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An Urban Nation
Many churches find the city a hostile environment. Here are some of the challenges that face big city churches.

For the majority of Canadians, "city" defines where they work, live, worship, and play. Statistics Canada tells us that almost half of Canadians live in metropolitan areas with a population of more than one million.

Recently, I spoke with a pastor from a small church in the urban core. "We need to get out of downtown," he said. "We'll never grow if we stay here." This pastor reflects a popular Christian attitude towards the city. Many have concluded that somehow the city, particularly the dense urban core, is toxic to developing a healthy church. While initiatives like Evangelism Canada's "Key Cities" attempt to buck this trend, we still have a long way to go in reaching Canada's urban centres.

Why do many churches find the city a hostile environment? Why do most urban churches pack up and leave for greener pastures when they have a chance? We could easily point a finger at the city and its structures, saying they create a harsh environment for the church.

But fingering the city ignores the fact that cities have not always been hostile to the church. The church was born in an urban environment. Reading the New Testament, we find healthy churches in large urban areas effectively reaching others with the good news.

What's the difference in our contemporary context? Perhaps humans interact in peculiar ways in our modern cities. Perhaps these peculiarities, not the city itself, create the toxic environment many urban churches experience.

Defining the city
Many definitions of "city" rely on population density and architectural phenomena. They define a city as an area with a certain number of people, or with particular kinds of buildings and zoning classifications. But these criteria don't get at the heart of the matter. They don't explain why the early Church thrived and the Church of the 21st century often struggles in large urban centres.

We need to look at the city in a different way, past the bricks and mortar. We need to look at the city, in the words of one architect, as "a human event, not a sculpture." Viewed as a human event, the modern metropolis is a strange beast. Take, for instance, these snapshots:

Snapshot #1: Lack of community
Joan moved to Victoria from Winnipeg six months ago to take a job in environmental engineering. She rents a loft apartment near her workplace. She gets along well with her co-workers. Often one of them will suggest, "Hey, we should get together for a drink," or "We should have you over for a barbeque." But in her six months in Victoria, Joan hasn't had a single social engagement. "Maybe I should try an internet dating service," she says to her empty living room.

Snapshot #2: Loneliness amidst many
Stephanie steps onto the light rail transit at the University of Alberta Hospital station. She has just left the hospital's ICU ward, where she said goodbye to her husband of 15 years. Grief washes over her, and she looks around at all the other people travelling home from work, oblivious to her pain. "How can I feel so alone, when I'm surrounded by so many people?" she thinks.

Snapshot #3: Fragmented, stress-filled lives
Michael flops down on the couch. What a week! Sixty hours at the office. Janet spent three days in Ottawa, leaving him alone with the kids. Swimming lessons Tuesday, piano Wednesday, and soccer practice tonight. He wonders when he'll find time to finish painting the study and doing his taxes. He grabs his cell phone and calls Vicki. Maybe he can make up an excuse to see her tomorrow. He'll tell Janet he has to spend a couple of hours at the office.

Snapshot #4: Mobility
Mark manages a bike shop in downtown Vancouver. Even though he has lots of customers, his business is in trouble. Increasingly, he has become frustrated with retaining staff. By the time he hires someone and trains them, they quit! Most of the staff move away, or can't manage to hold down a job. People don't seem to have the commitment to employers they used to.

"The modern city is a place where people by default are entirely anonymous … "

These snapshots provide a path to a definition of the city based on human interaction. I've borrowed parts of this definition from an Israeli architect:

The modern city is a place where people by default are entirely anonymous, which means they have the freedom to form relations with others at various levels of intimacy.

This definition has two important aspects that set the modern city apart from the city of the past. First, unless people go out of their way to establish relationships, they will remain essentially anonymous in the modern city.

Second, the modern city provides freedom for people to create relationships on varying levels of intimacy, but doesn't enforce those relationships. A person can remain an unknown face in a downtown condo, or can decide to meet neighbours, socialize with workmates, or join a local running club. However, the default of anonymity will always exist as an obstacle in building relationships with other human beings.

