I’m starting to wonder about this whole Urban Christianity thing…


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Let’s file this one under: Things I Never Thought I’d Say.

First, some realities.

America, almost since its founding, has had an Agrarian ideal spliced into its DNA that has thought more highly of the vision of the independent rural farmer–building himself up from nothing and sustaining his family by the work of his brow–over and above the idea of the dirty urban manufacturer, competing with others for the few jobs that are there.

Further, it’s pretty clear that during White Flight in the mid-1900s, whites took the association of “good, religious folk” with them to the suburbs (along with the support and attention of governments), leaving the cities to be seen as the cesspools of sin that deserved to rot away.

Along with this, the American Church (especially so, but this is definitely global) has tended to neglect cities, enjoying the safe numbers and comfort of the suburbs. In my opinion, this has helped ravage American faith, causing it to take on the aspects of the surrounding suburban culture, making it often isolating, consumerist, capitalistic, intellectual, based on convenience, behavior-driven, and not rooted to any sort of historical tradition or depth. (This does not extend to individuals per se, and it is a broad generalization, but it’s one that I think statistics would show is generally true.)

And lastly, it’s ironically true that the Bible has an incredibly consistent urban focus to it.

The Story of Redemption begins in a garden and ends in a city. The Bible expresses an ultimate “Urban Hope” to all things, and we see hints of this in the Old Testament as cities were intended to be places of refuge, safety, security, law, justice, and human dignity.

Yet, as potent as the redemptive power of cities is, this means that their fall is even bigger, harder, and causes greater ripples to echo throughout creation. Cities not marked by the rhythms of Yahweh’s life were seen as the primary recipients of God’s wrath and justice. This led to the Jewish idea of a future “spiritual” city to come, to redeem and replace the wicked city that’s here now.

And yet, in Christ and his fundamentally urban ministry, the Future City has been shown to have broken into the Present. And now this is our charge as God’s People: to live and move in the here and now as citizens of the City of God, even as we live and work in City of Man, in the hope that, just as in Christ, the Cities of God and Man might be made one and the same.

Rediscovering Cities…and then what?

And so, especially in response to the unprecedented, global population growth in cities, amazing and godly theologians have been spending the past couple of decades, trying to recapture a Christian appreciation of the urban world. They see cities as concentrated areas of both the worst and best–the most broken and beautiful–aspects of human creation and therefore of the imago dei.

And upon hearing this “urban-centric” Gospel, I jumped in head first. I have spent almost the past decade “drinking the Kool-Aid” of this urban focus to ministry. And yet, perhaps with all my readings in seminary, I’m starting to realize that I don’t think I’ve understood at all what I was talking about.

What exactly are these urban-focused theologians saying about areas that are not the city? Even as they try and desperately say they are not speaking ill-of or less-than rural or suburban areas, I still get the impression that they seem to think there is something essentially different about cities–something essentially better. But in what way?

Are we having these talks about focusing on urban ministry simply because it maximizes missional efforts? It is true that culture, politics, media, technology, money, and power all flow from the cities to the other areas, so are we simply talking missional “effectiveness” in “changing the world”? If that’s the case, then I think most Christian would be on board with accepting this fact that cities are more “strategic” to bringing the Kingdom of God to bear in this world.

But honestly, in a lot of these writings that try to “recapture the urban essence of Christianity”, the subtle suggestion is that (in spite of their insistence otherwise) they really think there is a deep theological preference and greater worth for the city than for any other type of created space where people live. I have thought even this in the past and have championed this idea. But now I’m stepping back and questioning this, wondering if I’ve simply been baptizing my own urban preference and calling it the Gospel.

So, for all my “urban theology” folks out there:

Are we simply arguing for mission technique and “strategy”? Are we simply saying that redemptive-historical dynamics are more easily and clearly observed in the concentrated microcosm of cities, and so they “train us well” for Kingdom work? Or are we saying that there is a greater intrinsic worth, missional fidelity, and redemptive use for cities over and above the suburbs and rural environments? Help me out here with your thoughts.

Because if I’m honest, I don’t think I can say I agree that the God of the Bible feels this way, no matter how much I love living in a major city.

In other words, I’d love to see Tim Keller and Wendell Berry have a long, challenging, and public conversation.(*)

So what do you think? What is the qualitative difference that Christians should feel between urban, rural, and suburban environments? Add your thoughts below.

