Tag: city renewal

Institutional Church Can’t Renew the City

Today over half the world’s population lives in cities and half of those cities are Asian. There are over 400 cities with a population of over a million. The future of our world is profoundly urban shaped. As cities have emerged, morphed, and multiplied over the centuries, they have created the contours of civilization. Cities are man-made infrastructures that facilitate the flow of goods and services, exercise government, provide education, produce, and contribute to human flourishing in general.

Urban planners and theologians alike have come to view cities as spaces comprised of various domains. A domain is distinct sphere of city life. Experts identify between five and ten domains—Family, Education, Media, Arts, Business, Government, Social Services and so on. These domains work together to create holistic urban life, to foster human flourishing.

How does the Christian church fit into the city? Where does the Church fit into urban domains? What is our responsibility with regard to human flourishing? Consider a few of ways to view the church’s relationship to the city. Read the rest.

This article was originally published by Boundless as “How to Renew a City”

How Cities Shape Us

Cities aren’t just socially dense; they are also culturally influential. Joel Kotkin in his almost classic work, The City: A Global History, describes cities as places that are sacred, safe, and busy. They are centers of spirituality (sacred), commerce (busy), and security (safe).

The strength of a city depends on the strength of these three forces—the spiritual, social, and commercial. These three forces also combine to produce culture in a city—a mix of ideas, behaviors, and products. How do these culturally influential cities shape us?

The Need for Sacred Space in Cities

The spiritual has been banished from the city commons, certainly the Gospel of Jesus. It’s not appropriate to talk about Gospel, especially with strangers or acquaintances in the city. It wasn’t always this way.

The Importance of Sacred Space in the City

As it turns out, the spiritual was critical to urban flourishing throughout history. Joel Kotkin points out that the cities have flourished the most are the sacred, safe, and busy. For centuries religious structures have been prominent in cities—temples, churches, cathedrals, mosques, pyramids. In the ancient city of Ur, in Mesopotamia, it was the priestly class that created a critical sense of order and continuity in the city. Very often the temple was the center of city life. Now why was this important? The sacred space in cities provided moral and social order, an agreed upon set of mores that promoted the general welfare of the city. Kotkin goes so far as to say that “Without the notion of sacred space, it is doubtful cities could have ever developed anywhere in the world.” (9)

Without the notion of sacred space, it is doubtful cities could have ever developed anywhere in the world.

Removing the Sacred from the City

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was the Christian clergy that revitalized the city in Europe. They preserved language through translating the Scriptures, promoted education, and advocated a sense of authority often absent from the post-Roman era. However, when the sacred was removed from cities they declined. In the industrial era, crime and slum housing abounded especially in cities like Berlin, Leningrad, Moscow. Cities devoid of sacred space became rampant with crime and poor living conditions. There was no moral restraint but that of the state. The state was not enough. In his concluding remarks after a sweeping analysis of the history of global cities, Kotkin writes: “Cities can thrive only by occupying a sacred place that both orders and inspires the complex natures of gathered masses of people.” (160) History shows we need spirituality to order socially dense cities.

What makes Christianity so unique? Christians, in particular, have a history of building renewing cities. This is part of sociologist Rodney Stark’s thesis in Cities of God. He points out that when cities were ravaged by plagues, poor sanitation, and crime, it was the early Christians that stayed behind to tend to the sick, the poor, the orphans, and slaves. He says that Christians created a “miniature welfare state” within the city. A “city within the city” if you will. What about the modern era of New Urbanism? In modern cities we find that the sacred role is now often ignored. Kotkin says of new urban planners: “they rarely refer to the need for a powerful moral vision to hold cities together.” (158) This does not bode well for the welfare of the city.

The Church as the Sacred City to Come

Secularism has displaced the sacred space so crucial to cities. The skyscraper has replaced the temple. The new religion of urbanization is wealth, status, and quality of life, all of which are often driven by greed. The spirituality of the city is secularist consumerism. With increased quality of life comes a higher price of life. Low-income housing is hard to find. Minorities, students, and artists scramble to pay rent and live in the city. Many cities are experiencing a massive reordering of social life in our city. A deepening fissure between the haves and the havenots due to a misuse of money and power. An inordinate desire for more hurts others. It would appear that there is a need for more than a simple social reordering. Secular space has not sufficiently replaced sacred space. In fact, it has arguably made it worse. The city needs an alternative spirituality, a “sacred space” that is powerful, potent enough to reorder the spirituality of the city.

