When thinking about cities like New York, Paris, or Bangkok we are inclined to think about The Empire state building, The Eiffel Tower, or The Grand Palace. Structures and monuments make cities famous and give them character. However a healthy city is not sustained by buildings, but by the everyday workings going on between them.
Robert Moses was the leading urban planner in America in the middle of the last century. With a ferocious desire for power and an uncompromising architectural vision he was transforming New York according to his will. One of his big focus points was getting traffic in and out of the city. To this end he designed bridges, tunnels and motorways in and through the city many times at the cost of communities being destroyed. His overbearing methods went often without critique due to their immediate benefits until a woman by the name of Jane Jacobs, a journalist and campaigner, came on the scene and took a stand against such urban planning. She analyzed her surroundings on Hudson street and wrote many articles and books on the need to sustain the well-being of city communities. This changed the game.
I raise this topic because urban planning has developed and now better incorporates the people and their well-being into the equation in city development. What about the church? Have we looked around at the communities surrounding us and the needs they represent? Have we engaged the community and taken steps to ensure its health and well-being?
Whether in Europe, Africa, or Asia I am hearing a common challenge among pastors: the church is not relevant in the ever-changing demographic of the city. The result: many churches have gone into hibernation or seclusion hoping that the city will find them. Instead of the church having hands to reach out to the city, she is expecting the city to find the church. All too often we fall into the same trap as did Robert Moses: focus on the structures and miss the community.
In the book of Jeremiah we find the people of Israel living in Babylon in forced exile. This is the message that they receive from God:
“Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” Jeremiah 29:5-7
Jeremiah’s words do not encourage Israel to stay in the confines of the synagogue and keep away from the Babylonians, but to integrate and have fellowship. If the exiled people of Israel were told to work for the betterment of cities, is not the church of today called to do the same? And if it is, how can we properly engage the city if we do not first understand its demographic?
Relevance is not rocket science. It is basic things in the framework of everyday life, just as it was in Babylon. To reach the city means to see these different layers, define and analyze them, and position yourself alongside them.
City people are deaf to words but sensitive to touch. If we want to be a relevant presence in the city we must be a part of its fabric. Out from the sidelines and into the game.