's of America and redefined the meaning of the word urban.


Urban, according the US Census Bureau is defined as a city with a population with 50,000 or more residents. This definition captures the reality of urban meaning density. Today, in the United States nearly 80% of the population lives in areas that are now classified by the US Census Bureau as urban.1 The new definition of urban includes the 4/5 of the United States population, not limiting it to the poverty stricken areas of the inner city or African-American and Latino communities. In my experience, many who live in the new urban context are unaware of it because they are operating under an outdated definition of the word urban. With the population shift that is taking place in America's cities and suburbs, its safe to say when one hears the word urban, they must begin to think 'metropolitan' which includes both the inner city and surrounding suburbs and not simply 'minorities'.

Over the past ten years there has been a growing diversity of population in the suburbs of America's cities, which are now classified as urbanized areas. This diversity is the tangible results of what is known as the browning of Americawhich is the reality of ethnic minority people groups having the highest population increase in the urban context2. In 22 of the top 100 populated urban areas in the U.S. there is now a 50/50 population split between Caucasians and ethnic minorities.3 More cities are anticipated to see this split occur in the future due to the fact that in minorities are growing more rapidly in number than Caucasians. The evidence of this was reported by the USA Today when they broke the news that in 2011 ethnic minorities delivered more babies than Caucasians, a first in American history4. The new urban as Dhati put it, is one that reflects density and diversity.


Over that past few months I've been blessed to travel to over two dozen American cities before my family and I relocated from Kansas City to Atlanta. During my travels I was privileged to have many conversations with people from all walks life who are now living in America's new urban context. No matter the diversity of one persons background from the person in the next city, there was always one common theme that was present in each conversation, the topic of urban renewal. Some conversations had a positive tone regarding the new corporate and small businesses that were arriving in these revitalized communities. Some conversations were negative regarding those who were raised in these communities moving out to the surrounding suburbs because to some it was abandoning the urban core. 

The Reality of the Population Shift

My Personal Experience

During my years in Kansas City my family and I were apart of the urban renewal from two opposing sides; as city dwellers that lived in a transient community that's run down and at that bottom of the list of renewal and as minorities living in a newly urbanized suburban context. Regarding urban renewal in Kansas City, the conversation for years neglected us and did not really begin to bear fruit until the early to mid-2000's. For years the citizens of Kansas City watched other cities revitalize their downtowns and get rewarded with major concerts and sporting events that we could only watch on TV and complain about never coming to us. Yet, even with Kansas City being less than a decade in to the urban renewal process the majority of renewal projects have taken place downtown with a few surrounding communities in the art district having facelifts. Major projects for the more poverty stricken communities were said to be on the books but due to one reason or another many never saw the light of day or where stopped during early phases.

Now that my family and I live in Atlanta, a city that is years down the road in the process of urban renewal when compared to Kansas City, we see and hear about urban renewal from a whole new perspective than before. In Atlanta we are living in an area where a decade of renewal has separated the populations not by race but by economics. Our family is positioned in an unique area that sits in the heart of transformation. Down the street in one direction is a shopping center whose anchor tenant is a national grocery store chain where the majority of employees and patrons are ethnic minorities that ride the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) to work and shop. In this same run down shopping center are seven fast food restaurants, Government public service agencies and closed down shops that once catered to ethnic beauty supplies and fashion.

Traveling almost at an equal distance in the opposite direction of our house is another shopping center with the same national grocery store as the anchor tenant yet, the employees there differ in both age and ethnicity alongside the majority of patrons who set the alarms on their expensive cars before walking into the store to shop. In this newly built shopping center are four restaurants where people sit down to eat (no drive-thru's), a doctor's office (not an urgent care center or free clinic) and stores that cater to home beautification. These two areas are less than a mile away from each other yet, they are worlds apart separated by urban renewal that markets to meet the needs of a more well to do demographic.

The Personal Experience of Others

To make room for urban revitalization, the once poverty stricken areas of American cities are being bought up, torn down and rebuilt to suit the newly migrated urban dweller. As for the indigenous urbanite who is growing discontent with the neglect of renewal coming to their community, they are being offered Section 8 housing or voucher options in the suburbs in the name of a better life. From Kansas City to Atlanta, from Brooklyn to Compton, the faces of inner cities and the suburbs surrounding them has changed as indigenous city dwellers are moving out of city limits and suburbanites are moving into the city center.

