But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7
I grew up in the country, the kind of place that some uncharitably call “the middle of nowhere.” Work was long and hot, and the church, that building at the center of a sprawling agricultural community, was an educator, social hub, and helper. The connection between the church and the land was easy enough to figure out. It was commonplace on a Sunday morning to give thanks for land, to pray for it, and to live with the dignity of a very earthy Christianity.
In North America it seems that urban abstractions have destabilized this kind of intimate spirituality of land and community. How many residents of a new American suburb are liable to offer an earthy and robust thanks for their square patch of lawn, identically sculpted to fit the pattern of an endless row of McMansions? Or who might stare out of their high rise in Los Angeles to see a maze of granite, concrete, and the world’s most expansive road works and feel compelled to enter this kind of spiritual space?
The urban paradox is this: Where human beings are most concentrated, and most capable of building and sustaining God-glorifying community, our urban structures and planning have often erected colossal artificial barriers to it.
Wendell Barry, a Christian author, criticizes this new divide as unnatural and unbiblical. In his essay collection The Gift of Good Land, he writes, “I want to deal, at last, with my own long-held belief that Christianity as usually presented by its organizations, is not earthly enough; that a valid spiritual life … must have a practice and a practicality.” It must have a material result. It must reflect on God’s love for creation and the call of God to love our neighbors. Rightly then, these requirements cannot be fulfilled by smiling in abstract beneficence on our neighbors and on our scenery. It must come to tangible acts, which come from skills. Such love, Barry writes, calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, engineering, architecture, mining, and manufacturing. “It calls not just for skills but for the study and criticism of skills, because in all of them a choice must be made.” How can we love our neighbor if we don’t know how to build or mend a fence, or how to keep filth out of his water and poison out of his air?
Further, it makes biblical sense that if the earth is the Lord’s and we are His stewards, there are good and bad ways of doing community. We are right to ask: Is there such a thing as a Christian strip mine? A Christian transit system? Or a Christian waste disposal system? Does Christianity imply limitations on the scale of architecture, roadways, and residential complexes?
If we are to recover an earthy Christianity, one that connects profoundly to streets, homes, and land, then we must agree, at the very least, that there are possible answers to these questions. And we must reject the argument that the Christian tradition does not provide an understanding of such commonplace issues. Biblical Christianity is about land, about subways, cars, and high rises. It affirms God as Creator, and as sovereign over every bit of creation. Therefore our responsibility as stewards, as those who have been given dominion, is to safeguard God’s work, and His pleasure in it. Our concern is that God be pleased when He looks to our cities.
It is irrevocably human to build cities. Living in cities, in community, is part of being human. The Bible affirms this, but it further affirms that all such activity exists, as Luther would say, Corem Deo—before the face of God, and to the glory of God. Our concern for His honor is at the heart of decoding the urban paradox.
To this end, New Urbanism flags some of the most salient urban issues in contemporary North America. At the very least it diagnoses the mess that plagues many cities, and proposes some solutions. And, importantly, New Urbanism tells us that the problem is not money. North America is affluent, capable of marshaling colossal resources. Yet our cities and suburban centers no longer seem to support human flourishing—they are often ugly, and dominated by consumerism and big box retailers. We must become theologically alert to the simple but disarming truth that cities can honor God.
Church and City: Where did the Connection Go?
Among urban geographers it has become cliché to say that a city’s soul is its tallest building. It doesn’t take a much historical imagination to remember that churches once dominated the urban skylines where banks and business towers now loom. Churches don’t stand out in cities anymore, architecturally or otherwise, in much of the global North. Those that do, in Europe for example, often stand more as relics than sites of faith or centers of vibrant urban renewal.
In Canada, Reginald Bibby, a sociologist of religion, predicted the death of religion’s relevancy in city landscapes. Religion generally was on its way out as a culture-shaper, he says. But in Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002), Bibby suggests that questions of meaning and purpose are beginning to revitalize religious communities. Among other watershed events, 9/11 has profoundly demonstrated that faith cannot be ignored. The American sociologist Peter Berger agrees when he notes: “I think what I and most other sociologists wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it was basically wrong. Most of the world today is … not secular.”
