The Advantage of the City
The advantage that cities and traditional neighborhoods have over sprawling suburbs with respect to interdependence is that they allow people of a greater variety of ages to participate meaningfully in the culture. Young people, by being able to walk places and conduct transactions, are learning the rules and values of the adults in the community with whom they interact on their way. And elderly persons can be more visible and present (even if mostly sedentary) to pass on their wisdom and perspective to the younger generations. Consider architect Christopher Alexander’s advice on recognizing interdependence in community life:
Persons at each stage of life have something irreplaceable to give and to take from the community, and it is just these transactions which help a person to solve the problems that beset each stage….Patterns of mutual regulation occur between the very old and the very young; between adolescents and young adults, children and infants and these patterns must be made viable by prevailing social institutions and those parts of the environment which help to maintain them—the schools, nurseries, homes, caffe, bedrooms, sports fields, workshops, studios, gardens, graveyards.
If the church wants to be the “body of Christ” by including every member in its life, shouldn’t the church advocate a communal life that can fully include all members of the society as well?
The Car and Suburban Sprawl
Cars have allowed us to spread out our living patterns significantly. Historically, cities have had a natural limit set by how far people could comfortably walk from place to place. Then, with the development of streetcars, settlement spread in conjunction with the streetcar tracks. Slowly, with the onset of the automobile, the limits on sprawl were all but obliterated. As cars freed up drivers to live, work, shop, and play between farther and farther distances, these great distances became a fixed part of the landscape, making the car necessary for full participation in society.
The shift has been subtle, but unmistakable, as we’ve moved from thinking of the car as a convenience to considering it a necessity. This arrangement, at best, grants independence to one particular segment of our population while leaving many out. Youth who are too young to drive are completely dependent upon their parents to get them place to place. There once was a time when a young person could walk to the corner store to get a treat, walk to the local park for baseball practice, and even walk to school. Now many kids need to be driven to each of these settings—putting additional pressure on parents, who must serve as their chauffeurs.
The CEO of Gallup on The Next Center of Major Innovation
Jim Clifton, CEO and Chairman of Gallup, points to the shrunken GDP (gross domestic product) of the United States and the vast shortfall in new job creation. What is the solution? He writes,
If you were to ask me, “From all the data you have studied so far, where will the next breakthrough, such as Internet-based everything, come from?” my answer would be: from the combination of the forces within big cities, great universities, and [their] powerful local leaders….The cornerstone of these three is cities…[as] goes the leadership of the top 100 American cities, so goes the country’s economic future.
Christianity Revitalized Roman Cities
Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope.
To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violence and ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.
The Cross at the Heart of the City
At the heart of the city of London is Charing Cross. All distances across the city are measured from its central point. Locals refer to it simply as “the cross.” One day a child became lost in the bustling metropolis. A city police officer (A “bobby,” as they are referred to in London) came to the child’s aid to try and help him return to his family.
The bobby asked the child a variety of questions in an attempt to discover where the boy lived, to no avail. Finally, with tears streaming down the boy’s face, he said, “If you will take me to the cross I think I can find my way from there.” What an apt description of the Christian life. The cross is both the starting place of our new life in Christ, but also the place we must return to, time and again, to keep our bearings in life.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
The Farmer’s Market and Increasing Optimism in Politics
Daniel Kemmis provides a political model for seeing redemptive possibilities in our cities. Kemmis, a former mayor of Missoula, Montana has noted an increasing cynicism about political life in this country. Time and time again, the American public places its hopes and ideals in the national office of president of the United States, only to find its hopes disappointed. Kemmis has come to the conclusion that no solution will be found in a policy targeted at the national level, because the scale is too large.
He calls us back to our local context, to our cities, and to basic traditions like the Missoula Farmers’ Market as a place to find healing for our political condition:
Why would anyone even imagine that something like the Farmers’ Market could play a role in mending a suffering democracy? Fixated as we are on “important” state and national issues such as term limits, campaign finance reform, crime, health care, and welfare reform, this suggestion seems at first to be merely frivolous.
