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The City and the Church

Towards an Urban Theology in China

Since market reform in the late 1970s, fast urbanization has been the second structural transition in Chinese society. To those who believe in social progress, urbanization is a trend worth celebrating, and an urban living style is a sought-after dream. However, urban sociologists (Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and George Simile) long ago warned against the negative effects of urban conglomeration on social relationships, including increasing social atomization and anonymity, dispersion of responsibilities, rising crime rates, urban inequality, and relative deprivation.[1] Living in an urban setting also has implications for the social psychology of its residents, sometimes termed as “an ontological anxiety,” that is, the loss of one’s selfhood and identity while trying to measure up to wealth, achievements, and transient social relationships.[2] It is also the reason why therapeutic programs have become more popular with the trend of urbanization, even within the church.

In his classic work The Meaning of the City, French theologian and sociologist Jacque Ellul offers an exegesis of “the city” in the Bible, integrating sociological insights with Christian anthropology and eschatology.[3] Ellul points out that, after the Fall, seeking urban settlement has always been a human tendency, a search security. The first city was built by Cain to replace God’s Eden. The city has since taken on a “spiritual dimension” that rewards human talents, reason, and self-sufficiency. Its development is inevitable, for after the Fall, human beings have always been participating in the ongoing work of creation in this world, generating cultures and civilizations. The city is a convenient and efficient human living space for it pools resources and relies on and also speeds up the use of technology. Urban living happens under God’s common grace for human flourishing, but Christians should heed the temptations behind such developments. Biblical theologian, Geerhardus Vos, claims that although the city serves as a cultural engine for human civilizations, it also has been an accelerator for human, sinful capacities.[4]

According to Ellul, the city has an eschatological nature. In this sense, I think that urban sociology can be called an eschatological phenomenology. Ellul claims that there is a reason why the book of Revelation uses Babylon, a city—not a kingdom—to symbolize all human rebellion. The word “city” manifests the conglomeration of human activities. Dallas Willard also points out that the biggest temptation for humans lies in the building of a Jerusalem with human effort.[5] It is then not surprising that the book of Revelation also uses “city” to denote the final gathering of the godly, the heavenly Jerusalem which was built by the Creator and Redeemer.

Missiologist J. H. Bavinck summarizes different dimensions of human religious consciousness that the gospel message satisfies: (1) a sense of transcendent norms, (2) a sense of governance of existence by a destining power, (3) a sense of relatedness to a supreme power, (4) a sense of belonging to the whole, and (5) a desire for external deliverance.[6] I think that the last two are especially pertinent to the development of an urban theology for ministry. When modern people find themselves gradually being embedded in webs of urban living, they are flooded with materialism, relativism, and an increasingly segmented society. Despite these webs of confusion that form as obstacles for people to know God, questions like, what is reality? what is true? and who is God? are still inescapable for the human soul—and these are exactly the points of contact for urban ministry.

What further socio-theological implications are there for living in cities where there is a mixture of both political ideology and consumerist capitalism like China? It can be even more complicated than the urban setting in the West. Primarily, there is a dominant narrative of a state-led urban success story that Christians should be aware of. Our understanding of how urbanization happens, although not without state actions, is an integral part of our worldview. Urbanization, like structural changes in other spheres of life, happens by God’s providence. Our gratitude for daily providence and our religious allegiance is to God only. Some churches over-contextualize the gospel in urban culture to the extent of creating a social class of Christian bourgeoisie. For example, an expensive Christian Montessori education model in Shanghai has become a sought-after option for families of young professionals with preschool-age children. This early path of elite education creates a consumerist mentality that values high expenses for quality, urban living. Admittedly, there should be options so that well-to-do families can decide on educational resources for their children. At the same time, urban conveniences like these educational programs insulate people in a prosperity-centered worldview which accepts all that is urban as good and desirable.

Second, the dominant narrative of social progress inevitably imposes the “jungle rule” of competition on people. In China, it has given rise to a ruthlessly cold, social Darwinism, and recent decades of urbanization have only exacerbated this. I find that even among urban Christians, a gradation of social status in society is taken for granted. Consumerism invites young urbanites to keep up with the Joneses. It is easy to detect marks of secularism like materialism or relativism, but in comparison, social snobbery is more subtle. Urban society has become increasingly stratified. The church should be a place where such social barriers break down, but one can still observe churches that are predominantly white-collar, or churches that are made up of migrant workers only.

Third, a vast range of urban social problems are neglected or dealt poorly with by the urban church in China. In urban churches shaped by fundamentalist and pietistic traditions, ministering to needy groups in the city is sometimes considered social gospel that distracts from the church’s main mission of seeking more conversions. Even in mission, a utilitarian mentality can still be prevalent. This is an example of under-contextualization, when churches are unable to engage with their surrounding cultures. Of course, given the political constraints, the spectrum of creative mission works in urban China is relatively narrower. However, there is a lot of work to be done in Chinese Christians’ awareness of social injustice in the economic systems and social institutions. If the urban setting poses a systemic challenge, then there needs to be systemic rethinking in contextualized Chinese theology.

Based on the above discussions, I list a few summarizing thoughts on an urban theology for ministry in urban China.

