In the City

In the 1960s, or roughly the same time the Great Migration of African Americans left the South and came North or left rural areas for the big cities, many white Americans fled. Perhaps the most oft-told story is about Detroit, but suburban development occurred not just because there weren’t enough homes in the cities. It occurred because more and more were uncomfortable in cities. Prior to those days most model churches were in the cities but once again the fleeing of the city led to the shuttering of doors in many city churches. (If you want a really good read on this topic, see Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns.)

I’m no expert on these matters, but I think that sketch is roughly accurate. The result of what is sometimes called “white flight” is that many don’t want to minister in the cities, which (in my view) leaves the impression that if the whites don’t minister no one does, but this shows sometimes a total ignorance about thriving African American and Latin American churches in the city. That’s not the point of this post, though.

In the last two or so decades many (whites) are moving back into the city; young professionals are staying in the city.

What are you hearing about ministry in the cities? Have you ministered there? Lived there? Left there?

So ministry in the city has become an issue again. (I’m not ignoring the point made two paragraphs back.) The pastor theologian who has most addressed this is Tim Keller, and his new book, Center Church, has a large section on “city.” He writes with accessible prose and presents ideas that are adaptable to different contexts.

A city “is a social form in which people physically live in close proximity to one another” (135). So it is not just about size but even more about density of population. I confess I’m not into examining the “biblical view of the city” unless the Bible clearly speaks directly to that kind of concern, which it doesn’t, but in the end I find Keller’s definition and sketch of city very useful.

In his sketch of a biblical view of the city he examines these themes: cities are places of safety and stability, diversity, as well as productivity and creativity. All of this is skimmed from the texts in the Bible. He then examines the development of city themes in the Bible — from the primeval city where cities become more connected to evil and rebellion, but not exclusively so, to sketches of cities — especially Jerusalem and the garden-city New Jerusalem — where God’s society is formed, and that society is marked by love, peace, wisdom and justice.

An interesting feature of Keller’s two chp sketch of city is three major forms of Israel’s life:

as an extended biological family,
then as a nation-state (Moses) and
then during the exile as a dispersed fellowship of congregations.

He finds this third model to be the church’s model of life in this world. I agree. Keller sounds like Yoder at times, though I’m sure he’s more Reformed in having a theory of influencing and reshaping cities and states toward biblical ideals. He sketches Paul’s missionary journeys as moving from one city center to another.

This city sketch leads Keller to speak of the “cultural mandate,” or in the words of his professor, Harvie Conn, the “urban mandate.”

All of this sets up Keller’s “call to the city.” If that’s where the people are, that’s where the churches should be! Globalization connects cities to the world and cities to cities. Some important considerations: globalization will continue; neighborhood life is an emphasis in urban development; immigration has not changed; crime statistics are decreasing in major cities; postmodern mood leads many young adults to live in the city.

But our methods have become suburbanized!

Keller sees the following groups to whom one can minister in the cities:

1. Younger generation.
2. Cultural elites are in the cities.
3. Accessible unreached people groups.
4. The poor.

Question: Does Redeemer Presbyterian have an active ministry alongside, with and to America’s minorities?

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  • “Does Redeemer Presbyterian have an active ministry alongside, with and to America’s minorities?’

    They sure do! There are LOTS of asian americans at Redeemer.

  • Jon Altman

    Actually, the “Great Migration” began around World War I and continued through the 1960’s, as Wilkerson’s book clearly tells. What changed in the 1960’s was that housing discrimination, by both Government and mortgage lenders, became illegal.

  • As an African American native New Yorker who planted a church in Brooklyn around the time that Redeemer got started, I am interested to read Keller’s book. My church started out among the poor and our ministry got much less traction than Redeemer. Over the years I noticed that other more “successful” urban churches started out ministering to transplants to the city and young professionals and eventually developed outreaches to the poor — if at all.
    I struggled to appreciate that model over the years, opting to focus time and energy first on the more marginalized of the city. However, I am now appreciating the reality that even if our ministry did not get the notoriety that others did, good work was surely done for the Lord and there are more than a few ways to serve the Lord in the city.

  • “I confess I’m not into examining the “biblical view of the city” unless the Bible clearly speaks directly to that kind of concern, which it doesn’t…”

    Are you completely convinced of that?

  • scotmcknight

    Joe, what I’m getting at is the Bible’s “view” of the city is a construct we put together from a variety of texts, where “city” surely does not mean what we mean by “city” (mercy, we’ve got millions; theirs were so much smaller), and where that term was being reshaped, and where different contexts mean different things… so that we have to cobble it all into one pile and then say “This is what the Bible says about city.” I’m urging caution to distinguish our constructions from their statements.

  • Stephen Weaver

    @Jon, but red-lining did not cease as a practice until we as believers demanded it in the 1980’s. Our church-planting team from Living Word Community in center city Philadelphia, at that time led by Ronald L. Klaus, went into West Kensington with a high Reformed theology of transformation salted with Pentecostal/Anabaptism (some of this Conn-influenced). But one lasting contribution to the community that was unintended was the change of the posture of institutions that can make or break community transformation. We saw plenty of dramatic, lasting conversions, and, the start of bank lending and insurance underwriting. Partnering with local Latino clergy and community activists, we transformed the community spiritually and physically in twelve years. I am now older, scarred, and a little more jaded. But nothing will take away the memory and actual results of that sweat and tears. I would encourage anyone who has a call to the city to jump in with both feet and serve the local church that is there and flourishing.