While speaking to locals about our community I've found out that ten years ago, the neighborhood around us was one that outsiders did not visit or move into due to crime. As the housing market began to take a turn for the worst new buyers began to purchase foreclosed homes and rehab them. This then opened the door for new small businesses to be born that catered specifically to preferences of the new homeowners. Within a few years, the demographics began to change so drastically that major corporations began to see these renewed areas as opportunity for profit so they put their stakes in the ground and won the trust of the new locals by building new shopping areas to serve as alternatives for them traveling to the 'old part of town'. While these new commercial districts were being created the up keep and renovation of older and now run down commercial areas were being ignored.

While businesses are closing their doors in these areas, the people who once lived and shopped here are moving to different areas of the same city or it's surrounding suburbs. Some of the commercial buildings that sit vacant are being purchased by Latino people groups that are progressing forward with their own version of urban renewal. Latino meat markets, grocery stores and restaurants are now becoming more normative in communities where ten years ago little no Latino influence was seen. In my conversations with people in other cities across America what I am describing about the reality in Atlanta is happening where they are. 

The Reason for the Population Shift

What is happening before our eyes in America is a true economic and ethnic melting pot where suburbanites are moving to the city while urbanites are moving out to the suburbs. The growth of America's cities are now larger than the suburbs. According to the Los Angeles Times all 51 U.S. metro areas that have a million or more people experienced a 1.1% population increase from 2010-2011 while their respected suburbs increased by only 0.9%.5 The article suggests reasons for this population shift seem to be caused by a delay in young adults starting families and their are choosing to move into downtown lofts or inner city apartments that have been rehabbed rather than buying suburban homes. The younger generation and workforce of today seems to desire community in the city over the comfort and commute of suburban living. Some economists claim the reason for a renewed interest city dwelling is the regionalist approach to taxation6. Simply put, this is a plan that predicts a forecasting of America's suburbs folding into the inner cities and thus seeing our cities become regions.

The suburbs of yesteryear are now having density and diversity thrusted upon them. The utopian societies that were once shielded from the woes of the city have now seen an increase in poverty7 and crime8 over the past decade while crime inside of the city is on the decline. The masses are gathering and living life according to the convictions of their worldview. For some, their gatherings in the city center is for community and for others their gatherings in suburban America is for the hope of a better life. The response of the American churches to the new urban can either be a willful denial of change or a diagnosis of the culture in order to see disciples commissioned to make disciples.

The Response of the Church to the Population Shift

Assessing the Culture

Where there is a diversity of people there will also be a diversity of beliefs and lifestyles. The churches in America that are positioned in metropolitan areas find themselves in a quandary where they must decide on how their make-up or DNA and methods might have to adjust in order to meet the needs of their changing community. These churches can respond biblically by seeking to make disciples of all nations or ethnicities per the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19—20) or anti-biblically by embracing self-preservation.

In order for churches who are in the 'new urban' reality to respond biblically, they must take effort to assess the theological landscape of America that is shaping our culture. Whether Christians want to acknowledge it or not, America is a post-Christian nation whose culture is enticing our citizens (legal or illegal) to pursue a system of beliefs that forces them away from the truth of the gospel. The culture then presents them with appealing alternatives in faiths and philosophies that are in contradict Christianity and worldviews that lacks moral absolutes. In support of this reality is Dr. Al Mohler who said, Moral Relativism has replaced the church as the predominate voice of the culture.9 According to the 2008 ARIS survey (54,461 polled), those who professed to be Christians were 76%, which was a 10% decline from the previous poll in 1990.10 Yet what is more troubling than the decline of American Christians is the fact that of the 76% professed Christians only 34% of them claimed to have a personal relationship with God by being “born-again.”11

The results of this survey projects that reality of America's 'churched' culture is moving more towards an acknowledgment of God while not knowing who He is simply because they do not know Him. If this trend continues, the results will show themselves to be parallel with the reality Paul dealt with during his days of ministry inside of a pre-Christian Roman Empire (Romans 1:18—32). With a sense of urgency in his words, Josh McDowell said this current generation of adults could indeed be the last Christian generation in America.12 The question is, what will the church in America do in order to get back to making disciples of all nations? Before one can make a disciple, they must evangelize to those who have not embraced Jesus Christ to be the exclusive answer to their sinful depravity. Evangelism takes place when a believer shares with a non-believer the one message that contains God's omnipotent power, the gospel. After the evangelism takes place and God moves upon the heart of the hearer to respond by embracing Jesus Christ as Savior (John 3:3-8) the Christian must make the conscious commitment to disciple this person. If churches in the new urban context are going to be biblical in their response to the population shift in America, they must learn from the mistake of past American Christian movements by equip their members with a balanced view of biblical evangelism and discipleship.