We have created cities where humans are essentially disconnected from one another. This social disconnectedness lies at the root of many problems created by modern city life.

The city and the Gospel
When defining a "person," the city and the Gospel clash. As we've seen, the city says people are anonymous and free to connect with whomever they choose, however they want. The city often encourages people to build boundaries, and affords them unlimited freedom to pick their friends.

The Gospel tells another story. At its heart, the good news proclaims that God works to reconcile the world to Himself and to one another (see Ephesians 1:9–12 and 2 Corinthians 5:18). The Gospel pulls people together across boundaries and calls them to love each other, regardless of their willingness to do so.

The Gospel and the modern city work at cross purposes. The city reinforces anonymity and freedom of association, whereas the Gospel confronts anonymity and draws people into community where God and others know them intimately. Gospel-shaped community is not voluntary. It's made up of individuals whom God calls together, often across divides of language, race, and culture.

How can Christians and churches respond to the challenge of the modern city? One response is to flee the city for less hostile suburbs and exurbs.

Interestingly, the Israelites found themselves in a similar dilemma after they had been exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Many pined for Jerusalem, for the Promised Land, a place of security, free from hostility and difficulty. God confronted the exiles' nostalgia and pointed them in a different direction:

"Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 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 29:4–7, NRSV).

God's message to the exiles has striking resonance with our own situation. Faced with the temptation of fleeing to places less hostile to the Gospel, God summons us "to seek the welfare of the city … for in its welfare, you will find your welfare." God calls us to stay put, set down roots, and sort out how the church can become a benefit—salt and light—to the city.

Seeking the city's welfare
We begin by affirming the centrality of the Gospel and asking questions. If the Gospel moves towards reconciling all creation to God, including the city, it's critical to determine how our church will participate in God's intentions for the world.

If the church doesn't deliberately work against anonymity and fragmentation, it can easily find itself out of step with God's mission.

We wrestle with these questions: "Does our church push or pull? Does it push people towards anonymity, or pull them towards intimacy?" If the church doesn't deliberately work against anonymity and fragmentation, it can easily find itself out of step with God's mission.

Further, we find allies in the community. Recently, the church where I pastor applied for a municipal grant to run a summer day camp program. I was required to present the proposal to a subcommittee, chaired by a member of city council. I can still remember the remark she made at the end of the presentation. She said, "I'm so surprised to see a church that wants to help us make our municipality a better place to live. Most churches just want us to help them."

If a church is serious about reconciling people to God and to one another, it doesn't stand alone. In all cities, there are people and agencies with interests that complement the church's. Agencies such as the police, public health department, neighbourhood associations, schools, and businesses all struggle with the anonymity and fragmentation created by modern city life. They all recognize the value of building healthy cities.

A church interested in seeking the welfare of the city will talk to these agencies and strategize about appropriate partnerships that could be created.

For example, one church connected with nearby apartment managers, which led to a Friday night community supper and children's program in the apartment buildings. One church partnered with a government agency to provide emergency shelter for homeless people. Another church with a large immigrant population offered free tutoring for children. As my own congregation considered facility expansion, someone remarked: "Doesn't God call us to meet the needs of the community surrounding the church building, rather than our own?"

Historically, churches have been suspicious of working with secular agencies. But the realization that secular agencies may have complementary goals acknowledges that God's activity extends to all areas of the world, not only the church.

The modern city provides a challenge to the Gospel. The city creates a sense of anonymity, tells people they can choose their friends, and leaves city residents feeling isolated, fragmented, lonely, depressed, and constantly stressed. The Gospel, on the other hand, emphasizes the reconciliation of all people to God and to one another. The Gospel offers freedom, liberation, and community.

Churches in urban areas must willingly ask, "Is our church participating in God's mission by drawing people together, or have we allowed our context to unhealthily shape us, so we push people apart?" And, the urban church must work together with those who share a common aim—the welfare of the city. Ultimately, the health of the church relates directly to the health of the city.

David Eagle is pastor at Saanich Community Church, Victoria, B.C.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 19, 2006.




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