An Urban City

I am the lead planter of Grace Covenant Church on the north side of Chicago. When we moved to Chicago 11 months ago my wife and I understood that we were moving into the urban context, but I am not sure we knew exactly what that meant. We had visited the city several times but we had never really lived in this urban of a setting. We lived near downtown Raleigh at the beginning of our marriage. That was as close as we had come in either of our lives to anything resembling urban. Raleigh, NC was nothing compared to what it has been like to live here. We moved into a different world that would force us to rethink what ministry would look like in urban Chicago. The first thing that overwhelmed us about Chicago was the mass of humanity. The houses are almost touching each other on every side street and every main road is business after business with apartments on top of each one. In about 50% to 60% of those homes that are touching each other there are multiple families. Peppered among the houses are four and five story apartment buildings with vacancy being a rare phenomenon. We went from having maybe 500 neighbors in a one mile radius to having close to 60,000 in the same amount of space. It is a lot to take in.

People here live a different lifestyle. Most people use mass transit to get around (I have a bus that stops in front of my apartment every ten minutes 22hrs a day). They take the bus or the train to work or to the store. Many people walk or ride a bike. I have met countless people here who do not own a car and some of them are families with small children. When they need a car for something they just rent a car from one of the many locations throughout the city. The majority of the parents at the K-8th grade school that my son Jack goes to walk their kids to school because the school is less than half a mile from everyone in the school district.

It is a normal to walk down the street in my neighborhood and hear 10-15 different languages. Chicago is a global city and that is not just a cool thing to call it….it is true. A few weeks ago I took our interns about 2 miles north of us to a neighborhood that looks like you are walking the streets of Delhi (I have been there and I know firsthand). We walked a few blocks west to the Palestinian neighborhood. To our west is a population of Iraqis and other various Middle Eastern countries and along side of that a neighborhood that is 80% Hispanic. From block to block you are on the brink of entering a completely different context.

In the relationships that I have made here I have seen diversity that I could only dream of before moving to the urban context. We have a Serbian who is married to a Puerto Rican in our small group. My favorite coffee shop is owned by a Vietnamese couple who moved here during the Vietnam War. I have friends who are Japanese, British, Dominican, Polish, and Australian. Most of these are first or second generation immigrants. All of these relationship happened in the first year of living here.

These are some of the factors that make the urban context a radically different place to live and it also calls for a different view of ministry than that of a more suburban setting. Because there are so many different worldviews in this context the general approach by most is a relativistic paradigm. The majority of people I come into contact with are politically liberal and rarely like to talk about religion. In their minds religion is something personal and it needs to stay that way. I have found that the biblical definition of morality is the significant minority in this context, even among those who attend “church.” This makes long term relational evangelism the most effective approach.

Because of the deep relationships that need to be made and the post-Christian attitude of the residents we have also had to adjust our expectations. The work here is slow and the soil is hard. As I have visited the gospel preaching churches inside the city limits, I have found one constant. They are all small. Most have anywhere between 50-100 people and those are the established churches who have been here for years. Unless there is an understanding of the lengthy process and the investment ministry in the urban context takes it can become discouraging.

In order to be live and minister here you have to want to be here. People know when you don’t like where you are and when you are here to complete a project and hope to go home soon. I have tried to give you a brief picture of what it looks like to live here. It is a tough to live in the urban context and I truly believe God has to give someone are heart for the city and for people to engage this culture effectively. I pray often that God will burden and prepare many more to join this work because of the great need in our urban centers.

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Dave Johnson serves as the lead planter of Grace Covenant Church in Chicago IL. He enjoys watching baseball and football, reading, drinking good coffee, hanging out with his family and friends, and attempting to play the guitar. He holds the MDiv from SEBTS. Dave and his wife Julie have three children, two boys, Jack and Micah, and a little girl named Callianne.