Bringing the City of God to the Cities of Earth


The design of our communities shapes how we interact with one another, love one another, and grow with one another. But who shapes those communities?

In a broad sense, we all do. Our choices of where and how to live, learn, work, and worship collectively influence the market, ministry decisions, and what feels “right” and “normal.” But some professions—city planners, urban designers, architects, and real estate developers—take a larger and more direct role in creating our cities and neighborhoods. And for many Christians in these industries, faith guides their construction of spaces for community flourishing.

Where we live can echo both the creation and redemption yet to come (Rom. 8:18–25). These places can foster deep, lasting community in a fragmented world, four Christians in these industries told me, and the local church can be a model of inviting, appealing design.

The pillars of good urban design—beauty, function, community building, accessibility—are more than fads or human preferences. They’re a foretaste of the redeemed earth, a signpost pointing us toward a better way of living. And it shouldn’t be lost on us, said Chris Elisara, chair of the Congress for New Urbanism Members Christian Caucus, that the world to come isn’t described as a garden or a quaint village but as a city (Rev. 22:3). “As we participate in kingdom building,” he told me, “it culminates with [that] city description in Revelation. And that’s where God dwells with his people again.”

Accordingly, more mundane “kingdom building” through city planning and urban design shouldn’t be thoughtless, out of touch, or chaotic. It must be carefully considered in line with how we’re called to live together in Scripture. “We all fit together in creation in a way that’s particularly designed,” Elisara continued. “And so when we do our planning, our architecture, we need to bring an understanding of how to do those in such a way that they are commensurate with God’s vision of humanity.”

In A Theology of Cities, the late Tim Keller described that vision as “marked by God-shalom (Jeru-shalom)—his peace,” one concrete outworking of which is accessibility and the neighborliness it facilitates. Resilient community flourishes when the built environment encourages incidental encountering, easy gathering, and casual strolling—what architect and urban designer Mel McGowan called facilitating “horizontal connection.”

“When I look at the instructions Christ gave us to love God and to love our neighbor, they’re both relational,” urban designer and architect Michael Watkins agreed. “And I’m certain we can design a built environment that allows us to be more relational.” In Watkins’s work, this means creating neighborhoods and developments that encourage mixed uses, multigenerational living, and walkability.

It’s easier to get to know your neighbor when you see them in their front yard or in line at the nearby shop each day. It’s easier to befriend a nearby family when you see them at the park a few times each week. It’s easier for a church community group to live life together when members are literally—not only spiritually and emotionally—close.

But vertical connection matters too, McGowan said. Sara Joy Proppe, a former real estate developer and founder of Proximity Project, similarly told me that she believes the built environment is a crucial part “of what shapes us as human beings—God created it as a setting for our stories.”

Part of Proppe’s work is helping churches use their property well. With her guidance, congregations have turned unused acreage into community gardens, dog parks, walking paths, and other small-scale public spaces for organic neighborhood life. “I really care about strengthening the church to be very active stewards and have their place” in a community, Proppe said. “The built environment is such a conduit for living out the gospel. And I think that’s a piece that churches don’t see very clearly.”

Church design itself can have an important—if often unnoticed—impact on the life of a city too. Historically, churches in denser, more urban neighborhoods were often built to be the anchor of a block or a neighborhood, sitting in a prominent spot like a street corner or in front of a small public square. Neighborhood life, both secular and sacred, would revolve around and within the church. Physically orienting local life around the church was a safe bet because, as Elisara wrote with geography professor Chris Ives, churches tend to be “stubbornly committed” to their communities and places.

McGowan has studied how churches and other houses of worship fit into the design of cities in centuries past, and he’s learned firsthand that modern, secular substitutes—big-box stores and massive movie theater complexes—simply do not have the same effect. “We were literally trying to recreate this feeling of human-scale, European urbanity, but it was always sacred space that was the center point” of those older communities, he explained. A Target or a theater might fill the space, but it won’t give local life the same long-term anchor and transcendent meaning.

Of course, post-war America embraced a different approach to home and church design—one that was car-centric and suburb-oriented—and, today, relatively few of us live in a neighborhood built around church life. Our churches tend to have large parking lots on even larger plots of land, and the massive spaces that are useful on Sunday morning often sit empty (or barely used) the other six days of the week.

Those of us who aren’t in an urban planning field can think about how to put such spaces to good use. All Christians are called to “cultivate and keep” our world (Gen. 2:15, NASB), and that includes our houses of worship and the spaces around them. Whether urban, suburban, or rural, how can we make our church properties more beautiful and useful? How can we make them places that reflect, in Elisara’s phrase, “what it means to be fully human as God made us to be”?

Greater density of people and uses is often a good place to begin. Denser spaces designed to be relational allow us to encounter both the joys of community and its more “sanctifying” elements: annoyances, selfishness, and sin. Churches with acreage or rooms that are empty more often than not can explore using those spaces for child care, education, affordable housing, or even an entire “urban village.”

And beyond church property lines, Elisara advises Christians to actively “advocate for policies in [their] cities, towns, and neighborhoods that are best for that city,” including safer streets, greater freedom in housing construction, and better non-car transportation options. Advocating for these things will look different for Christians who live in more suburban or rural environments, but our built environments shape our lives at any density—and even if we fail to notice, they shape our faith too.

Rabekah Henderson is a writer covering faith, architecture, and the built world around us. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has been featured in Mere Orthodoxy, Common Good, and Dwell.



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