But, in fact, none of the other paths to reform on which people expend so much energy will reverse the decline of democracy, and none of the policies that we enact to deal with pressing problems such as poverty, racism, environmental damage, and drug and alcohol abuse will do any more than slow the worsening of these evils until we begin to understand the political importance of events like the Farmers’ Market.
No amount of reforming institutions that are widely and rightly perceived to be beyond human scale will heal our political culture until we begin to pay attention once again to democracy as a human enterprise. Without healing the human base of politics, we will not restore democracy itself. One thing alone will give us the capacity to heal our politics and to confront the problems and opportunities that politics must address. That one thing is a deeply renewed human experience of citizenship.
Identifying the Idols of a City
Identifying the idols of the city takes place in the untamed context of spiritual warfare. Those who are engaged in mapping the idolatry of the city know that this process is not simply a rational, cognitive, scholarly engagement. It is first and foremost a spiritual battle involving spiritual discernment. Acts 17:16 tells us that in Athens, Paul was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” He was spiritually disturbed.
Unless we feel-we sense and experience-that sense of distress, uneasiness, and spiritual discomfort, all talk about idols will be meaningless. To identify the idols of the city… is a matter of spiritual discernment in the context of spiritual warfare. It is a matter of having our spiritual senses geared to the spiritual condition of the city….
It is altogether different from a romantic love for the city. It is different from a naive approach to urbanization. Of course, cities are to be loved, but unless we experience that sense of spiritual angst for the city, that sense of unrest, that sting that punches us and makes us vulnerable, we will not be able to map the idols of the city..,. willingness to pay the cost of spiritual participation is an essential ingredient towards identifying idols. Identifying the idols of the city requires spiritual suffering and pain.
“I Know Why You’re Here”
One summer, Johnny was ministering among the poor on a six-week urban project with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles. Part of his assignment was to spend time in a convalescent home in the central part of the city. The elderly who are in need make up a segment of the poor who are easily overlooked in our society. Since many are tucked away in homes and hospices, they are not as visible as are those who are younger and on the streets.
This convalescent home was smelly, understaffed and poorly kept. Few residents had visitors. For a new guest arriving to serve the residents, it was very awkward. Some residents were mentally ill; some were not responsive at all. Others were even hostile. Members of Johnny’s team were struggling in the first few days with why they had been called to serve there. “Why are we here?” “This is depressing.” “We can’t do anything to help.” Such remarks began to be made openly.
One day, after Johnny had been there for about a week, an elderly woman slowly walked up to him in the hallway where he was standing. She drew close and pointed a finger at him. “I know why you’re here,” she said in an accusatory tone. She paused as my friend looked at her, wondering what this was about. Realizing he didn’t know what she meant, she went on. “I know why you’re here,” she said again. “You’re here because God wants us to know he hasn’t forgotten about us.
The woman turned and shuffled away. Johnny was stunned. Another team member was so moved she nearly cried on the spot. By the end of that summer, many of that team cried as they left the friends they had made, because in many of those relationships they had found something of the kingdom of God.
Population Trends and Cities
Through most of history, the human population has lived a rural lifestyle, dependent on agriculture and hunting for survival. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1900, almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population resided in urban centers. The number of cities with over 1 million people had grown to 83.
The world has experienced unprecedented urban growth in recent decades. In 2000, about 47 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, about 2.8 billion. There are 411 cities over 1 million. More developed nations are about 76 percent urban, while 40 percent of residents of less developed countries live in urban areas. However, urbanization is occurring rapidly in many less developed countries. It is expected that 60 percent of the world population will be urban by 2030.
The Pressures of Modern Life (Written Almost a Century Ago!)
The problem we face today needs very little time for its statement. Our lives in a modern city grow too complex and overcrowded. Even the necessary obligations which we feel we must meet grow overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk, and before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through never-ending program of appointments. We are too busy to be good wives to our husbands, good homemakers, good companions of our children, good friends to our friends, and with no time at all to be friends to the friendless.
