Christena Clevelandʼs excellent post on surburban pastors “reaching” urban areas got me thinking about Avatar. (Sorry to lower the tone. But this could have been a half-decent film had it ended with the destruction of Hometree – the giant tree home to the indigenous Naʼvi.) Humanity, who are outsiders to the Naʼvi community, destroy the tree because they reduce it to a resource.
The parallels with surburban pastors “reaching” urban areas may be stretched but they are there. The city is often treated as a resource rather than as a home. It is to be mined for “capacity” (for which read “money” or “people”, although I suspect that people are harder to come by – too busy surviving to be put to use to some other end). Or the city is to be used to reach the nations or as a blueprint to reach other cities.
Yes, the city can be a means to all of this. But what about the city as an end-in-itself?
Too often we jump too quickly from the city as an end-in-itself to the city as a means. We forget about the city itself. And even when we do think about the city as an end-in-itself, we can make it sound more like a project than a home. We can make it sound solely like something “to be reached”. Jumping too quickly over the city-as-home is the same premature jump from the operational to the relational that I highlighted in point 9 here. I wrote,
There is a tendency in the church to jump too quickly from community to organisation, from private relationship to public event (such as an evangelistic meeting). This is because, first, relationships are hard work, whereas events are easy; and, second, because the former is like watching paint dry, whereas the latter are like fireworks. However, fireworks fizzle, and without the community roots that sustain life, events become drift-wood.
So whether the city is treated as an operational end (a project) or as an operational means (to some resource), we sometimes forget about the city as home – as something relational.
What difference does it make?
When I am inside someoneʼs home I am outside of mine. I am subject to their hospitality or, rather, their “hospital-ity”. The hyphen hopefully helps us to see the connotations of healing here. Good relationships heal. So the city as home can be a place of healing, even if only glimpsing the new heaven and the new earth.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.*
So as we engage with the city, several questions come to mind? In our discourse about the city, do we allow for the city to be home (as well as resource and project)? If so, is it something that we allow to change us (epitomised by healing)** or is it something solely to be changed by us (through our projects)?
If the latter, then I suspect that we have only superficially engaged. We have not fully engaged with those who call the city home. (Have we even listened to them?) For that would bring about change in us. And since our relationship with others is irreducibly bound up with our relationship with God, it could, by extension, bring about change in how we see him too.
So if the former – is engagement with the city something that we allow to change us? – then perhaps the key question concerns our vision of God. How has the city changed that vision as we engage with those who call the city home? For example, Kester Brewin talks about seeing God in organic bottom-up growth, rather than in industrial top-down strategising.***
Again, if we cannot answer that, or merely resort to Monty-Python spirituality – “O Lord you are SO big, because the city is SO big” – then have we really moved beyond some conceptual theology of the city to doing life with its inhabitants?
* Revelation 22:1-2.
** For example, Bryant Myers notes that engaging with the poor has less to do with our agenda concerning poverty, and more about recognising that our own poverty needs transforming too [Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999)]. Similarly, engaging the city has less to do with our agenda concerning the city, and more about our transformation with the city. For that, we at least need to be there, to live there, to listen.*** See Kester Brewin, The Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church (London: SPCK, 2004). A précis of the book can be found here.