I've been in two truly great cities just this weekend. Milan again. Then 24 hours and a train ride through the two sides of Turin. The modern shiny centre with an urban sprawl full of ordinary families from all over the world living simply on the breadline.
Cities matter, big cities will matter even more as the 21st century progresses. Estimates suggest that by 2100, over 90% of the world's population will be crammed into urban mega cities, mostly in the global south. Even our major European cities will swell, not just in population, but as economic and cultural centres that transcend the old notions of national identity. Giant, multi tribal, multi cultural, constantly regenerating hubs of tens of millions of people.
The old stories of the bible show us that God has always been interested whenever people gather into cities. Ninevah, 120,000 strong, ancient Eastern City, yet so contemporary in it's arrogant swagger - a city needing to be noticed, a self made, self sustaining kind of place where only the strong survive, the rich get richer whilst the poor stay in the gutter. You see, the same old cliches about giant communities still apply today.
Another enduring truth is that cities matter to God. Not the buildings, the institutions, so much as the people. In fact, if the Ninevah story is to be believed, the animals too!
These crowded hubs of humanity where every square foot of space is accounted for - they break God's heart. The multitudes of workers who don't know their right from their left, the kids heading back to schools, the elderly who no longer know how to find community. Therefore the systems do matter too - the economy, the work place, the education system, the services - it all matters.
As I stood amongst the crowds of rushing workers and wide eyed tourists in front of Milan's Duomo on friday, I reflected on the idea that a city is the only place on the planet you can be lost and yet alone in a crowd - But God would grace such places with dignity and purpose. He lifts the lonely, the poor and the multitudes in dead end emptiness, up from the mundane, giving them worth and value where they had only known meaninglessness.
The killer question is this - if cities are so much on God's heart, then why have God's people largly ignored them? We know the early pioneer church of the 1st Century was deliberately a city taking movement in the Roman world. Strategically, they impacted urban centres and flowed out - a city to rural movement. In recent years in the west though, we've managed to reverse that trend. Post war migration of the educated middle classes to the suburbs has been reflected in the Church community, believers fleeing the 'hard' urban centres to form holy huddles around the extremeties, safe from dangerous influence.
If we learn anything from the ancient/modern story of Ninevah, then we must look to see this unbiblical trend turned around. It is more informed by fear than by the purpose of God for His followers. God surely wants His prophets in the heart of the city? God surely sends His Jonah communities to live amongst the City dweller in order to reveal His Father's heart of compassion for the lost multitudes? If we don't go and live this way, how will they ever know what He is like?
Such prophetic communities don't live in fear of being swamped, wondering if they can still catch the last train out of town before the judgement comes. No, they have seen something of the nature of God. They actually believe they can contaminate the city, that their small, weak churches can boldly influence an apparently stronger clty culture and see it transformed. They have come to town to reverse the curse, to build a city within the city. They don't dream of escaping to Zion, to a New England, they determine to build it here, amongst the lost, by the grace of God.