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Blog // Thoughts
June 21, 2005

The Exurbitian Doctrine of the City

I audibly groaned when reading Scot McKnight write, “The question comes to me as to why I think it is that we so often see sin most systemically in the urban context” Whilst the point he went on to make about justice and social justice was worth consideration (and the follow up correction helpful, despite […]

I audibly groaned when reading Scot McKnight write,

“The question comes to me as to why I think it is that we so often see sin most systemically in the urban context”

Whilst the point he went on to make about justice and social justice was worth consideration (and the follow up correction helpful, despite the insistance on urbanity as a sign of poverty) his urban exegesis was sadly typical of what I have often heard from conservative suburban Christians over the last decade. In fact, with the rise of exurbian megachurches in the US,and their spreading influence elsewhere, this kind of view of the surmised dangers and evils of the urban is reaching fever-pitch as the following quote from an article on the wildly influential New Life church in Colorado Springs highlights,

“It is not so much the large populations, with their uneasy mix of sinner and saved, that make Christian conservatives leery of urban areas. Even downtown Colorado Springs, presumably as godly as any big town in America, struck the New Lifers I met as unclean. Whenever I asked where to eat, they would warn me away from downtown‚Äôs neat little grid of caf?©s and ethnic joints. Stick to Academy, they‚Äôd tell me, referring to the vein of superstores and prepackaged eateries‚ÄîP. F. Chang‚Äôs, California Pizza Kitchen, et al.‚Äîthat bypasses the city. Downtown, they said, is ‚Äúconfusing.‚Äù”

It takes an odd theology to see the city as any more sinful than the suburbs, or maybe a concerted lack of attention to the way the suburbs breed many of the city’s ‘sin issues.’ Morover, by seeing the city as simply a site of sin and poverty, it can lead people to miss the way urban renewal has accompanied globalistion in many places and can also blind them to the spiritual renewal that can sometimes walk hand in hand with that. In today’s NYT there is a feature on Evangelical Christianity in New York City. It highlights the scope and size of the evangelical faith in the city, not just amongst immigrants and the poor.

“But the emergence of evangelical faith is not entirely limited to the working class communities outside Manhattan. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, started in the late 1980’s, by the Rev. Timothy Keller, draws several thousand on weekends, mostly young professionals, to its services in Manhattan. The Journey, a Manhattan church that started after Sept. 11, 2001, now draws about 1,000 people to its Sunday services and Bible studies, and has many actors and artists in its congregation.”

Urban ministry does not and should not just mean programmes for the poor and dispossed. For many today, the urban lifestyle is a matter of choice (and often a consequence of wealth). I am currently writing a review of Eric Jacobsen’s very helpful book Sidewalks in the Kingdom, which sheds light on this. For me, I feel safer in the urban contexts, where I have lived and holidayed than in their accompanying suburbs. In London I knew my neighbours, my local shopkeepers, was recongised walking down the street. This to me is preferable to the anonymous hostility of the burbs. If anything, the surface anarchy of the urban is a better context for the formation of character (as Richard Sennet suggests). Moreover, we know that cities are often better locations for the fostering creativity.

Sin is sin and to claim the urban context is more a seedbed of sin than the burbs is not only wrong, it is a severe theological distortion. What we find in the city is not more sin, but more difference., which is not really the same thing, is it?

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