The connection between church and city has therefore not been so much absent as under-theorized, or even anti-theorized. But if biblical Christianity demands concern for cities, then it is time for Christians and urban leaders to re-examine the connection.
New Urbanism and an Urban Village Vanguard
New Urbanism is one lens by which to examine this link. It is not an exclusively Christian effort, though it reflects many Christian concerns. It is a coalition of architects, developers, planners, journalists, and citizen activists who are committed to developing a physical environment that supports human flourishing. According to Eric Jacobsen in Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, the New Urbanist model is distinct because it articulates a new model for shared human life. It is also unique because unlike other more utopian efforts, New Urbanist projects have managed to be financially viable and have been favorably received by many communities.
It is nevertheless difficult to pin New Urbanism down as a design method or a particular pattern of development. The New Urbanist commitment to context-sensitive design means that projects are oriented around local topography and climate, as well as the tastes and values of the community itself. In its emphasis on community, New Urbanism also rejects more atomistic approaches that see projects as self-contained. A city is organic, not a patchwork of hermetically-sealed individual buildings. It is an urban fabric, the whole of which must be considered.
Although it’s tricky to fix something as historically entrenched as the church into more recent innovations like New Urbanism, the principles below aren’t new. The concern of New Urbanism for community, whole development, and human flourishing is not merely the concern of the institutional church; it forms the matrix of what we Christians call “good news.” In many ways what is striking is not why municipal leaders and New Urbanists should look at churches as allies, but rather, why church leaders have been conspicuously absent from this dialogue. Can community be built from within the physical form of traditional towns without under-girding social structures? What part can churches play in New Urbanism and the revitalization of urban spaces? I want to suggest three critical ways that churches can answer these questions.
1. Befriending the Stranger
“People,” comments Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, a community for those with intellectual disabilities, “are yearning to discover community. We have had enough of loneliness, independence and competition” (National Catholic Reporter). Urban life is fast-paced, with penalties for those who fail to keep up. Perhaps the most important role a church can play in contemporary urban centers is as simple as “presence.”
I had a friend who, not long ago, was in Vancouver working in its East End, a notoriously drug-ridden and depressed region. One day she was talking with a man at a street church, who had been dry for a month. “How’d you come out of it?” she asked.
“Jus’ comin’ here for a hotdog every night, and the kindness they showed—just people accepting me, shaking my hand, saying hi.”
Surprised, she asked, “So all those little things are making a difference?”
“Oh yea,” he said, “just givin’ someone the time of day is where it all starts.” My friend spent a summer learning that “just giving someone the time of day,” just being present, can be all the difference. Jean Vanier writes that presence is being present to people who are fragile, and being present merely to one another.
However, New Urbanism is instructive in informing churches that this kind of radical presence means more than putting up a building and filling it. The kind of presence that Vanier is talking about connects churches to a local fabric of its weakest members. This practice of presence is for “those who believe that the renewal of the Church and the unity of the followers of Jesus will come as we serve those who appear to us as strange, different, the unwanted and lonely, and as we learn to befriend our own poverty, the strange and the lonely within us.”
Cardinal Ethegary adds that the “renewal of the Church always comes as we dare to live a life of covenant with the poor.” Churches, like people, must make a pilgrimage of learning to befriend the poverty within and without, to live with the kind of strength and integrity upon which true urban renewal can be built. In some cities this has meant a young mothers’ program, in others a refugee sponsorship program, and in still others special needs projects.
2. Spiritual Capital and the Urban Network
Historically, churches have been an entrenched part of the community’s economic and social infrastructure. Churches raise significant revenue, a great deal of which is funneled into mission. Statistics support the intuitive notion that people invest according to their values, and that values are often defined religiously. Robert Woodberry defines spiritual capital as “resources that are created or that people have access to when people invest in religion as religion.” Churches draw significant capital into their orbits, and provide access to it for society’s weakest members.
