Tag: new urbanism

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

Urbanolatry: Repenting to Learn from the Country

Much has been made of the “City” of late. On the global scale, over half of the world’s population inhabits cities and urban migration is on the rise. Stateside, burgeoning New Urbanism coupled with a minority of urban-focused evangelicals is generating a growing interest in urban life. The new urban mantra is: “live, work, and play in the city.” Austin is on its way to creating this kind of downtown environment.

I am definitely for the city. I really enjoy living in the pulse of the city–the community, the culture, the crud. It is enlivening and alarming, a reminder that heaven has not yet quite become earth! It’s also a great opportunity to participate in renewing and redeeming the brokenness of the city. As pastor Austin City Life, I get to redemptively engage the peoples and cultures of Austin with a missionally-minded community. Yet, in all of this urban living, working, redeeming, and playing, I sense a certain city-olatry, the worship of the city. People love their cities, even to a fault. Certain evangelicals have become so city-focused that concern for rural areas is falling to the wayside. Some have even argued that the expansion of urban slums is a positive economic development (and maybe it is), but in all this urbanolatry we do well to pause and learn from the rural, from the culture of the country.

In his thoughtful essay on tobacco, Wendell Berry lists the benefits of tobacco production. Among them is the practice of “swapping work.” Tobacco, Berry points out, is a very “sociable crop,” one that calls upon the entire community for help in the setting, cutting, stripping and harvesting of tobacco. He comments:

At these times, neighbors helped each other in order to bring together the many hands that lightened work. Thus, these times of hardest work were also times of big meals and much talk, storytelling and laughter.

I was struck by what we can learn from this country culture, from tobacco harvesting outside city limits. In the city, especially among knowledge workers, when a workload increases community declines. People buckle into the cubicle or office for days, only to emerge an angry, tired mess. Berry recounts a community increase with hard work, more laughter and meals. Urban work deadlines bring about despair, less meals, less sleep, and less time at home with the family. Far from enriching community, urban work isolates individuals from co-workers and families.

It would appear that the city has much to learn from the country. Perhaps some repentance from urbanolatry is in order. A little humble pie for us urban dwellers and an opportunity to digest some rural wisdom, “work swapping” could take us a long way in cultivating community, in renewing the city.

Community and Identity in Cities

This guy has a fascinating post on the cultural, political, theological and philosophical reasons we flock to and flounder in cities, especially to megapolises. He poses questions like: Why do we enjoy living in cities? Where do we get our sense of identity in the city? An excerpt:

Do we create only an illusion of community for ourselves by patronizing our favorite businesses? The human spirit seeks to cope and make the best out of a bad situation. Those who can’t will probably leave or seek alternate, less wholesome remedies. And yet, is this not a community more of our mind and choosing? And, hence, not a real community? (Similarly, how easy is it for us to acquire new friends and abandon old ones as we switch jobs, dwellings, or our boyfriend or girlfriend?)