Addressing the Church

While looking at the history of American Revivalism (i.e. The First Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement which I consider to be the Fourth Great Awakening) through the lens of our reality today, each previous evangelistic movement gradually ended due to a lack of discipleship put forth from healthy churches after the 'revival' ended and the 'evangelistic crusade' left town. I agree with Bill Hull who said the church has tried to do world evangelism without balancing it with disciple-making.13 In his book, Growing True Disciples, George Barna says the church in America is comprised of many converts and few disciples.14 Hull supports this claim by reporting only 25% of Evangelical Christians meet the biblical standard for being a disciple.15 The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines a convert as one who changes from one faith to another.16 To complement my point Barna defines a disciple as one who is becoming a complete and competent follower of Jesus Christ.17 The march towards a post-Christian America is an immediate reality due to a lack of balance in many previous evangelistic efforts that divorced evangelism from healthy churches that would follow up and follow through with converts in order to see them become biblical disciples, who then would make biblical disciples.

Answering the Call

Over the past few years I've had numerous conversations with suburban pastors whose congregations have a desire to reach the minority people groups moving into their communities but are timid when it comes to addressing the social issues that used to be 20 miles away but are now in their backyards, school districts and shopping malls. The most common issues that have been sited are; biblical illiteracy that is demonstrated by a low level of the comprehension and belief of what the Scriptures teach18 in addition to illiteracy itself, false doctrine19 (statistics from a survey I distributed to 4,000 attendee's of the 2012 Unashamed Tour), a lack of exposure to healthy family systems20, and non-biblical view of salvation amongst America’s youth21.

One thing I often share with these pastors is the fact that, although their church may offer healthy doctrine, life skills training and practical advice on biblical stewardship, if they do not have an intentional focus on seeing the ethnicity of their leadership reflect their community, their heart-felt efforts may be overlooked by the ones they desire to reach. From a minorities vantage point, nothing tells me I'm welcome in a church more than leadership that looks like me. When minorities see other minorities in leadership we become encouraged and challenged to become leaders ourselves.

I'll never forget the time I was blessed to be one of the first minority speakers at an Evangelical denomination’s national youth conference. Within minutes of me getting off of the stage after preaching my first sermon I was greeted by a hundred or so African-American and Latino youth. My heart was already primed for encouragement by the edifying words given to me by youth pastors and students who were sitting closest to the stage as they were the first to reach me. When the African-American and Latino youth approached me people watched in amazement when we greeted each other with handshakes and one armed hugs. When onlookers began to ask the youth how they knew me, I fought back tears when their responses were, “he's one of us”. Forever etched in my mind will be the words of a 14 year old Mexican from Los Angeles who said the moment I stepped on stage and began to talk he and his whole youth group began to cheer because they saw a Latino on stage preaching and immediately felt like 'they made it'.

Appointing Cultural Hybrids

As a follow up I often inform the pastors that the worst decision they can make is to fill an open leadership position with any random minority. I challenge them on taking the time necessary in identifying, interviewing and installing what what my friend Lecrae calls a cultural hybrid. A cultural hybrid is a person that has equal respect in two opposing cultures that can serve as an effective translator to bring about harmony between them. In urban ministry the cultural hybrid is the person leaders of churches in the new urban context can entrust leadership responsibility to and know they are qualified to fill the position, not simply serving as a number to fill a quota.

In some what of a joking manner, I often tell people that I am fluent in three languages that all begin with the letter E; English, Evangelicalism and Ebonics. In God's providence, He allowed me to be born and raised in the inner city, become a graduate of failing public school system, saved out of the streets from the penalty of my sin and then transplanted onto the campus of Calvary Bible College and Calvary Theological Seminary. After this God in His sovereignty decided to send me back into the same city streets I used to run as His ambassador making an appeal for reconciliation in accordance to 2 Corinthians 5:20. As I look back on my life experiences I have no reason not to praise God for His work in my life and my desire now is to be one who can gather fellow cultural hybrids and point them to churches in cities that want to respond biblically to the population shift in the urban context.