How to Renew a City

Feb 16, 2011 |Jonathan Dodson

How do we believers dwell in 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 a distinct sphere of city life. Experts identify between five and 10 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? Here are a few of ways to view the church’s relationship to the city.

The Church as an Institution

One view sees the church as a domain among others — the Religious domain. This has been the prevailing view in America for some time. From this perspective, how does the church relate to the rest of the city? I have observed several positions taken by the church in the religious domain. The first is church as a wallflower. The church is there, barely noticeable, fitting in with all the other domains as a dispenser of religious goods and services. It is a place where religious activity takes place.

A second role is church as a parasite. As parasite, the church is a noticeable domain but with a negative reputation. In this position, the church feeds off the other domains. It doesn’t pay taxes to the city but demands the educational, artistic and social services of the city. It sucks the life out of the city in the name of God, like Christian panhandlers at traffic intersections. In my city, Austin, The Chronicle newspaper ran a story titled “Panhandling for God.” The story revealed that a group of Christian ministry panhandlers get financial kickbacks proportionate to how much they collect. Sadly, the journalist found very little evidence of any “restoration ministry” taking place. This is all too common.

A third view of the church’s role in the city is that of a prophet. Instead of sucking life out of the city, the prophetic church stands outside the city, shaking its finger in moral judgment. It stands on the street corner hurling accusations without lifting a finger to help. In its best form, church as prophet helps the city by providing moral restraint in society, reducing crime and unethical practices.

A final view of the church in the city is that of nonprofit. Instead of sucking life out of the city, the church gives life to the city in the social sector. It has a socially renewing presence. Until recently, neither the City of Austin nor the Red Cross wanted much to do with the church. Over the past five years, however, the church in Austin has gained more and more of a nonprofit reputation. In 2005, the church in Austin was recognized by the city as a formidable force in caring for Katrina evacuees. However, in 2009 the City of Austin formed a partnership with the faith-based Austin Disaster & Relief Network, which works with the Red Cross for strategic assistance in the event of natural disaster. In recent months, our local paper has run favorable press on churches, often focusing on its socially renewing presence in the city.

While all of this is good, it is not enough. Church as nonprofit is not faithful to the biblical vision of church. In fact, none of these views alone sufficiently account for the true nature of the church. We might call this the institutional view, which sees the church as a religious domain that vends goods and services, not as a community shaped by the Gospel on the mission of Christ.

The Church as Redemptive Community

Seeing the church and the city through the gospel’s lens radically alters how the church relates to city domains. The church is not one institutional domain among many, but is a redemptive community that permeates all domains. Think of thousands of threads woven into the urban fabric. If the church is changed by the gospel, its threads will strengthen and brighten the social-cultural fabric of the city.

The church isn’t institutional; it’s relational. The church is you — people working, living and playing in its various domains but doing so with redemptive purpose. Most of us work in one of these domains, from child-rearing to policy-making. The gospel calls us not to build a separate city within the city, to wall ourselves off living as parasite or prophet, but to dwell in the city, to become city-zens. The church should be a people of the city not apart from the city, a people who renew it, not consume it.

The gospel view of the relationship between the church and the city is very different from the institutional view. Jesus did not live, die and rise from the dead to create wallflowers, parasites, prophets or nonprofits. Jesus died and rose to defeat sin, death and evil, and make all things new, beginning with the church. The church has been created to extend the gospel’s renewing power into cities.

How to Renew a City

What is the role of the church in urban domains? Here are three ways you can dwell in the city as a redemptive community: make good culture, redeem social ill and share a whole gospel.

Make Good Culture

Wherever you work, you are producing culture. What kind of culture are you making? Is it excellent or mediocre? You might say, “I can’t stand my job. What I do for a living isn’t all that great.” All work matters. At the end of Colossians, Paul tells the church, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23–24, emphasis mine). Whatever you do, work heartily, literally from the soul, for the Lord. The church should make good culture because we work for King Jesus. How can we work from the soul for the good of the city? We can make good culture, whether it’s music, policies, reports, products or urinals.

I’ll never forget a story I heard years ago. Miroslav Volf, a professor from war-torn Croatia, was discussing the meaning of work. He recounted an exchange with a man at a social function, where he asked the man what he did for a living. The man responded, “I install urinals.” How do you respond to that? Volf responded by thanking him for promoting good sanitation, without which our cities would be cesspools. Whether you make urinals or music, make good culture. Make the very best urinals you can. Even the most mundane of vocations can be done well and for the good of the city. Contribute to your domain (in this case, social services) with excellence.

Redeem Social Ill

Wherever you work, you can work to make your domain more socially minded. Stay-at-home parents can take their kids to volunteer at nonprofits, raise their kids to love the poor and downcast, to pray for them. You can gather a group from your company to help soup kitchens or invite coworkers to join you in your church’s mercy ministry. You can rethink company policy with social and environmental concerns. Bring a redemptive lens to your work. Give good raises, and promote fair treatment. As you work, make good culture and redeem social ill.

Share a Whole Gospel

The final way you can work in the city is by sharing a whole gospel. All too often, Christians use their work as a pulpit. They make bad culture, disregard social ill and preach a half-gospel, telling people they need Jesus while personally living like they don’t need Him. It’s all pulpit and no application. They abandon discipleship in their domain. Think of Angela from The Office. Christians compromise their work in the name of gospel witness.

We need Christians who work in all domains that share a whole gospel. We need to be thousands of tiny threads that strengthen and beautify our city domains. We need to be people who are so distinctive that others want to know what motivates us. We need to be Christians who adorn the Gospel in our work to such a degree that when others hear the gospel from our lips, they hear it in stereo — good works and good words.

C.S. Lewis, literary critic and professor of medieval and renaissance literature for 29 years at Magdalene College at Oxford, wrote: “The salvation of a single soul is more important than the preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.” While it is important to make good culture and redeem social ill, sharing the redemptive, saving message of Jesus Christ is of utmost importance. Even the great literary critic C.S. Lewis saw the soul as more important than culture.

In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” he reminds us that we all live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, who upon our entrance to heaven we would be strongly tempted to worship because of their glory. He writes:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit.

We share the whole gospel with others because there are no ordinary people, no mere mortals. And they need a whole gospel that makes good culture, redeems social ill and reconciles them with God. They are eternal souls, and all hang in the balance. Our message of hope and love can rescue from the despair of hell and place them in the glories of heaven, knowing and enjoying Christ.

How do we dwell in the city? Not as one institutional domain among many, but as a redemptive community that permeates all domains. Will you fall into the trap of institutional church — wallflower, parasite, prophet or nonprofit? Or will you choose to live as a redemptive community permeating the domains of your city with the gospel of grace? Choose to renew the city by making good culture, redeeming social ill and sharing a whole gospel.

Copyright 2011 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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