On Saving the City (UPDATED Again)

HipsterUPDATED 11 May (see below)

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.


This is where “Saving the City” may lead (HT: AR).

On “living the gospel.”

Anthony Bradley on the suburbanization of poverty and the suburbs as the new mission field.

Rod Dreher is also re-thinking suburbia.

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)

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  1. Dr. Clark, a perfect complement to your article is Anthony Bradley’s “The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed” (available at The Aquila Report).

    It will be a grand day when God finally bursts the evangelical bubble of pretentiousness, hype, and grandiose schemes.

    It’s always astonished me that some who profess the absolute sovereignty of God adopt a methodology that practically denies it. God’s way has always been the ordinary means of grace. “Mere faithfulness” is not something to sneer at or mock as a quaint relic. The attractions of the world are very strong for pastors and church leaders, however. Sometimes we need a good slap of “sola scriptura” right in the face to wake us up.

  2. Thank you for this article!
    The best barista that I have found in my area (besides myself), is a an extremely liberal coffee shop owner who advertises his political views and anti-Christian rhetoric with offensive signs in his shop. But if I want someone else to make me a good cup of Joe, that’s where I frequent. I hit Pilgrim Presbyterian Church for my shepherding. Thankfully, my pastor doesn’t try to mix the two.

  3. Excellent article, Dr.Clark!

    In my former Baptist megachurch days my pastor* constantly used the expression “be the church.” I remember thinking to myself “how much of a detriment this expression was to biblical ecclesiology,” as you pointed out. It seemed to create an ambivalent attitude towards the local church and its function while producing a pietistic and individualistic sentiment that was only concerned with saving the lost and redeeming the city.

    The end result of this reasoning was the church is now extremely seeker-sensitive and multisite with six campuses, where most, if not all, pastoral responsibility is delegated to the laity in “small groups,” which confuses the priesthood of all believers with the false notion of, as Michael Horton put it in his book Christless Christianity, the “ministry-hood of all believers.”

    I used an asterisk next to the word pastor because this individual, who was considered a “campus pastor,” could never find the time to get to know me and my wife personally. Hence, he never truly was our pastor for the 4 years we were part of the congregation—a sad reality of what happens in these types of churches.

  4. Just a point of clarification, you object to the phrase “being the church” and yet you write, “The church is what we are, not what we do.” If the church is “what we are,” aren’t you describing a state of being … those who have been called out of darkness, into the light of Christ? That state of being is created by the grace of God, but it seems to be a state of being nonetheless. (1 Peter 2:9 comes to mind.) So are you objecting to “being the church” or “doing the church”? And if so, is “doing the church” or “doing the work of the church” to be rejected out of hand, or simply put within its proper context … as the third G, in response to the first two G’s?

    • Hi Joel,

      Is there a logical and conceptual distinction between “is” and “do”?

      Seems as if there is.

      “You are saved!” Is one thing and “Get saved!” Is another.

      1Pet 2:1-4 exhorts us to live in certain ways that are consonant with what we are. 2:5, however, says:

      1 Peter 2:5
      you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

      These are different ways of speaking.

      We are, corporately, God’s holy temple (1Pet 4) therefore we are to prepare for suffering, live godly lives etc.

    • I agree that being and doing are conceptually distinct, but “being” and “doing” are nevertheless conceptually related. What we do flows out of who we are in Christ. And in that way, we can “be” the church (existentially) in the sense that we “as living stones are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood,” (the church is “who we are” as living stones and living members of a spiritual body … 1 Cor. 12) and we can then “be” the church in how we respond to the gospel … “to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

      Still trying to figure out your objection, and / or the grounds for asserting that this is a totally unbiblical way of speaking … since in your own article and follow-up comments you seem to affirm it IS a biblical way of speaking … but there you go. If you want to give one more crack at explaining it, I’m all ears! If not, no worries.

      • Joel,

        The difference is this: when people say “be the church” what they mean is “do something.” As I understand the biblical teaching on the church that is a confused and confusing way to think and speak about the church.

        There is no question that the church needs to do certain things. Imperatives are appropriate to the Christian life and to the mission of the visible, institutional church but I do not see the biblical ground for this imperative.

        I also object to the phrase “be the church” on other grounds too. It is a trendy expression. It’s one of those expressions that seems like it is saying something significant but on an analysis it isn’t really saying anything significant except to impose yet another vague law on us that isn’t clearly articulated in Scripture or necessarily implied by Scripture.

        Because this imperative is intentionally vague it is open to Interpretation endlessly. In the nature of a new law it means what ever the speaker says it means. In this way it’s highly subjective.

  5. This seems like a particularly important topic in light of the fact that many campus ministries on college campuses have gone so far as to say that “Being the Church” never involves actually going to church. In fact, while I was working on my undergrad the common consensus among professing Christians was that going to church was kind of like taking a nice vacation in the summer– it may occaisonally be healthy for you, but at no point is it necessary. I find that any true recover of the gospel in situations where baptisms are performed by good friends (not ministers), preaching is about how we feel on a given day, and communion can be celebated with cold beer and pretzels will have to include a renewed understanding of the high church ecclesiology found in the Scriptures.

  6. “Be the church”… “Live the gospel”…

    These and other such phrases, sadly, express the conflating of law and gospel into just a doing, all the while that the church is called to be proclaiming Christ as salvation to sinners both in the church (for nourishing) and in the world (for calling) via law and gospel according to the Scriptures. If that is confusing then one, as a start, should read Ursinus’s Commentary on his catechism. My two cents…

    Thank you once again, RSC.

  7. I confess I have been guilty of using the “being the church” terminology. Not in its trendy, confusing-law-with-gospel sense, but in the sense that Joel explained above (i.e., the “state of being” Christ’s covenant community, redeemed by sovereign grace), and in reaction against the activist, program-oriented, demographically-driven, hyphenated concept of “church.”

    I recall once hearing through the grapevine of a pastor I knew in an area non-Reformed church mildly criticizing my church by saying something to the effect of, “I’m not sure what their ministry focus and purpose is.” In other words, we didn’t have a carefully articulated, demographically informed “vision statement” (other than the great commission), and thus I guess we were judged to be insufficiently “purpose driven.” My reaction to this criticism was to say, “Our purpose is simply to be the church” — by which I simply meant what Dr. Clark means when he describes the church as a “Christ confessing covenant community.” I.E., to “be” who we already are in Christ. But I guess in the future I shall have to think twice before using this potentially confusing terminology.

  8. Not so certain there isn’t some merit to the phrase, “Be the Church”, be the people that embody the very Holy Spirit of Christ Himself. That truth alone signifies that there will be behavioral change, or, “being” involved. While I believe without reservation the absolute message, “Saved by grace through faith”, I do believe it is, “through faith.” James 2.14 teaches us, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works.” Seems as though we shouldn’t throw off “Being the Church”, in knee jerk fashion for “What we ‘Are'”. Because we “Are” the Church we MUST “Be” the Church lest we continue in the path put down by so many churches today, a church whose faith is devoid of works (Obeidence) and has become,as James teaches, a “Dead” faith church. Just some thoughts.

    • Additional thought: 2 Peter 3:11
      11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to BE in holy conduct and godliness,” (emphasis added) “Be the Church”

      • Mark,

        In dialogue with Joel, I did note the great number of imperatives. There’s no doubt that, as believers, we do live in light of the gospel and do seek to fulfill those imperatives. It is striking, isn’t it, that Peter describes the church as the temple but nowhere says anything like “be the church” unless “be the church” is just code for “be sanctified.” Of course, that’s what YOU say “be the church” means but it means other things to other people. In the nature of the case, it’s a vague law that is endlessly male able in the hands of the one using it.

        What fascinates me about this discussion is that we’ve focused entirely on my criticism of this new slogan/law and completely ignored the greater question: that of the roots of the “redeeming the city” model in a pre-existing cultural movement. In other words, the church seems to have baptized a cultural movement from a particular generation or class of people and called it a Christian mission or obligation and our discussion here has focused on the validity of a single, recent, trendy. non-confessional, extra-biblical expression, which I argue is nothing but a new law.

        That this is so is telling. I think it’s another indicator that we like the law, i.e., we, even as Christians are more attracted to the law we are to the gospel. I think that’s why we’re always coming up with new laws, as has been mentioned, such as “live the gospel” and “be the church.”

  9. Insightful article and very much needed for the times we live in. Everything in our churches and culture is about the UN’s Habitat Planning for their so-called Sustainable Cities. The church you describe Dr Clark, is the missional church or church inside out if I am correct? The “being the church” and “redeeming the city” gets so pushed down our throats everywhere. Their agenda is, I must admit, very clever and also close to the truth in order to deceive thousands of well-meaning Christians to build what they call social capital for civic engagement, all with a globalist and earth-charter mindedness behind that. I was actually shocked to find that out and now, by reading your article, it only confirms the un-biblicalness of it all.

  10. Dr. Clark,

    My comment may be a little off topic but I think it is related to your article. I have recently come across a number of articles about redeeming or saving science, taking science back to some pre-Kantian time when theology was the “queen” of the sciences. (This is usually driven by a concern over “evolution” and apparently not so much science in general. When it comes to technology and our toys it is all good, apparently.) I do not deny that naturalism, materialism, etc., i.e., any form of autonomous thinking and denial of the creator/creature distinction is problematic, however, this problem seems to have started long before Kant, like perhaps in Eden.

    Wouldn’t you think “saving” science suffers from the same (similar?) issues as saving culture or saving the city? The antithesis is between the 1st Adam and his seed, and the 2nd Adam and his seed, not between science and theology, church and city/culture/state. Is christianizing science really a proper role for the church and Christian (i.e., orthodox) theology?

  11. Our local PCA Redeemer-model, city-saving church has an organic community kitchen (led by a TE) and sponsors a homeless street paper. Of course, they also have yearly “silent” retreats for men at a Catholic monastery, so their judgment is suspect on many levels.

  12. Tim OLI has an interesting post on this topic.

    He’s right. Yes, you’re right, I’m not calling for people to abandon the cities. White flight was a disaster (and the Great Society may not have helped as much as some assume). Building giant freeways through urban neighborhoods nearly killed them. It’s complicated.

    In short, I’m asking forchastened expectations and ambitions.

  13. Great job. And yes, Frank is right, it goes quite well with Bradley’s article.

  14. “The Lord is my shepherd, not my barista”. I love it!

    The whole “city” fascination has always made me bristle, having grown up in a rural area.

  15. From a church planter on godlovescities.com:

    “The coffee shop culture hasn’t made a dent in the South Bronx yet, so I don’t spend my weekends hanging out at coffee shops.”

    Maybe a welcome touch of self-awareness here?

  16. Gotta say with gusto…….Seeing many folks put to words what many of us have thought and felt about this topic having spent years in the deep ethos of the Redeemer-model, city-saving, organic, community as a third sacrament, “Be the gospel”, “relevant church”, why it is nothing short of a breath of fresh air! Long over due and much needed. It has indeed become a new legalism.

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