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.
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.