The church not only creates spiritual capital, but social capital as well. Christian identity cuts across every other dividing line found in urban neighborhoods. David Sucher, in his book City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village, tells how the former mayor of Seattle, Norman B. Rice, tried to make an urban village part of his administrative planning. The term might seem like an oxymoron. “How,” Sucher writes, “can you have a place that feels like a village and like a big city at the same time? People want the diversity, choice, and independence of the urban. And the intimacy of the village.”
The task of cities, Sucher continues, has been made more complicated than it needs to be. It is no more complex than making people comfortable, the same task faced by the host of a party. Churches can create this level of human comfort, but too often they are complicit in creating forbidding, intimidating public spaces.
It is time to imagine how churches can help cultivate an urban village. Kathleen Madden, in How to Turn a Place Around: A Handbook for Creating Successful Public Spaces (2000), suggests the following characteristics for a successful public place:
- A high proportion of people in groups.
- A higher than average proportion of women (because women—according to Madden—tend to be more discriminating about the places they use, perhaps because of choosiness about the seating available, perhaps because of their perceptions about safety).
- The presence of people of different ages over the course of a day.
- A variety of possible activities rather than a single use for the place.
- Public shows of affection. Madden writes, “There is generally more smiling, kissing, embracing, holding and shaking of hands, and so forth in good public spaces than in those that are problematic.”
3. For the Art of It: Cities and Sacred Space
There is an old legend about the conversion of Russia to Orthodoxy in 988 A.D. Prince Volodymyr of Kiev wanted to convert to a common religion to unite his people. He sent messengers to the lands of Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, and Orthodoxy. On their return they reported their impressions, favorable but not overly so of the great religions, until they related the Orthodox Christians of Constantinople, and the Hagia Sophia. Speaking of their worship in the Great Church they said, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. It would be impossible to find on earth any splendor greater than this. … Never shall we be able to forget so great a beauty.” There is something remarkable about a conversion based on the discovery of God through architecture.
The sacredness of such space is not about God living only in those places, but rather about us setting space apart. While temples house gods, the Christian notion of church is communal, flesh and blood. The church as a building is a symbolic extension of this community, and as a physical space where Christians come together. Our building shapes, by means of design and placement, how we understand what it means to be a community.
“Buildings [are] like human beings,” writes David Sucher. “Conversations between buildings, as among humans, are a poignant sign of neighborliness. It is the height of rudeness—though all too often the expected norm in cities—for neighbors to speak not a word to each other for years on end. Buildings that do not talk to their neighbors are also rude.” In many city neighborhoods, churches can be good neighbors by re-inhabiting existing church buildings, or by creating new buildings that respond to the surrounding space—finding ways of fitting into the context. The church should see it as part of its vocation to repair the urban fabric by repairing and constructing its own building in such a way that the neighborhood is aesthetically and socially knitted together. The physical institution of the church and its neighborhood should be an icon of the social cohesion of the church and its community. Polite architectural conversation can be as easy as doing simple things, like preserving green space and cultivating a garden, showcasing life and vibrancy.
“We need Christians and churches everywhere there are people,” writes Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City in “A New Kind of Urban Christian” (Christianity Today, May 2006). Urban renewal, requires the kind of vision and action that churches and people of faith possess. It is an urban vision firmly entrenched in the knowledge of the creator God, acted out faithfully in response to His Word, with contextual reflection. There is almost no limit to the imaginative manifestations that such a church can take. But churches and Christians must begin to take this kind of earthy Christianity, which bespeaks such pertinence to architecture, community, and transit more seriously if they are to realize a vision of urban centers built and sustained for human flourishing and the glory of God.
This article is based on research by the Work Research Foundation (WRF), a Christian public policy think tank based in Hamilton, Ontario. Visit http://www.wrf.ca for more on WRF policy research, its flagship journal Comment, and the new audio CD Think.
Michael Van Pelt is president of the Work Research Foundation. He previously served as a municipal councillor and as president of the Sarnia Chamber of Commerce in Ontario.
Rob Joustra is a researcher for the Work Research Foundation, specializing in the church and urban renewal. He has a Master’s degree in globalization from McMaster University, Hamilton, in Ontario.