POSTED ON DECEMBER 7, 2011:
Bright Light, Big City
Reinvigorating culture from the urban core
In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark demonstrates how Christianity began as a diminutive faction of Judaism during the life of Jesus but in four centuries, it became the predominant religion of the entire Mediterranean World. How did Christianity accomplish this deed?
One of Stark's primary claims is that Christianity's monumental growth was due in part to the fact that it was an urban movement and the New Testament was set down by urbanites.
But when we look at the church in urban settings around the country today, this is not necessarily the case. Even within our city -- with the exception of a handful of faithful churches -- the religious landscape is sputtering in the citified core.
So why is the urban core critical for the future spiritual vitality of Tulsa?
City Is God's Innovation
The average city in Old Testament times was 1000 to 3000 people and 205 people per acre. In comparison, New York City has 105 people per acre.
What made a city back then was not "bigness" but density, diversity and mixed use. In an Old Testament village, you could walk to work, eat, learn, shop, live, all within 10 minutes.
The same is true for today's cities.
When God tells Adam and Eve to "have dominion" and "fill the earth," what He essentially is commanding them to do is construct culture that honors Him. They are to mine the riches that God put into creation by developing art, science, architecture and business.
In short, God was calling Adam and Eve to be city builders.
When we look at Revelation 21, we see that the "new Jerusalem" that John the Revelator speaks of is the Garden of Eden, recreated. We began in a garden but we will finish in a city.
Tim Keller boldly states that God's purpose for humanity is urban because the city is God's invention and design, rather than a sociological phenomenon or invention of humankind.
"But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." --Jeremiah 29:7
In Jeremiah 29, we find the intent of the Babylonian exile for the Israelites was cultural assimilation and while the Jews were living in that place, as a counter-culture, they were to engage fully in life, even with those seemingly opposed to God, "seeking the peace and prosperity" of the city.
This may sound revolutionary to us today, but it is very much in harmony with what Jesus held to be the second greatest commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). It also was in line with the concept that Israel, God's people at that time, was to be a "blessing for the nations" (Genesis 12:3).
Whether you agree with Keller or not, city building is an ordinance of God just like work and marriage is. God made the city to be a developmental tool designated to draw out the cultural wealth he put into the earth at creation.
Cities Develop Culture
In the latter half of the twentieth century in America, many churches left the cities and moved to the suburbs. Today many evangelical Christians in the United States lament the fact that they have lost their influence on the culture. The reason seems to be, in part, because they are no longer in the cities.
Cities are the primary creators of culture, values and belief in the world. Whatever develops in the center-city tends to have an intense effect throughout the rest the city, region, nation and world.
But how is culture developed in the city?
First, cities have always been a more compassionate place for the marginalized of all kinds -- a place where people come who are too weak to live in other places.
When Israel relocated to the Promised Land, the first cities were constructed by God's guidance as "cities of refuge." God invented cities to be a sign of providential protection -- not self-protection. When the city welcomes the outsider, this produces culture.
Secondly, the city is a cultural "mining" center. Cities draw together resources and tap their potentiality for cultural development like no other system can. This produces culture.
Third, the city is an essential place to engage with God. Paul's missionary journeys basically ignored the countryside. When he entered a new region, he planted churches in its biggest city and then he parted. When religious movements are planted in the city, this produces culture.
Fourth, because of the diversity of the cities, urbanites are much more open to new ideas -- even the gospel. Keller says that because they are surrounded by so many people like and unlike themselves and so much more mobile and subject to change, urbanites are far more open to change and conversion than any other kind of resident. When this change happens, this produces culture.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Al Barth, director of Redeemer City to City in Europe, Africa and North America, says there are a few things we need to remember in keeping city-centers "front and center."
Barth says that we need to be concerned about the city -- if for no other reason than our future is likely to be profoundly influenced by what happens there. It is not an evil place from which we ought to run from.
We need to pursue the center-city at many different levels: proclaiming Christ to individuals and communities, doing mercy and justice, engaging culture, and integrate faith and work.
If culture is formed in the center-city and flows outward, we need to reach the center-city to reach the rest of our cities, our region, and the world. And perhaps, we need to reach the center-city to reach our own hearts with the gospel.
Keller says that we will eventually come to see that we need the city more than the city needs us because people of other religions or no religion tend to be wiser, kinder and deeper than us. "This will shock you out of your moralism and force you to either finally believe the gospel of sheer grace or give it up altogether."
Also Keller says that in the city we will find that the poor and broken are often more open to the idea of grace and more dedicated to the enactment of grace through mercy and justice than we are.
Cities are important because they create culture -- but maybe more importantly because they create in us a greater dependence on God and get us outside of ourselves to proclaim and enact the gospel in it, making us a bright light in a big city.
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