A new hope

After a lengthy hiatus I’m getting back to rounding off “Hope for the City” which will eventually be an E-book on the resources site. A look at subversive fulfilment and urban mission.

Sometimes we describe the affect of the Gospel in terms of seeing Eden restored. From this perspective, sin is forgiven and the consequences of The Fall are removed so that our hope is that those who turn to Christ will return in effect to that state of innocence which humanity experienced prior to the Fall.  We know that this will not be complete in this life time but our expectation is that when Christ returns, the new creation will involve a restoration of the heavens and the earth to what they used to be.

Sometimes  such a perspective and expectation can reinforce the kind of perspective that works against Gospel witness to our cities.  If we are hungering for a return to Edenic paradise, of a world before cities and industry then we may find ourselves sanctifying the desire to escape from our cities. A theology of “paradise restored” may cause us to seek the suburbs. Of course, strictly speaking we should be moving out to the countryside to live the good life but that would mean giving up on the convenience we still desire as well. So, the suburbs offer us compromise! They are the ”now and not yet” of our eschatology.

Yet, when we look at Scripture, we see much more than just the restoration of Eden.  The Biblical narrative offers progress, sometimes referred to as “from garden to garden city.”  At the close of Revelation, we are offered a vision of God’s holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down to earth.  Let me remind you of David Smith’s words which I quoted earlier on.

“It is well known that the story told in the bible begins in a garden and end in a city. The world as created by God is a rural paradise in which complete harmony exists between human beings and their maker, and between people and all other created beings. God himself is said to have looked on this scene and declared that it was ‘very good’ (Gen 1:31). But in the final chapter of the Bible, after the long and complex story that has unfolded since Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, it is a city that comes into view as the ultimate goal and hope of human history. In this vision the glory of God is no longer displayed in a natural wilderness, but rather shines with great brilliance in a vast and holy city (Rev. 21:10-11).”[1]

Now, the city imagery there is intended to represent the church and its place in the New Creation, so we are not meant to imagine a literal, huge metropolis arriving like some alien space-ship. Yet that the Bible uses city imagery positively to give us a vision of the future should encourage us in two ways. First, we are meant to see cities positively as well as negatively. Secondly, it reinforces a Biblical narrative that presents the intended future as a development from and improvement on Eden. 

This perspective may cause us to think more deeply about the purpose of cities and whether this is redeemable. If so, do churches have a place in the city beyond simply being present because that’s where people are.  Smith argues that cities in the ancient world had a spiritual or sacred purpose so that :

“The era of the great urban empires reached its culminating point in the rise to world dominance of Rome, centred on a city which both in its size and glory exceeded any urban settlement previously seen on earth. This too was a ‘sacred city’ in the sense that it came to be viewed as the outcome of prophecies which placed Rome at the centre of the purposes of the gods.”[2]

In that case, a city will reflect and magnify the gods worshipped by the people there. Modern cities will reflect and magnify our worship of materialistic humanism.  Yet there is also a suggestion of longing in all of this.  Our human hope is that cities will be good places. Smith goes on to argue that:

“For Plato and Aristotle then, the fundamental question concerned the purpose of the city: for what end does it exist, and what is required for it to fulfil this objective? The answer was related to what constituted ‘goodness’ and, while this might be the subject of legitimate discussion, it was clear that a good society would be one in which the citizens flourished as members together of a virtuous community.”[3]

Throughout this book, I’ve been arguing that our mission involves “subversive fulfilment.” In other words, we believe that humans have dreams, longings, hopes that are good and God given.  However, those dreams and hopes are distorted by idolatry.  Subversive fulfilment is about first of all subverting those dreams by challenging and correcting the idolatrous distortion and then providing a means for those corrected dreams to be fulfilled in Christ. 

This should mean that if there is a good and proper longing for cities to be places of goodness where people flourish then part of what the church is about is to see cities become those places. A city can never be a place where good is seen, the community are virtuous and citizens flourish so long as those people are worshipping false gods and idols. However, whenever the people of the city turn to the one true, living God then this means they will now be able to work towards creating that very “virtuous community”. There will be a sense of flourishing now which offers a small foretaste of what is to come.

Indeed, that greater vision has been present in Reformed thinking from the off.  Smith argues that Calvin and the people of Geneva saw their city as offering “a holy commonwealth”[4] In other words, that city was meant to model what it meant for God’s people to be part of a community of believers together, seeking to worship God, to steward creation and to seek one another’s welfare.

I believe therefore that Christians in the city shouldn’t just be seeking to share the good news with individuals but rather to go beyond that to grow urban communities that model what it means to be part of a community where Christ is at the centre.  This is in order to offer a foretaste of what is to come when the new Jerusalem is fully revealed.

Now, let me be clear about what I mean by that. First of all, what I don’t mean is that we are offering a kind of social gospel alongside or instead of the gospel of salvation.  This means that I’m not arguing for an idealist possibility.  Christians and the church cannot and should not expect to be able to solve all the problems of the city as it is. Nor, do I see social action as a means to win people over to the Gospel. This risks being disingenuous.

Rather, my view is that as we lead people to Christ and disciple them that a natural outworking of that will be that they become part of a new and alternative community that bears witness to the transforming power of God through the Gospel and offers that little foretaste of what is to come.  Further, it is my view that even when people do not come to faith, even the minimalist of contacts with Christ and the Gospel, a brush against the hem of his garment will affect people and communities in some way. I therefore expect the church to model what it is like to be a Christ centred community and for there to be an overflow of common grace from the church to wider society.

