Christians continue to bemoan the declining morality and spiritual state of our nation. We shake our fist at the secularized thinking of our government, our schools, and the greed within many of our corporations. Yet for too long, the Anglo-American church has ignored the historical axiom “As the cities go, so goes the nation.” Our nation suffers today in a large part because a majority of suburban Christians have intentionally “by-passed” the essential role cities play in guiding a nation in its identity. Unbiblical biases and our fears have helped to justify our lack of interest in becoming a vital partner to the revival and revitalization of our city.
Unfortunately, we assume the past popular movements to move away from the city should not be questioned. But, decades ago, when congregations joined the flight to the burbs, perhaps we should have seen the wisdom of the early church, which targeted the city. Now, when there are very few places to go to escape the brokenness of our systems, we are coming full circle. In the last decade or so suburban churches, one by one are seeing the validity and power in committing to urban mission. For example, as a part of the network of missional churches with a heart for the greater Boston area North River Community Church (www.northriverchurch.org) is serving in the city of Boston. Here at Trinity Baptist Church in the City of Brockton we have been the recipients of blessing by many urban missionaries who from area churches have served in our urban ministries. It seems God wants to help us all learn from our past mistakes. He is giving us an opportunity to examine our Jonah type attitudes that perhaps grew out of our preference for affluence and self-sufficiency. He seems to be giving the suburban church, if collaborating with urban churches, an opportunity to not allow class to divide the Body. Such a testimony of reconciliation could very well become a seedbed for a metro-wide revival. At the very least, I am persuaded that God will use this kind of city-suburban teamwork to demonstrate that the church of America is still one of God’s faithful light bearers in a challenging world.
After years of urban-suburban bridge-building at least five lessons for the suburban servant must learn if they are going to begin to see their city as God sees it.
God loves the city.1 He adopted and nurtured a city for Himself. The eternal destiny of His children will be an urban address, seeming to indicate that He loves the pace, the crowds, the diversity, potential and most of all the intimacy that exists in a unique way in the urban setting. Yet the Adversary has duped us with myths about the city that perpetuate even to this day.2 We’ve grown up believing that the inner city is the hub of all evil and that the farther away we are from the city, the closer we are to God’s country. Instead, it is time to see the huge potential for gospel influence and personal growth in making the city a priority.
We are all connected, even to city crime. We don’t want to believe that the crime committed in some dark city alley is a reflection of our community’s spiritual condition. Our preoccupation with individualism blinds us to the realities that an accumulation of individual sin choices (from board room greed to abandoned children) has affected the whole batch of community dough. Because we prefer not to see the connection we also do not see that crime in the city is a warning to the farmer 500 miles away, or even for the suburbanite grilling burgers on his patio. Still, the Bible teaches us that each of us shares in the responsibility to address the problem lest it expands.3
Classism and racism still motivate the suburban church. Geographical location could easily be interpreted as a passive way to practice partiality. It is often excused as “personal preference”, but our rigidity to certain standards of comfort and success has isolated us, keeping us by default, away from the very people with whom we need to exercise the proof of biblical reconciliation. We need to purge from ourselves any Anglo-centric theology that might eclipse a biblio-centric view of the equality and destiny of the races. Sunday morning still remains the most segregated hour of the week but much can be overcome with intentional cross-cultural and urban partnerships.4
We are still mesmerized with the American definition of success. Very few would argue that the Bible teaches that God’s blessings of prosperity come in much richer and deeper ways than just the material. Instead of drawing our esteem from the beauty of our homes or the size of our church ministries, in city service we can grow to become a bit more “radical.”5 Commitments to long-term ministry in the city can help us all learn not to be afraid to abstain from worldly success but to passionately pursue biblical significance.
Suburbanite spirituality tends to be one-sided.6 The affluent believer’s spiritual routine in Isaiah’s day seems to have evolved into a pietistic form of worship – filled with prayer meetings, Bible studies, and special times of retreat. Furthermore, it was accentuated with fasting in order to seek God’s counsel and fellowship. Unfortunately, God viewed that lifestyle as hypocritical and rebellious.7 Apparently, there was little to no commitment to issues of justice. Similarly our cloistered suburban church life continues to teach the next generation of American Christians a very similar, easy-believism, one-sided spirituality.
Like Jonah, with his bias toward the Ninevites, we too, have prejudices that produce a bias toward the inner city dwellers and their predicaments. Like Jonah, we must choose to repent, remembering that the health of our nation will be found in part, in our response to the need of our cities.8
1 Ezekiel 16: 1-14, Revelation 21,22
2 Harvey M. Conn, A Clarified Vision for Urban Mission: Dispelling the Urban Stereotypes (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982)
3 Judges 19: 29-20:7
4 Acts 10:27-28, 34-35; James 2:1-13
5 Matthew 6:19-20; See also David Platt, Radical (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2012)
6 Ronald J. Sider, One-Sided Christianity? Uniting the Church to Heal a Lost and Broken World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993)
7 Isaiah 58:1-5
8 Isaiah 58:12