But if we withdraw from public engagements and interests, in order to spend quiet hours with the family, the guilty calls of citizenship whisper disquieting claims in our ears. Our children’s schools should receive our interest, the civic problems of our community need our attention, the wirier issues of the nation and of the world are heavy upon us.
Our professional status, our social obligations, our membership in this or that very important organization, put claims upon us. And in frantic fidelity we try to meet at least the necessary minimum of calls upon us.
But were weary and breathless. And we know and regret that our life is slipping away, with our having tasted so little of the peace and joy and serenity we are persuaded it should yield to a soul of wide caliber. The times for the deeps of the silences of the heart seem so few. And in guilty regret we must postpone till next week that deeper life of unshaken composure in the holy Presence, where we sincerely know our true home is, for this week is much too full.
Scripture Grounds our Story in Place
Our Scriptures that bring us the story of our salvation ground us in place. Everywhere they insist on this grounding. Everything that is critically important to us takes place on the ground. Mountains and valleys, towns and cities, regions and countries:
Haran, Ur, Canaan, Hebron, Sodom, Machpelah, Bethel, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Samaria, Tekoa, Nazareth, Capernaum, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Of Olives, Mt. Gilboah, Mt. Hermon, Ceasarea, Gath, Ashkelon, Michmash, Gibeon, Azekah, Jericho, Chorizan, Bethsaida Emmaus, the Valley of Jezreel, the Kidron Valley, the Brook of Besor, Anathoth.
Big cities and small towns. Famous landmarks and unvisited obscurities. People who want God or religion as an escape from their place because it is difficult (or maybe just mundane), don’t find this much to their liking. But there it is—there’s no getting around it. But to the man or woman wanting more reality, not less, this insistence that all genuine life, life that is embraced in God’s work of salvation, is grounded, is good news indeed.
The Two Cities
In 410 AD, Rome fell to the barbarian Germanic tribe known as the Visigoths, led by King Alaric. The idea of a “Christian” city (and empire) falling was a terrible defeat, not just militarily, but also as a question-mark to the sovereignty of the Christian God the empire had only recently adopted over other pagan options.
As historian Diana Butler Bass notes, it was Augustine who helped Christians understand the distinction between what in fact were two cities, the ‘the City of Man’ and the ‘City of God’. Such reflection is helpful today when many on both the left and right political aisles assume the Christian faith is represented by their party:
Christians had forgotten that they were citizens of two cities, the one Augustine called ‘the City of Man’ and ‘the City of God.’” They conflated the two into one, fully identifying Roman interests with Jesus’ way…Although Rome had accommodated the faith for a time, Augustine believed that Rome was the “City of Man,” whose way of life ultimately was founded upon self-love, domination, possessions and glory.
Augustine contrasted that way to the Christian way expressed in the “City of God,” the pilgrimage community that loves God, seeks wisdom, and practices charity and hospitality. “In truth,” Augustine wrote, “these two cities are entangled together in this world. Sometimes the City of Man honors the City of God and its virtues, other times not. For those who follow Christ, their true home is God’s city—always purer and more beautiful than any earthly one.”
An Unexpected Messenger
In 2009 I (Dave) gathered a group of twenty lead pastors in the Denver area so we could think, dream, and pray about how our churches might join forces to serve our community. We invited our local mayor, Bob Frie, to join us, and we asked him a simple question: How can we as churches best work together to serve our city?
The ensuing discussion revealed a laundry list of social problems similar to what many cities face: at-risk kids, areas with dilapidated housing, child hunger, drug and alcohol abuse, loneliness, elderly shut-ins with no one to look in on them. The list went on and on. Then the mayor said something that inspired our joint-church movement: “The majority of the issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.
…After the mayor left the meeting that day, our group of pastors was left to reflect on what he had shared. I (Jay) can remember sitting there, and before I could think, I just blurted out, “Am I the only one here who is a little bit embarrassed? I mean, here we were asking the mayor how we can best serve the city, and he basically tells us that it would be great if we could just get our people to obey the second half of the Great Commandment.” In a word, the mayor invited a roomful of pastors to get their people to actually obey Jesus.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on the City. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!