  1. Know the urban context. Leaders of urban churches should equip themselves with a sophisticated understanding of how urban culture works. As systematic theologian John Bolt says, the reason human beings can build social relationships with each other and cultural entities is because of “our nature as embodied spirits and our spirits enable us to rise above the limits imposed by our materiality.” In Chinese theology, a tendency to separate the secular from the sacred, or even along Gnostic lines, has crippled church ministry in the area of cultural engagement. Nevertheless, throughout the history of Christ’s church, God accommodates human culture by transplanting the seed of the gospel into different ethnic and cultural soils, yielding the wonderful diversity and unity of Christ’s universal body.
  2. Diagnose its spiritual temptations. Even in a society with religious freedom, urbanization itself poses spiritual challenges. Wealth and power often wed themselves closely to exclude humility before God and dependence on God’s providence. However, the deepest human desire, that is, the soul’s longing for God, cannot be satisfied even in such a place of material abundance. So in the midst of all distractions and temptations, the city invites gospel ministry. Given China’s official ideology of elevating urban living as a sign of social progress while discounting other social problems, churches should guard their understanding of urban living against such a dominant narrative and be on the alert against urban pride. Urban living does not define who we are. Preachers can dissect consumerism, work ethics, the achievement culture, and other moral failures of urban living and preach on them; however, a more sober theological reflection on the spiritual effects of urban living is needed for leaders engaging in urban ministry. Based on these reflections, ministers may find some spiritual disciplines helpful, such as simple living, a media fast, Sabbath-keeping, solitude and silence, spiritual retreats/conversations, spiritual journaling, meditative prayer, serving the poor, and others.
  3. Live counter-culturally and prayerfully. Christians are living in exile even while in a seemingly secure and sufficient urban context. Out of a sober understanding of temptations and unsatisfied longings, Christians should have confidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ has something most precious to offer to their urban neighbors. Urban glamour and achievement cannot satisfy people. Christians are called to testify for righteousness and to pray and intercede—just as Abraham did for Sodom and Gomorrah. In a country like China, where Christianity has been politically censored from public media and culturally marginalized, there is a sense of inferiority among members of the church when trying to evangelize their urban neighbors who may appear successful and sufficient. Sometimes the gospel is presented as something that would meet one’s need only if there is one. The church needs teaching on how to be intentionally, and boldly, counter-cultural.
  4. Cherish Christian fellowship and gather sincerely. Urban-dwelling Christians should cherish fellowship and gather often as the body of Christ to fight against subtle temptations in the urban space. The body of Christ is the greatest mystery, a spiritual gathering of the righteous. God’s city is hidden in the earthly city of lust. Jesus Christ is their “hard reality,” forcefully opposing all the lusts and temptations offered by the city. Believers are misfits, but they are indestructible. They are pilgrims walking through a Vanity Fair. Christians should value their freedom in Christ and refuse to be captivated by the city’s glamour and achievements. These teachings are urgently needed in Chinese cities where even Christians’ interpersonal relationships are fragmented and fleeting, just like the general pattern of social relationships in the city. Sincerity and love lived out in Christian small group fellowships can be the best witness to people living in social apathy.
  5. Care about social justice. The city has many hidden recesses of brokenness that invite Christian charity as a witness to the gospel. Historically, cities with the homeless and poor all became ministry hubs for Christian churches. Social justice in the form of caring for the abandoned, the neglected, and the marginalized should be an important part of an urban church’s mission. Christians should fight against the culture of urban apathy. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to heal urban wounds and renew urban culture. Chinese churches that see overseas evangelism as the only meaningful mission may overlook these crying needs at their doorstep.
  6. Serve creatively. Aided by technology, Christians can creatively minister to their neighbors. With censorship continuing in China, the use of the “new media”[7] is an example. It can allow community mission to take on various forms. At the same time, as Ellul suggests, one has to be alert as to how technology can exert control over how people live. In China, where propaganda dominates the media, Christians especially need to heed the loyalty of their hearts to the truth of God and the truth of reality.

Wherever Christians live, city or countryside, their social environment is a magnifying lens of their heart condition. There exists no holy soil to which Christians can retreat; at the same time, there is no darkness that the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot conquer—including even the dark corners of the city. Living in the city challenges Christians to be more alert to spiritual temptations and, at the same time, more confident in the power of the gospel.


  1. ^ Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, translated by W. D. Halls (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 39, 60, 108; Max Weber, The City, original 1958, translated and edited by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth (New York: The Free Press, 1966); George Simmel, “Metropolis and mental life,” in Sociology of Georg Simmel, ed. K. H. Wolff (Chicago: The Free Press, 1950). 
  2. ^ Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford University Press, 1991), 214.
  3. ^ Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011).
  4. ^ Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003).
  5. ^ Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (HarperCollins, 2009).
  6. ^ John Bolt, James D. Bratt, and Paul J. Visser, eds, The JH Bavinck Reader (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013).
  7. ^ For a definition of the “new media,” see the first paragraph of the article “Urban Public Space and New Media Ministry” in this issue.
 Image credit: Rainy day in Shanghai by Ric Lim via Flickr.
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Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio