My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.
This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit.
God is for places.
God, the Father Almighty is a transcendent cosmic being who is present in all space and time – and yet, takes great and surprising interest in very particular places. The most obvious example of this occupies vast portions of the Old Testament, as God interacts with his people, the Israelites. Of course, Israel comes off more as a wandering (literally and metaphorically) people group than a place that can be plotted on a map, but all of that wandering was just deviation (literally and metaphorically) from God’s plan. God fully intended for his people to establish a lasting home in a specific place. In addition to the tales of Israel’s wanderings, the Old Testament spends quite a bit of text describing the temple. Entire chapters of the Bible are devoted to what basically amount to blueprints and Pinterest boards for a building. Later on, even more chapters describe where the building materials came from, how they were paid for, and what the structure ultimately looked like. The word of the Lord teems with blatant examples of how God cares for space and our use of it.
Moving right along: Jesus. In a shocking twist in the God + Humans story, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The incarnation is important because it’s a miracle, because it means that God knows what it’s like to be a person, and because it means that God was born into a particular time and in a particular place. And when he was here, Jesus wasn’t a transient nation-less backpacker. Later in life he traveled a bit, but he was/is always “of Nazareth.” The God of the universe is from a particular place – he knows what it is like to have a childhood home, and neighbors, and annoying-oppressive city laws. He has lived and cared for a place, a home.
God is for cities.
But God seems to especially care for cities. Again, the Old Testament is riddled with evidence of this; the story that especially tickles me is that of Jonah vs. Ninevah. As the pouty prophet is off pouting on the outskirts of town, God levels with him: “should I not pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (“They might all be assholes, but there are a lot of them, and I made them. And their city. And their cows. So yeah, I wanna take care of them. Deal with it.”) (Jonah 4:11). Looking forward, it is worth noting that the trajectory of creation, which started (not literally, but metaphorically) in a garden, is moving toward a great city.
But wait: Why is God for cities?
Cities can point us toward God.
A well-designed city speaks to the good kind of order and hierarchy; the way that our streets are laid out can reveal to us a universe where things can make sense, despite all the noise. Furthermore, places of worship still play a role in cities, even in this borderline post-Christian corner of the world. Religious centers still overlook neighborhoods, squares, and bustling street corners. That’s why it’s important for churches to look like churches, and for existing church buildings to not be gutted and turned into subway stations and department stores; churches in cities remind us that God came here and is still alive and at work.
Cities remind us that real lives aren’t fragmented.
The late-modern mind has, maybe accidentally, fragmented the various elements that comprise a robust life, occasionally pitting them against each other. Think: sacred vs. secular, faith vs. reason, nature vs. nurture, work vs. life. In general, this is unnecessary and it often just stresses us all out. These are attitudes that have deeply rooted themselves into our collective subconscious – cities don’t fix or undo them completely. But, when we start to put the physical manifestations of these life-realms together in the same place – i.e., a city center or walkable neighborhood – we get a visual reminder that work, life, church, state, economy, and education are meant to sit together comfortably.
Cities call for harmony.
At any given moment in a city, hundreds of thousands of people are all trying to go about their day and get from one place to the next. But cities are usually dense, and for those people to move about happily, there needs to be some sort of harmony – not just the kind brought on by basic civil laws, but something subtle yet understood by the masses. This massive harmony, if and when it occurs, can serve us as a little signpost of what the Kingdom will be like, and what the Triune God is like now and always. (I live in Philly – a city of lawless brutes – so I’ve never seen this kind of harmony myself. But I imagine that this is what certain other places – maybe Berlin or Singapore – are like).
Cities are a breeding ground for ideas.
In college, we often talked about the idillic public square – an agora type of environment where all kinds of people come together, have great conversations, and maybe even get somewhere with those conversations. I’m not sure that this happens the same way that it did in Plato’s time, but, I’m constantly surprised by the amount of energy, creativity, spiritedness, and goodwill that pulses throughout Philly (and hopefully in cities like it). Even in the age of technology, I get the sense that putting students, artists, and entrepreneurs near each other helps spur these great ideas. God, the Maker of heaven and earth, is the OG of creative geniuses, so it’s safe to assume that he’s down with people collaborating and producing great creative work.