10 May 2013 (see below)
Original Post 6 May 2013 So I Googled “redeeming the city” and produced 5 million results. The first link, from 2006, captures the spirit and the rhetoric of the movement. The writer uses catch phrases such as “being the church” and “redeeming the city” without a hint of self consciousness. The assumption seems to be that, “Of course this is correct and of course this is how we should speak because this is God’s mission.” I dissent. The expression “being the church” is not biblical and it isn’t grounded in Scripture. The church is not something that we are to be, it is the assembly of the redeemed gathered by God, out of Egypt, as it were, and placed before his holy mountain. It is the Christ-confessing covenant community. To say “be the church” is to confuse the law and the gospel. The good news is that God has established his church for us, in Christ, and has graciously included us sinners in it by his free, undeserved favor alone, through faith alone. The church, first of all, is that assembly of Christ-confessors where God comes to us with his Word (law and gospel) and his sacrament. It is not something that we “do.” The church is what we are, by grace alone (sola gratia). It’s not a man-made institution. The church existed from the beginning, with our first parents. After the fall, God gathering his church out of fallen humanity. He promised a Savior. He covered us when we were naked (see Genesis 3). He gathered us into the ark (Gen 6–9), and he made a covenant with us: “I will be a God to you and to your children” (Gen 6, 12, 15, 17).
Consider the exhortation: “Be those huddled in the ark being tossed about by waves and hoping for dry land.” It makes no sense. How about “Be those wandering in the wilderness living on miraculous manna for forty years”? Again, it makes no sense. It doesn’t make any more sense if we apply the exhortation to Pentecost. The church is what we are, not what we do. We do what we do in response to God’s grace. That’s the proper order. God delivers and we respond, by his grace, in union with Christ, in the Spirit.
What about “redeeming the city?” Well, this isn’t any more biblical than the first. It is quite simply a prejudice more than a biblical datum (a given) that God has special affection for cities as such. Just think about it. If we read Scripture in context, according to its original intent, whence would we derive the notion that God has some special affection for cities as such? In the Ancient Near East and in the 1st century AD, how many actual cities were there? Where did most folk live, most of the time until the Industrial Revolution? (Hint: It wasn’t in cities). Yes, he saves his elect in cities and he saves his elect in the most rural villages too. There is just as much rural imagery in Scripture as urban. After all, “The Lord is my Shepherd” not my barista.
The real question is why such language was ever plausible or attractive in the first place. The answer seems to be this: It is another example of baptizing the culture and calling it Christianity. My dear friend David Hall, Sr Pastor at Midway Presbyterian (PCA) in Powder Springs, GA (Atlanta metro) has pointed me to an interesting essay by Joel Kotkin exposing the roots and collapse of the movement to “save the city.” I understand the attraction of the city. I remember prof. Bob Miewald, in my undergraduate political science classes in the late 70s and early 80s, regaling us with stories of corruption and the consequent efficiency it, counterintuitively, brings about. He painted a strangely attractive picture of the city. Of course, he did so planted firmly in the midst of a lilly white, mostly suburban, tidy little college town with precious little actual urbanity about it. Back then the downtown closed at 5:00 PM and the streets of the city weren’t mean. Like a lot of other folks, I chose to raise my family in the suburbs.
Kotkin explains what happened.
Among the most pervasive, and arguably pernicious, notions of the past decade has been that the “creative class” of the skilled, educated and hip would remake and revive American cities. The idea, packaged and peddled by consultant Richard Florida, had been that unlike spending public money to court Wall Street fat cats, corporate executives or other traditional elites, paying to appeal to the creative would truly trickle down, generating a widespread urban revival.
Except it didn’t. Kotkin explains that even Florida (the writer, not the state) has conceded that the plan has failed. The places that are actually growing are places that produce real stuff that people actually need.
The sad truth is that even in the more plausible “creative class” cities such as New York and San Francisco, the emphasis on “hip cool” and high-end service industries has corresponded with a decline in their middle class and a growing gap between rich and poor. Washington D.C. and San Francisco, perennial poster children for “cool cities,” also have among the highest percentages of poverty of any major urban center—roughly 20 percent—once cost of living is figured in.
What was the plan? It was for hip, artistic, creative, childless young people to “save” cities. Not only did it fail but arguably it did damage. The gentrification of some neighborhoods priced poor people out of the neighborhood and into even worse conditions.
The plan to save the city was Messianic and Americans love messianic plans. We are a “can do” people even when we’re wearing sandals and holding a steaming hot cup of mocha latte with our name written in cream on the top. Utopianism is the notion that we can build the heavenly city on the earth. It leads to towers, (Babel), to Egypt, and to Rome. It tends to confuse the creature for the Creator. Christians, however, love to part of the “hip” and “in” crowds (Click that one. Ramsey Lewis is hipper than all of us). The ideas of “doing church” and “saving the city” make a powerful elixir to which American Christians, historically, have had little resistance. It turns the gospel into law and it puts the future of Christ’s church back in our hands, where we want it. Since the social elites were bent on saving the city through art galleries and lofts, we baptized that mission without even realizing it.
Over the years I’ve found that frequently when people say, “I think God wants” that is code for “I want.” What God wants, however, is revealed in his Word (Deut 29:29). Urban planners and suburban developers are one thing, the Kingdom of God represented in and by the visible church is another. Christ is the Savior and we are his people. He has his elect everywhere and he wills the Gospel to preached indiscriminately and everywhere but let’s do that without romanticizing “the city” or “the suburbs” or whatever.
On “living the gospel.”
Anthony Bradley on the suburbanization of poverty and the suburbs as the new mission field.
Ann Althouse asks the provocative question: “What aesthetic preferences have you tricked up as moral imperatives?”
Tim argues against trendiness in either direction (suburbs or cities)