BOSTON: THE MOST STRATEGIC CITY IN THE WORLD FOR A CHURCH PLANTING MOVEMENT?

The mission of the church is to make disciples by proclaiming the Gospel to all nations. Jesus established this mission with his disciples 2000 years ago, and it will continue until it is completed as the book of Revelation describes with people from every tribe, tongue and nation on earth standing before the throne of God (7:9-12). As we talk about mission, it is essential to include a discussion of stewardship, because while the church presses out in mission, there is not unlimited money, time or people to send into unreached areas. While balancing the sense of “God’s call” to the unreached nations, the church has to consider where to focus time, energy and resources for the largest kingdom-impact. Though it is important not to view people as a means to an end (“win these people so we can…”) we should seek to be the best stewards of resources so that the most people can hear and have the chance to respond to the Gospel message.

Paul’s Target

It is clear from reading the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament that Paul, and many other early missionaries, focused their efforts on planting churches in the influential cities of the Roman Empire. It has been well documented by scholars such as Rodney Stark1 that reaching the Roman Empire was largely done through the cities. While cities were very important then, they are becoming even more important now as worldwide populations are becoming increasingly urban. Recent research suggests that nearly 70% of people on earth will live in cities by 2050.

Boston Is Like a Roman City

Realizing that God calls people to serve in different areas for the sake of the Gospel, the question is, “are some places more strategic than others in terms of potential for reaching more people?” The apostle Paul seems to have used this strategy when he targeted cities like Rome, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus and Philippi. I would like to suggest Boston may be the most strategic city on earth to make a worldwide impact for the Gospel. Why? Is it because Boston is teeming with Gospel-believing Christians? Hardly. Boston was recently ranked as the 2nd Least “Bible-Minded” city in the U.S. (out of the largest 100 cities)2, and a look at the American Religious Database Archive (thearda.com) reveals the Boston metro area is only 3.2% evangelical.3 In addition, in 2012, it received the wonderful distinction of being the drunkest city in the U.S. for the second year in a row.4 While Boston is not a force in the kingdom of God in any meaningful sense right now, it is a very unique city in many ways, and these qualities make the potential impact of another great awakening there very significant.

A Global City

The first, and most central, fact in considering the worldwide impact of another great awakening in the Boston area is that Boston is ranked 21st in Global Cities Index (2014).5 Factors taken into consideration for the index are business activity, human capitol, information exchange, cultural experience and political engagement. Boston is trending upward in the index, which has been published every two years since 2008. In addition, Boston is ranked as one of the Elite Global Cities on the index and is third in the world in the Global Cities Outlook measuring future potential global influence.

A second relevant fact is that Boston is a center for higher education, both in the Western hemisphere and worldwide. It has one of the highest concentrations of college students in the U.S. and also has one of the highest concentrations of international college students6 in the U.S. This means people from all over the country and the world come here to study, and most will go back home or somewhere else to live and work. Thirdly, to add to Boston being a center for education, it is also considered to be a global center for innovation, research, information technology, medicine and finance. The city exerts a global influence by nature of features like having the best hospital in the country (Massachusetts General)7, being the most innovative city in the world (2011)8, and by having one of the highest concentrations of wealth of any city on earth.9 In addition, the city ranks 8th in the 2013 Global Financial Centers index.10 This means that Boston is connected to financial markets and companies in cities across the world. As an example of growing influence in finance/business, in early 2016, GE, the eighth largest company in the world, decided to move its global headquarters to Boston.

Finally, Boston’s population is very unique in some other ways than just having a lot of college students or good hospitals. Not only is Boston very ethnically diverse,11 it is also very densely populated. It is the third most densely populated large city in the country, just behind New York and San Francisco. People live close to each other (some might say on top of each other), including people from different economic means. Boston is the least economically segregated city in the country.12

One Small Thing That Makes Boston Different

Okay, so enough with all the stats! You might be thinking, “Can’t most, or even all, of these things be said about the other cities on the Global Cities Index?” The answer is yes, and that is why all of these cities are important to the mission of the Gospel. But why is Boston still unique in this list? Because, with the exception of Washington DC, Boston is by far the smallest city on this list.13 As a matter of fact, it is tiny compared to all the other cities! The population of Boston is only 625,000; it is 7.5% of the size of NYC (#1), 4.7% the size of Tokyo (#4), and 16% the size of Los Angeles (#6). The next smallest city in the top 15 is Vienna (#13) with a population just under three times the size of Boston. All of this information points to one conclusion: Boston exerts a higher global influence per person than maybe any other city in the world.

