As I go through these seminary discussions and readings concerning the relationship between Christians and cities, two things are pretty certain for me. First, God loves cities and had/has great intentions for them. Second, things went horribly, completely, and utterly awry.
I have the privilege of taking these courses along with incredibly thoughtful people. They haven’t just taken wholesale this newly “rediscovered” urban emphasis of Christian faith. They get the reality that God and the Bible have an urban-centric feel to them, but they really want to fight for a conception of God’s work in the world that comes to bear upon every person in every type of place in the world–not just city-dwellers.
And so I’ve been wondering: is this “urban call” to Christians a general one, or does it only go out to a very specific type of person? Are the difficulties in cities so big, so intractable, and so unique that only certain types of Christians with certain types of giftings could find a place for Kingdom work?
Or another question. The brokenness of cities goes a whole lot deeper than tangible human suffering or institutional injustice. It goes down really deep, into the core rhythms and pulses of the city. The speed at which life goes, the consumerism that eats away at people, the making of humans into commodities.
And so the question is this: if everything in cities is (literally) built around humans and human culture, can churches do anything of any significance without giving into and playing by those rules and dancing within those rhythms? Is the “essence” of cities too broken for Christians to flourish simply as Christians and not certain types of Christians?
Ultimately, it’s the basic nature of cities to be places that are completely and entirely designed, fashioned, and purposed to serve the needs and desires of humans, not to proclaim or display the goodness of anything outside of humans. That’s what they are by definition.
I can sometimes be overwhelmed by the brokenness of the city, and wondering how to not get swept up in those things that so often seem to mark the depths and soul of the city. And yet, as I’ve thought about these things, one thought keeps popping to my head:
I don’t know that we’re even called to “fix” these things in the first place.
Christianity Today had a wonderful piece last year talking about how global poverty is at its lowest point in human history, and its largely because of the work of governments, not the institution of the Church. The piece went on to say that the call of the church is not to end poverty, but to serve and prioritize those suffering within it. And they are to do this regardless of its wider, statistical “effectiveness”.
So what are we called to do? Mission.
But, we need to be careful about what sort of “mission” we are calling people to on Sunday. Especially for those urban contexts where a significant percentage of church attendees are either not yet Christians and are just “exploring” (as it is here in Philly), I have definitely seen people have to work much harder to meaningfully connect what happens on Sunday with the rest of their lives. At my church, we’ve had to hold the hands and take through baby steps people that are otherwise quite competent and successful in their lives, and yet are still spiritual infants.
And so, rather than try and reverse what’s wrong with cities, I think my church leaders have tried to emphasize that the church’s “mission” is wider in scope than simple “evangelization” or “proselytizing”. When your church is full of high school and college kids, it’s easy to reduce “mission” to “witnessing to your friends” or something like that. But what do you say the venture capitalist? The artist? The one undergoing homelessness?
To these people we need to offer a more complex theology of “vocation” as something that is itself missional, and not simply a place where you “are missional” and try get people to come to church with you. We need to be reminded that “mission” is cosmic, institutional, cultural, and Kingdom-oriented, and not simply individuals “getting saved”.
“Mission” is doing to the glory of God whatever it is you are gifted to do, wherever you find yourself–urban or not.
We do this and simply trust God to do with our work and gifts what he will. Does he change the basic core rhythm of the city over time? Or does he teach us to dance in that rhythm, but in a redemptive way? I don’t know that I know it yet. But I feel better knowing that the weight isn’t all on me.
And so, while it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all that’s wrong in the city, there’s much more to the church’s calling that can be facilitated in urban centers, such as creating beauty, offering refuges of rest for work-weary souls, making space for true community and relationships, speaking truth to power, and defending the defenseless.
So for all of those potential urban-weary souls, be encouraged. Whatever your gifting and whatever the predominant brokenness you might see, there is still a need for your gifts in the city! May you find that place for you, and may you feel the support and grace to do it well.
[image credit: a photo I took of Philadelphia’s City Hall a couple of days ago]