(*) In Googling this, I found that Keller does talk about Berry in Center Church and how Berry’s vision of the “Agrarian Mind” is compatible with urban living. It’s pretty fascinating. Just click that link to the book, then click the cover to “look inside” the book, search for “Wendell Berry” in the left pane, and read the gray box on page 170. Also, here’s an in-depth urban application of Berry’s thought.

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11 thoughts on “I’m starting to wonder about this whole Urban Christianity thing…

  1. I am an architect so I have spent some time in research and in competitions looking at ways to redeem the suburbs from a built environment standpoint. I hope that there are smarter men than me figuring out this problem because every time I come to it I get pretty frustrated and end up just wanting to raze them to the ground and start over with denser, smarter, more sustainable infrastructure.

    Probably my own prejudice against the suburban lifestyle but I see it as a toxic environment for the church. I do see a greater intrinsic (spiritual and material) worth in cities (and rural living) over suburbs. I might be persuaded that it is precisely due to their low worth that they are ripe mission grounds but the only thing I can think to say to my suburban friends is to move.

    I believe Christianity has great applications to both the urban and rural lifestyles (and you appropriately mentioned Keller and Berry) but I have yet to see a great model for suburban Christianity.

    As a disclaimer I think that there are vastly different types of suburbs out there. In the Dallas area there is the relatively dense, multiethnic suburb of Richardson or Irving compared to the quintessential white flight suburbs of Highland Village or The Colony. When I speak of my vitriol of suburbs I am speaking of the latter not the former.

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    • I didn’t know you were an architect! That’s amazing. I love when I originally encounter people in a more theological or religious context, and then learn that most of their time is spent doing something completely different.

      Anyway, I completely agree. I have NO clue how to appropriate the suburbs into this discussion. My parents pick up that I feel this way, and they defend themselves simply saying “this is where we want to live! It works for us. We love that you do well in the city. That’s great. We couldn’t. Nor could we live on a farm. This works best.” And I can’t argue with them about that. They’re right.

      I grew up in one of those types of Dallas suburbs you mention (Mesquite, TX), and yeah, it was diverse and dense economically and ethnically. Before you mentioned that, I had never made that connection with my upbringing and how not all suburbs are created equally. Since then, my parents have only lived in the OTHER kind of suburb, though. They’re currently in Northern, Virginia, near where AOL has their headquarters. Everything there is no more than 20 or 30 years old It’s crazy what a built environment looks like when it was entirely conceived and created during this particular cultural flashpoint that obsesses over convenience, security, and self-gratification. And the built environments reflect that.

      The suburbs still create amazing, godly people, and so perhaps we simply have to have a place for a theology of “non-place”? That’s what the suburbs feels like to me: a non-place. I’m sure as white flight reverses and suburbs become lower-income, with more immigrants and minorities living there, missional theologians will begin thinking more deeply about them. In the meantime, I guess we just have to trust the Spirit that he is just as strong in suburbs, even if certain dimensions of full, historical Spirituality will inevitably be missing. I feel bad that suburban Christians seem to have to work even harder at simply BEING Christian in a fuller sense, but perhaps that is their lot and we can trust the Spirit with it.

      So thanks again for the always insightful comments.

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  2. I don’t have a lot of time to fully engage this, but here are some initial thoughts. I’m a pastor of a church in the burbs, and have always served churches in the burbs, even though until and through seminary I lived in an urban environment, and desired to serve a church (or plant a church) in the city – but God’s plans are not my plans. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately and I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the suburbs (I’ve actually found many aspects of living in the burbs life-giving), it’s just that we as the Church don’t know how to be the Church in the suburbs. Here’s what I mean… as the suburbs grew we just ‘threw’ up churches and people came to church because that’s what “good Christians” who were moving to the suburbs did. But, as the suburbs are beginning the second/third/fourth generations – who aren’t ‘church goers’ we don’t know how to be the Church in the ‘secular’ burbs. We don’t know how to be in community with fellow believers in a way that impacts our communities. I think one of those reasons is because being in the suburbs means you’ve got people who are a part of your church from several different communities because of the ease of travel, etc. We haven’t really had to exegete the suburbs because up until this point if you ‘just had good programs for kids/families’ you could grow your church. But that’s changing. Not that kids don’t want good programs for their kids, they just aren’t looking to the church to find them. They can be found through the community center, YMCA, etc. I agree that the cities can be strategic and that we need gospel centered churches there, but the suburbs and the rural towns need them too. I don’t have any great answers at this point, so I’d love to hear more and engage this topic more with others.

