Thursday 21 October 2010

God the City and Us

When police broke into an apartment in Sydney in January 2008 and found the decomposed body of 61 year-old Jorge Coloma (here), there was much community discussion of how his absence could have gone unnoticed for over a year. He had died from natural causes in his bedroom. No one noticed that he'd disappeared. Even a pile of twelve months worth of mail and unpaid bills did not lead anyone check to his apartment or call the police. It took a year before neighbours felt that something was wrong. People asked why authorities had not done something. Others wondered about his family; wasn't there one family member that had missed him? Neighbours also began to ask themselves questions, why hadn't they spoken up much sooner? Jorge's story and many others like it are the dark side of city life, but there is another side.

The Bible depicts the new restored and redeemed world as a city. Jesus revealed to John what God had in store for his people, he saw '...the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband' (Revelation 21:2). The city is not an evil aberration that is a consequence of the fall, but rather it is a form of human settlement. Jeremiah (29:5-5) commended the survivors of Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon with the words of God that they were to:
"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
The remnant of Israel were to build towns and ultimately cities and to contribute to their good.

Understanding the importance and role of the city

Cities can be lonely places, where it is easy to be anonymous or to lead an isolated life. They can be places where people like Jorge can die alone, and where others can suffer physically and emotionally alone and without support. Cities are places where homelessness is common and abuse of one kind or another a daily part of life.

But they are also places of rich culture and learning, places where ideas are exchanged and people's lives can be enriched. They are places where Christians can preach and share the word of God, serve the sick and needy, train and equip others for ministry and life, raise a family, be part of the delivery of God’s grace to lost people.

Tim Keller has pointed out that the human desire to congregate inevitably leads to the formation of cities as people congregate together for security, to share resources, for commerce, to learn from one another an so on. Keller suggests that if you capture the city with the gospel you capture the nation (here). The city he points out can be a wonderful place to live and raise a family (listen to his talk here). It is a strategic place to build gospel ministry.

As Christians it would be easy to assume that the city is a sinful wasteland and retreat to the peace and tranquillity of a remote farm to live a life of isolation, but that is not what we are generally called to do. Cities are places over which God is sovereign where he is at work, and as always they are strategic, because it is in cities that many people come together to work, trade, learn, play, create, perform and so on. There is much talk about the impact of technology on human activity - new ways to travel, instant forms of mass global communication, new ways to connect or ‘wire’ communities (see previous posts here and here) - but while technology is changing the way we spend our time, where we spend it, and how we communicate with one another, the need for human contact remains and community remains. As such, the buildings and physical buildings and spaces we create should reflect our desire to be with other people, to share our lives and the gospel others.

What are the implications of the above?

How does the above inform the way we use the space that we live in at home, the way we think about the role of space and property in gospel ministry, the way we engage with and seek to build our local communities? A few quick thoughts on practical ways that we can think about these issues.

a) Our houses - if we need to choose a house or apartment to rent, or we're fortunate enough to be able buy one, we should look at the property with community eyes. How easy will this property make it to get to know my neighbours? Is it open in design or closed? How is the space within the property conducive to family life and offering hospitality to others? Can I see other people from my apartment balcony, the front veranda, the front or back yard? How long will it take me to get to work, church, the people I care for, and so on (loss of time due to travel is important)? Such thinking turns on its head the way we generally think about our real estate. As well, within the apartment or home, is there a good mix of individual and shared space? If raising a family we should avoid creating personal retreats equipped with all one needs for individual survival. Don’t locate televisions and computers in children’s bedrooms. If you are building a house, don’t cover the block with house at the expense of yard.

b) Church buildings – When designing, renovating, relocating or extending church buildings, we need to think about the type of spaces that we create in the church and how we use it. Rows of pews facing a high alter will have a different effect on communication and interaction than seats in the round or even at tables. Our traditional church buildings with stained glass windows and grand facades were designed like the temple to be seen from afar and to draw people to them. While accepting that heritage issues will prevent us making too many changes to such buildings, we can praise God that they are often in the best locations in town. We can also change how we use space inside them and how we use their location and their use to establish relationships with the people living near us. If locating a new church we need to consider all options for where we place it, what form the building should take and whether it will serve ministry to one another while ‘connecting’ with our communities. Of course the activities we develop in and from the building and the way we live our lives within the community will matter, but the buildings and their spaces do make a difference.

c) The city around us - As citizens within a city what are the things that we should join others in advocating? While Christians represent a small proportion of citizens how can we use our voices and sometimes public and professional positions to influence public decisions about our cities? And how can we use the spaces we have? In relation to planning we should be supportive of:
  • More and better public spaces (parks, playing fields, walking tracks, cycle ways etc).
  • Better public transport, pedestrian ways, cycle ways, spaces to encourage people to congregate (see Tim Chester’s thoughts on this here).
  • Careful planning to integrate commercial, residential and recreational spaces in ways that make human movement easy, that increases visibility (for safety as well as community building), that reduce isolation and the need for long distance travel.
If this post has raised some issues for you please check out Case #18 that has the theme 'City Life' in which we will explore a number of these and other issues as they relate to living and engaging in ministry in cities. 

Related links and reading

An excellent book on this topic has been written by Philip Bess, 'Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Religion and Contemporary Culture) (here)

Tim Keller's excellent summary of a biblical view of the city (here) and his talk on how the city can help us to raise a family (here).

A longer article of mine title 'God in the City' appeared in Case #18 and can be downloaded here.


Ali said...

Do you not think Rev 21:2 is figurative though, and referring rather to the 'people of God' prepared as a bride, rather than a metropolitan landscape dressed up as the bride? ...

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Ali,

Nice to hear from you. Maybe, the people of God are certainly being referred to as a 'bride'. The word 'city' is used 13 times in Rev 21 & 22 and scholars differ as to their views on whether in each case we can assume that it is used figuratively. Even if it is in Rev 21:2 (and it probably is) I think the description of the people of God as a 'city' supports my point that the city is not inherently bad but is redeemable and loved by God.

Thanks for your comment.


Ali said...

Thanks Trevor. Yes, certainly it supports that point, and I agree with you on that one. I guess I am just not convinced that heaven is necessarily a city (or if it is the tree of life is also on both sides of the river and everywhere (Rev 22:2), which is a relief to some of us :) ...).

(Sorry I couldn't respond earlier because I discovered the word verification doesn't come up at work anymore.)

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Ali. I'm writing this comment from a Medieval city in northern Switzerland (St Gallen). I imagine that it isn't that different from the walled cities of the 1st century (certainly in design principles) that were part of John's experience. No significance in this comment, but walking the streets, passing through the city gate, looking at the source of water etc, does help to give a richer sense of the biblical use of the city as image or metaphor. Interestingly, St Gallen was built to protect the Abbey and its library containing thousands of theological books dating from the 7th century.

Cheers, Trevor