What does this look like in practice? Well, I hope this isn’t a cop out but I think that the detail is something that you have to work out in your context. However, to avoid a total cop out I think we can talk in big picture terms and we can offer some examples of possibilities.

The principles are those we find described in the New Testament. So, the church should function like an extended household. Indeed, I would argue that this is what the city is meant to be at its best. This means that believers will recognise that they are connected to the body with their different gifts to bring, they do not live in isolated individualism.  It means that there will be a submitting to one another and preferring of each other’s needs. This means that churches will be communities where people are able to flourish and to be valued for who they are and what they bring. Churches will be places where people are not allowed to be lazy and entitled but where those who have genuine needs are find that they are looked after and their needs are met but where at the same time, they are encouraged to contribute into the community as well.

In a lot of cases, this will mean that the church actually creates the community because often in urban populations we find that there are large swathes of housing but that is not the same as the conurbation being a city because there is no community, there is no gathered purpose, there isn’t anything that models or enables the common good.  When I was pastor at Bearwood Chapel, we were based on a busy high street. There were aspects of community life there. However it was patchy.

One of the things that we did was to create opportunities for community celebration, mini festivals and street festivals if you like. The first was a “Street Party” based on the chapel site to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  We ran events through the day with games, music, puppets, face paints etc and allowed local people to set up little street stalls with arts and craft. At the centre of the day was the Gospel including a point where I game a short message and prayed. We had Gospels available for people to take too.  We weren’t sure how many would turn up and so were overwhelmed when we began to lose count around the 800 mark. I remember sitting next to a lady in her 80s as she asked “Who are all these people.” I responded, “these are our neighbours.” As well as beginning to build that local community and introducing people to us, it also introduced our church to the community and helped build a vision to reach it.  Increasingly I became akin to the old-fashioned parish priest being out and about meeting people in the street and visiting their homes.

The point is this. Communities need to celebrate together and to mourn together. A community has a shared remembrance so we remember together.  That’s why we have festivals, fun days, thanksgivings, weddings, parties etc. It’s also why we have funerals and one minute silences.  A church can create community by providing those opportunities.  It may also do so by encouraging people to get involved in art and culture that reflects the context, whether that’s music, rap, street dance, murals, graffiti, sculpture etc. 

Now, in the South and West of Birmingham as well as into much of the Black Country, you at least have the physical structures that give shape to a community in place usually centred around local village and town highstreets as those towns and villages have merged into the conurbation. That is not always the case. In North Birmingham there are huge estates of houses and occasional shopping precincts but no real centre points to specific communities. This will be true of many urban populations. In such cases, you have to work even harder at creating the community. The Community may then begin to centre in upon the church building or its rented space, a local school, a community centre or even a few houses on the street where Christians live and open up their lives to share with others.

Indeed, that last point is crucial. I believe that we begin to build a community simply by sharing our lives with others, by living life together as part of a church family and inviting the neighbours around to join in.  So, at its smallest and most basic level, we practice hospitality. We make it clear that our homes are open. We find opportunities to talk with others, to offer them food and drink to do things with them.

We have to be aware of specific cultural norms here. I frequently mention that when I was growing up in West Yorkshire, the culture there was one where people were naturally in and out of one another’s homes – no appointment necessary.   I then lived in Kent and didn’t even get to know my neighbour’s name. My wife, from the Southeast was shocked at the idea when we were up in Bradford that we could just drop in on some people I knew from childhood unplanned and unannounced.  When we moved to the Black Country, we found that people were friendly and we quickly became friends with our neighbours on the cul-de-sac but everything happened on the front doorstep or out in the street. Black Country people are more cautious about going in and out of each other’s houses. Those spaces remain private. However, during the COVID pandemic a neighbour began wheeling out his recycling bin to the gate when the rule of six came in with a pack of beer on top. He would stop anyone passing and invite them to have a drink.  Gradually a cluster of people formed. He did this every Saturday and that evolved into barbeques and take aways in one another’s gardens.  So you have to find where the acceptable space is for people to meet each other and share life.

How do we look out for one another? Various things have been attempted by Christians over the years from debt advice through to foodbanks.  I would say two things here. First of all, that the best responses to need arise naturally out of the congregation rather than through national charities. Secondly, we want this to be about community and not about charity, definitely not about the church coming in to fix things for the working classes or for ethnic minority groups as white saviours.  For that reason, I’m not a fan of foodbanks where people queue for vouchers and then go somewhere else t queue for handouts.  However, I think there are other innovative options available which can enable people to receive what they need and contribute what and when they can.

Additionally, churches can provide opportunities to help people to contribute back into the community by serving in different ways. This means that even if they are not receiving a wage directly for their work, there is a sense that they are workers contributing something in, rather than simply the recipients of handouts. 

So, a church planted into an urban context can start to build a community in a manner that points forward to the hope that we have.  The local church does that as it develops a culture of grace rich welcome and hospitality. It does this as it gives the community opportunity to celebrate and remember and as it provides opportunities for art to thrive.  Finally, it builds community as it models and encourages a life together where people contribute and look out for each other.

[1] Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations, 19.

[2] Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations, 55.

[3] Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations, 57.

[4] Smith, Seeking a City with Foundations, 63.

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