The Gospel of the kingdom promises this alternative. It is the good news that Jesus Christ came to inaugurate a kingdom that will eventually right all wrongs, reorder the disorder, and secure an eternal city that is sacred, safe, and busy. The end of history is a city. In Revelation 21, that city is also depicted as a temple illuminated by the light of the glory of God in Christ. As Andy Melvin sings, “The sun and moon will be replaced by the light in Jesus eyes.” According to Malachi 3, for some that light is a burning oven, consuming the unjust and the wicked to establish justice on the earth. For others that light is the sun of righteousness with healing in its wings. The same flame that burns is the same flame that heals. Is the church reflecting or obscuring the light of the Lamb?

Through the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, Jesus is building that city that is to come. He is constructing a city of light–the Church–that is to be a foreshadow of the city to come, a people so renewed by the gospel that they renew their cities. Are you foreshadowing well or poorly? Revelation 21 shows us that the city that is to come is not a sacred space in the city; it takes up the whole world. It is not one sacred space in the bustling urban environment. restraining moral disorder and social ill. The whole world is now a sacred space, a holy city, teeming with life, justice and happiness, where people ultimately live for God not self, ordered around Jesus not a self-made spirituality.

As Kotkin avers, there is need for sacred space in the city. Not a holier-than-thou kind of space but a serving-you-well kind of space, a kind of Christian that makes the best of the sacred and the best of their city.

City Renewal Resources

A City Renewing Church

These are exciting days in Austin City Life as we work out our vision to be a church that exists for the social, spiritual, and cultural renewal of the city with the Gospel of Jesus. This vision culminates in our mission to be a city renewing church, locally and globally. Our past two messages on Why Renew a City? and How to Renew a City have been very fruitful in clarifying vision, equipping for discipleship, shifting paradigms, deepening the gospel conversation, and promoting mission in our great city.

Resources on the City

I haven’t been alone in formulating this city renewing vision. Many great leaders, scholars, pastors, and urbanists have gone before me. I’m deeply grateful for their help. Right now, I’m about knee-deep in books about the city and discipleship. Urban studies, missiology, best practices. Here are some books I have found helpful. I have deliberately left out domain specific resources, i.e. books on poverty, creativity, economy, arts, and so on. These books have helped me better grasp the power and nature of cities like Austin.

The City: A Global History – Kotkin’s historical study of cities has become a modern classic. This short but dense work argues that all great cities combined three essential elements–the sacred, the safe, and the busy. Enduring cities have been cities with a strong spiritual-moral center, robust security and governance, and a teeming economy. He sprints through history with these lenses making it a fascinating read.

To Transform a City – This is an explicitly evangelical attempt to understand what it takes to transform a city. I had the pleasure of speaking with Eric Swanson at a conference and was impressed with his facility and experience with city renewal. Swanson uses the Lausanne aphorism to chart his approach to city renewal: The Whole Church, Taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole City. It is littered with great quotes, insights, and ideas. He practices city renewal in Boulder, Colorado.

Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas – This is a very helpful book for locals, but also for people who live in Creative Class cities. Joshua Long is a professor of Social Sciences in Switzerland but lived in Austin for a number of years. He blend anthropological reflection, sociological analysis, economic trends, and geographic importance. He draws on the concept of topophilia (“sense of place”) to explain the unique blend of urbanization and deep resistance in cities like Austin. People in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Raleigh-Durham, Portland, and Minneapolis should not overlook this book.

Author of Weird City, *Joshua Long* will address Austin church planters at our next PlantR meeting. You won’t want to miss it!

The First Urban Christians – an academic treatment of the shift of early Christianity from a village based religion to a urban movement, particularly through the lens of the ministry and times of the Apostle Paul.

Cities of God – Rodney Stark does great sociology. This book traces the movement of early Christianity into its urban expressions and offers compelling reasons why Christians have historically been at the center of city building.

To Change the World –  This is an excellent sociological analysis of the polar ends of American Christianity (conservativism and liberalism) and their attempt to change the world through political power. Hunter avers that political power is the last thing that Christians should be using to change the world, and questions whether or not we should set out to change the world at all. His solution to this dilemma is a call to faithful presence of Christians in all realms of life embodying the message of Jesus in the new city commons.

Urban Tribes – a good look at the practice of community, commitment, and family in cities. Insightful, readable, distressing, important.

All Tim Keller’s Writings & Redeemer’s City t0 City Documents on the City