Sunday, October 07, 2018

The City - Part One

Listening to the podcasts from my son's church in Houston, I was struck by how often the pastors and ministry leaders would frame their actions in terms of the city, or sometimes, a particular neighborhood of the city.  I first heard this in the 60's while at a Congregationalist church, when earnest young pastors, seminarians, and writers of slim volumes about social gospel would stress that God Loves The City.

That came from a context of people having moved to the suburbs in the previous two decades, and some congregations building new churches away from downtown. The money had gone outward, leaving the poor behind in deteriorating neighborhoods. This struck people associated with seminaries (in cities), and denominational national and regional offices (in cities), and many established churches (in cities) as an abandonment, a rejection of the poor. As it was in the late Civil Rights era it had a strong racial tone to it as well.  To the critics it smelt of nice Lutherans and Episcopalians and Presbyterians trying to get away from black people. Which is likely partly true. I have heard that sentiment consistently since then - 50 years.  Not from the people in the suburbs, certainly, but in the mainstream denominational writings and mission statements.  The idea that "God Loves The City" remains strong.  Christian groups in cities think of themselves in terms of the neighborhood or city.  They don't think of their ministries as something regional, statewide, or national.  The City is the natural boundary they think in terms of. One can tell they have also quietly smuggled in the idea that this is a holier way to go.  Not that anyone would quite say that out loud, but it's unmistakable.  We are working in the City, Jack.  We are out here in the City, where the People are. We aren't hiding out in our protected suburbs (like you), or out in some rural backwater, we are here where it's real. 

Evangelicals come under criticism - I have done so myself - of tying the idea of the church too closely to the idea of the nation.  That would be God Loves America in some special way.  Or at least, that the ways of God and the ways of America are tied together importantly.

The two ideas seem pretty similar, don't they? People who in the flesh like cities, because they are way more hip, or fast paced, or have a greater variety of restaurants tend to believe that God sees things the same way.  People who like being part of a Nation because of group power/safety, or like a broad unified culture rather than a fragmented one come to see God as preferring that framework to act in. Right now, the city group is liberal, the rural is conservative, and the suburbs are mixed. Sometimes it depends on how close the suburb is to the city. We like what we like, and assume God makes it holy.

The Bible recognises both. God speaks of rest for the nations and gathering the nations, He speaks of judging whole cities, and building a city.  We just shouldn't kid ourselves about these things. Our preference of geographic grouping may be driving our values or the other way around, but they are in any case not the same thing. We can define ourselves in terms of family or tribe, of neighborhood or city, of county or state, of region or nation or broad cultural West, but these are all temporary.

1 comment:

james said...

Another take on the city: "For Williams, the Image of the City was the Image of what he calls the vicarious life. Christians are always being exhorted to “live for others”. Williams says that the City makes it known that we not only live for others, but because of others. Others have labored and you have entered upon their labors. You only have to spend a day in a major city where there is a sanitary strike to understand just how little of an abstraction this is. "