It’s funny how trends change, and it’s even funnier how church trends change. There was once a time when Presbyterian intellectuals made the argument that agrarian living was better than city-living. John Murray said this went back to the city’s founding-father, Cain, and the Southern Presbyterians often argued that agrarian living allowed one to be most human, in touch with the soil and protecting a certain “slow” pace that left time for community, literature, and family. If you can believe it, there was even a time when GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc argued that the suburbs were closest to the Christian ideal, allowing modern man to retain his economic freedom while yet also giving him his own space for land and a family. Now of course, the city is all the rage.
We are told that the church is itself a city, a “polis,” that the Biblical vision of the future is urban, that Paul’s missionary strategy was urban, and that the city is more receptive to the gospel. All of this is true, in a way, but it is also a bit over-hyped. There’s what should be the obvious point that this message is a baptized version of the broader movement called New Urbanism. And let me quickly add, I like New Urbanism! Eric Jacobsen’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom is a book that I recommend regularly. Still, the point here is perspective. Celebrating the city is not a uniquely Christian or Biblical thing, and so we should be careful before identifying this (legitimate) desire with a unique mandate from Jesus.
Another problem with some theologies of the city is that they easily fall into a sort of boutique worldliness. I’ve heard more than one account from Redeemer churches across the country (and I’m not talking about the one in NYC here) where the “small groups” were really only social gatherings. One friend of mine asked me if it was a problem that his “Bible study” involved no actual studying of the Bible. His group would get together, drink Zinfandel, talk about the art show they recently attended, enjoy some nice cheese and crostinis, and then dismiss. “Is that ok?” he asked me. Well sure it’s ok, just so long as you don’t call it a bible study.
Now don’t get worried. I’m not being mean. I just say it this way for the simple reason that it isn’t actually a bible study. It’s a friendly time of fellowship and networking that can even be used for outreach and discipleship, but it’s not terribly complicated or unique. It’s just hanging out with people.
To me this distinction illustrates the basic problem. If you feel the need to call your social gathering a specifically churchy title, you’re confusing nature and grace. You see, Christians don’t have to talk about culture. They just have to be culture, and they do this by living a human life and doing human things with other humans. So too, “city churches” should just be churches in the city, made up of people who live in the city. And really, they don’t have to do specifically “city” things beyond just being a church in the city made up of people from the city. Preach the gospel and live your life. Love God and do what you please.
On a similar note, I also saw a city church video on Youtube, and they were talking about how weird (in a good way) their congregation was. It was made up of such different, interesting, and even wacky people! And again, this is fine as far as it goes. But for the church to be made up of wacky people is not exactly the same thing as a mission statement. It isn’t our job to go out and cultivate interesting personalities. I’d like to see that happen, don’t get me wrong, but that’s actually the job of parents, schools, arts, and letters. The church’s job is to cultivate disciples.
Perhaps this is all a rather long way of saying “Be yourself.” If you’re in the city, then do things that come naturally to city people. If you’re in the country, then do things that come naturally to country people. If you’re in the suburbs, then do things that come naturally to suburbanites. I say all of this, assuming that you understand that Christians do all of these “natural” things with a continuous focus on truth and righteousness, faith, hope, and love. That’s how grace restores nature, by spiritually filling it from within. That will always cause you to be counter-cultural, but as we said last time, that’s a slow-grind that should be carried out in a humble manner.
For those theologians out there, my basic point is that some folks keep calling “ecclesiology” something that is really simply “anthropology.” For the laymen reading this, I mean that Christianity doesn’t require you to do a special “Christian version” of everything, but rather to be yourself and do your job with sincerity and gratitude to God. Since you are a priest in Christ, your worldly vocation is already a priestly service. And this means that while you might have to tell some previously misguided Christians to stop trying to baptize every worldly thing and make an alternative version of it, it also means that you will have to stop telling Christians that Jesus wants them to all be Bobos in Paradise. He wants some to live like that, without greed or indulgence of course, but he also wants others to live in their own way, each with his gifts according to the grace given to him.
And so back to that question. Is Christ for the city, the country, or the suburbs?
The answer is yes.