Reach Little Boston, Reach the BIG World

As we weigh all of this information and consider Boston as possibly the most strategic place for the Gospel to take root through a church planting movement, some questions arise:

  • Does the Gospel tend to permeate a smaller population or a larger population more easily?
  • Does the Gospel tend to spread through a densely populated area faster than one where people are spread out?
  • If the Gospel were to impact a small, densely populated city with a truly disproportionate global influence, what are the opportunities for impact worldwide in five years, ten years or 25 years?

These questions shaped my calling to see City on a Hill Church plant churches across Boston and the nations. We see the potential for a huge global impact for Jesus here. If 6,250 people come to faith in Jesus in the city of Boston, the percent of Christians changes 1%! If the same thing happens in New York, the percent of change is less than 0.1%. That kind of change in a city (any city) has a tangible effect, especially as it moves several percentage points.

Churches that Plant Church that Plant Churches

What needs to happen to see this kind of impact in the city of Boston and the nations? It starts with planting hundreds of churches that, along with the other Gospel believing church in the area, become the catalyst for a great awakening in the city and region. This will require a lot of prayer, partnership, financial support, in addition to God raising up church planters and core group members both locally and from across the country. A small example of the impact of a Gospel movement in Boston can have is a young man who came to faith through the church I planted/pastor, City on a Hill Church. Drew was a bright young Vietnamese student at Tufts Medical School. He was from a Buddhist family in Southern California and had little experience with the Gospel. Through the ministry of City on a Hill, Drew met Jesus and went on to marry a young Christian woman in our church. After graduation, Drew was placed as an orthopedic surgeon resident at a prestigious hospital in Los Angeles. He came to Boston for a degree but instead he got something much more valuable. Now, Drew desires to be a godly husband and doctor, on mission for Jesus. What would the impact of thousands of “Drews” be across the U.S. and the nations in the next 20 years or more?

Bland Mason is pastor of City on a Hill Church in Brookline/Boston, Mass.

1 Stark, Rodney, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York, Harper Collins, 2007)

2 https://www.barna.org/research/cities-states/infographic/2016-bible-minded-cities#.VqEwAFMrLfa

3 http://www.thearda.com/rcms2010/r/m/14460/rcms2010_14460_metro_name_2010.asp

4 See this and other 2012 rankings for the city of Boston (good, bad, and ugly), at http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2012/12/19/year-in-review-2012-boston-rankings/

5 A.T. Kearney and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs http://www.thechicagocouncil.org/UserFiles/File/Globalmidwest/2012_Global_Cities_Index.pdf

6 For example, there are approximately 18,000 foreign students studying at just Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern. http://www.wgbhnews.org/post/boston-colleges-lead-foreign-enrollment

7 http://health.usnews.com/health-news/best-hospitals/articles/2012/07/16/which-cities-have-the-besthospitals

8 http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2011/10/18/boston-ranks-1-most-innovative-city-in-the-world/

9 http://www.newgeography.com/content/00934-rating-world-metropolitan-areas-when-money-object

10 http://www.zyen.com/images/GFCI_25March2013.pdf

11 http://regionalindicators.org/equity/demographics/race-ethnicity/

12 http://bostinno.streetwise.co/2012/08/10/boston-is-the-least-income-segregated-of-americas-big-cities/

13 Washington D.C. and Boston have nearly the same population. Washington is high on the Global Cities Index almost exclusively because of its significant score for political engagement (#1 in the world). Washington is important to reach but does not exert the same multi-dimensional global influence as Boston.