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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Church in the City

Retired pastor and writer Eugene H. Peterson reports that when he first went he was sent by the Presbyterian church to plant a congregation in Maryland outside of Baltimore he discovered nothing but corn fields. Those corn fields became houses and streets and stored and schools called suburbia. Inevitably some of the people who moved into those houses went looking for a church, and Peterson’s church grew and became a living faith community.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about this story with the exception of the event of suburbia itself. The post war era was a time of building: roads, cars, sewer systems, towns, utility wiring and pipes. The last half of the 20th century brought a taxpayer subsidized lifestyle revolution, requiring an unprecedented amount of wiring and piping and pavement per capita.

Churches adapted. New churches were planted for these new suburban communities, and others followed their parishioners out of established urban neighborhoods, abandoning old church buildings to newcomers. The suburban megachurch model was born as well.

For many years tropes like affluent suburbs and impoverished inner city had traction and contained some truth. The events in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer reveal that suburbs are quite a complex social reality in and of themselves. And some of the wealthiest, expensive and most sought after zip codes are in what we once would have called inner city.

The geography of our lives, and of the church, is changing. No longer can we look for the next corn field to be turned into a suburban town and plant a church there waiting for people to come. We can no longer afford the taxpayer subsidized infrastructure demanded by suburban development. And the people who might live in those houses can’t afford to heat, cool, and care for that much space. Furthermore, the generation coming into their own today, the 80 million strong millennials, prefers walking, biking and public transportation to cars, has fewer children, and would rather live in smaller housing units than sprawling suburban McMansions with big yards. In short, they prefer the city and the lifestyle of spending time, not at home, but in cafes, bars, restaurants, parks, theaters and concert venues. And perhaps churches.

Whether you find this development hopeful or not, it does have precedent in the church, even in the early church. Christianity was an urban movement in its earliest days. In the ancient cities of the Roman empire people lived in tight quarters, with the exception of the very few wealthy, and spent most of their time in the marketplace and other settings where they rubbed shoulders with other people. Public space was critical to the growth of the early church. This social activity, not the building of new subdivisions, was the infrastructure through which the Holy Spirit worked to grow the church.

Today the most exciting new church developments (which are more likely to be new campuses of existing churches) are in cities and are driven by urban social energy. Many such churches are adept at using social media and technology for bringing people together or telling their story but the energy is tied to an urban sense of place.


Edna 1961 said...

So? Uptown, Downtown misery is all the same. This leads me to ask the same question I have been asking ever since I arrived at CMC. What is the Gospel, and does anyone here know what it is?? (By the way, I can tell you how many flowers are on the carpet.)
Gil Reed

Mike Garde said...

Thanks Phil.