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    • Thank you so much for commenting! This is a perspective I was looking for. Like I said above, as this next iteration of the suburbs continues, I think we’ll finally start seeing theologians consider how to “be the Church” in the suburbs. At least I hope so! I wouldn’t want to the suburbs to be treated like the city of the past 200 years or so and neglected because it’s seen as “not as worthy” of Kingdom pursuits and work.

      But still, how important do you think things like diversity, poverty, systemic and institutional injustice, large cultural centers, long geographic history to draw from, and a solid theology of “place” are to the fullness of Christian faith? I’m genuinely asking. These are the sorts of things that are offered in the usual attempts to say that more Christian resources should be spent on cities than the suburbs. Is there an aspect of our Spirituality that’s lacking when you spend all your time in absolutely homogeneity, comfort, and ease of use for EVERYTHING around you?

      I wrote recently about the damaging and “un-Christian” rhythms that are woven deeply into urban centers. I also asked if those things were “essential” to the way a city is, or just a way we’ve perverted them? I think urban theologians have been good at offering alternative visions in light of these deadly dynamics in cities and how Christians can be a “counter-City” within the city. Does that make sense?

      Now, how would you apply that to suburbs? I admit, I think I see those soul-crushing, “un-Christian” dynamics woven deeply into cities (I mention some above). And these are dynamics that can easily and blindly overtake Christians and shape and form them into certain types of people that look a whole lot more “suburban” than “Christian” culturally. But, if I’m honest, I just realized that (right or wrongly) my assumption is that these dynamics ARE “essential” to suburbs. It’s the very purposes for which they were designed. I haven’t thought beyond that right now, so I don’t know right now if that’s ultimately correct, but I’ll ask you, what do you think?

      In other words, what does the “Suburb of Man” look like, and what does it look like to be the “Suburb of God”? What are the wicked aspects of “suburban culture” and how can Christians live as a counter-culture, protesting against it?

      Would love your thoughts.

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  3. Being an architect has been such an integral part of my identity and I sometimes forget that when I make new friends I have to announce it. I love it when I get to use my “expertise” to comment on one of my other interests – like theology.

    Non-place is a great label. A theology of a “non-place” brings to mind the inaccurate picture that a lot of evangelical Christians have of a non-physical eternity. The picture of a bunch of bodiless souls floating around God forever. Where will all these souls who receive their new bodies live in the new world?

    The “Suburb of God” is a great mental exercise. One of the main problems with a lot of suburbs is that they are ontologically parasitic on their urban neighbors. In a redeemed world all I can picture for them is to be incorporated into the redeemed version of their host city.

    Which brings me back to the different types of suburbs – I think the successful ones are ones that find a sense of place and start building on it. They become their own being. This is the strength of good cities, good neighborhoods, good small towns, good homes, etc. I don’t fault the suburbs for being new – every place was new at some point – it is just how they look to mature that is the question. Most have not built a great foundation for the future so I expect that there will be some rather bad growing pains.

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  4. I always thought that you guys wanted to focus on the cities because they were such cesspools of sin as you mentioned.

    I’m not surprised that you didn’t know what you were talking about as you mentioned, since it’s all very hard to tie down into specifics.

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  5. Hey Paul,
    Hope you are doing well. I have been working closely with Terry Geiger (The work horse behind Keller’s City to City Church Planting Program) as he has consulted with ECO (Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, my denomination). I am a Church Planter, and as I reflect on your post I can say that I have had the same questions, so I get you. But let me insert a few clarifications on the Center Church City mentality. 1) The purpose of urban, city centered ministry is that it would effect the grander social, cultural, and spiritual environment, i.e. the suburbs. What happens in the city trickles into the sub-cities. So we need to center missional efforts in the city because that is the center source of the energy and movement of a culture, but… but… that is allways with the intention to be churches that plant churches, that is the heart of Keller and Geiger. The churches that are planted in the center city always must be churches that reach to plant churches outside the center city. 2) Can this be done in reverse, plant in a suburb, and then plant in the urban out of the suburb, No. Why do I say this, “can a river swim backwards?” No, it goes in one direction, and in our curant cultural climate, the city has always been the epicenter of cutlural influence, so we must start there relationally and move out. It is simply the nature of relationships and the way people gather, for good or bad. I have not read the above comments so I am not sure if my comments here are redundant, but that’s my two sense. Great question Paul. Let me know your thoughts. Thanks, Dave!

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  6. Pingback: On a Theology of “Non-Place” & Being the Suburb of God | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  7. Pingback: Urban Lessons: Why cities will kill your soul. | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  8. Pingback: Does God Really Love Cities More? | Prodigal Paul | the long way home

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