Friday, August 11, 2023

Stay in the City: A Wish for Churches

 Last week, Harding School of Theology made a significant announcement. Reaction has been both sorrowful and joyful, and I suppose depending on your perspective either reaction is appropriate.

     They announced that they would be leaving their longtime home in Memphis, Tennessee, and relocating to Harding University’s main campus in Searcy, Arkansas. 

     And they also announced that they’ll be dropping their price per credit hour from $740 to $100.

     That last isn’t a typo, and if you’ve ever considered graduate education in theology next fall would be a really good time to start! 

     It’s the relocation, though, that I’m thinking about right now.

     HST has been located in Memphis since 1958. Bob Turner, one of the ministers at White Station Church of Christ, just about a mile and a half from the campus, used to work for HST. He wrote an excellent reflection on the move, titled “Running from Nineveh,” that’s worth your time to read. In it, he writes about the “suburbanization or (worse) white flight” of the late 20th century that “sent people packing for the suburbs.” He says: 

“This suburbanization has presented challenges for the church. The churches that I’ve spent my life in have struggled ministering in urban settings. Despite the fact that by 2050 most of the world will live in urban areas, Christians still seem uncomfortable in them. Most urban areas are littered with old, empty churches that used to be relevant for the community, but their membership died or moved away.” 

Here in Chicago, it looks like the former Kenwood Methodist Episcopal Church will be converted to office space and apartments. Two or three other similar redevelopments are at least in the planning stages. Though there was a time when churches were being built in cities, and served their communities well, now I think I agree with Bob that at least many Christians do seem somewhat uncomfortable in cities. At least many white Christians. So, in many places, Christians have simply withdrawn from the city.

     I did a little research and quick math, and came up with some interesting figures. Searcy, Arkansas, has just over 23,000 people, and they have 7 Churches of Christ — one for every 3,286 people. Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up, has 182,000 people and at least 25 Churches of Christ — one for every 7,280 people. That’s about 5 more Churches of Christ than are located in Chicago, which has a population of 2.7 million. One for every 135,000 people. Bob points out that Seattle has 6 Churches of Christ and nearly a million in population, and New York City’s 8 million people are served by 7 Churches of Christ. 

     I’m cherry-picking, of course. In larger cities in the south, there are more of us. Memphis has around 45 Churches of Christ for its 628,000 people — but that’s still only about one for every 14,000 people. In Atlanta, where 496,000 people live, there are 15 Churches of Christ, by my count; one for every 33,066 people.

    Maybe other tribes of believers are doing better in cities. I can only really speak to my own.

    I’ve been a minister in an urban church for almost 30 years, and here’s what I know: I’ve sort of gotten used to Christians reacting with concern and even pity when they find out I’m in the evil, wicked city of Chicago. Much of that reaction, I think, comes from a very one-sided view of cities in general, and Chicago specifically, that they mainly get (as near as I can tell) from Fox News. I know for a fact that visitors to Chicago sometimes drive past my church from their hotel in the Loop to go to a suburban congregation where they feel safer and more comfortable. OK, that’s their choice. But I worry when Christians’ attitudes about the city are informed more by politicians and country songs about small towns than they are by God’s love for human beings. When we’re more concerned with echoing hysteria about cities than we are with sharing the gospel there, something’s wrong. Something is deeply wrong.

     I get it, there are reasons not to live in cities. I’m not saying everyone should. But when the church — and the schools that train its leaders — runs from the challenges of urban life to suburbs and small towns, something is missing from our perspective on cities. 

     One other thing, and I hate to say this, but I do think the abandonment of cities is by and large a white church thing. We should grapple with the questions about why. Do we just prefer our churches more homogenous? Are there racist attitudes behind our choice to leave cities? Do our ideas of success and prosperity influence the choices we make about where to live and where to put our buildings? Have our churches become too focused on making our members comfortable? I can tell you this; young Christians who grow up with different worldviews and assumptions about urban life and diversity notice when our churches lack any diversity. 

     Ethnic churches — Black, Latino, Asian — have continued to be a presence in urban areas. To the degree that we want to reengage with the city, we should look to those churches for leadership. Partner with them.

     After preaching last week from Jeremiah 29, I’ve been thinking about what the prophet wrote to exiles to Babylon who, no doubt, weren’t crazy about being relocated to the wicked, pagan city. Jeremiah told them to “build houses and settle down.” Become a part of the community. Invest in it. He told them to “plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Literally, put down roots; you don’t plant a garden if you don’t plan to be there for a while. Not to mention that gardens give you something to share with neighbors! He advised them to “work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the LORD for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.” They were to work and pray for their city; invest their time, energy, resources, and prayers into helping their new city prosper. They were to participate in the life of the city and contribute to its future by raising children who would be confident in their identity as God’s people, but also as citizens of Babylon.

     It’s the easiest thing in the world to isolate ourselves behind the walls of our home or church buildings, behind privacy fences and gated communities, away from the Lazaruses at our gates. Part of the reason churches retreat from the city is that it allows us the illusion that the problems of the city aren’t our problems. You hear it in some of our rhetoric that dismisses cities as “cesspools,” Sodoms and Gomorrahs where the people are totally unlike the people that “we” know and live and work around. 

     We need to be planting churches in the city. We should literally plant community gardens we can share with our neighbors, and serve in ways that make us part of the fabric of the neighborhood. When considering whether or not to leave an urban area for the suburbs or small towns, Christians should at least ask whether or not God might have called us to the city for a reason. There are good reasons to leave, but there are also good reasons to stay.

     I’d love to see struggling urban churches decide to stay in their neighborhoods instead of closing the doors. I’d love to see them ask God how they need to change to reach their neighborhoods with the gospel. I’d love to see fewer condos and shopping centers on former church properties, and more places where urban people can come to know Jesus. I’d love to see churches committed to praying and working for the city’s prosperity.

     Our cities need us more than they need another Starbuck’s.

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