Friday, February 27, 2009

The city, the culture and the church

This will probably begin a series of posts on the above, following on from the thought provoking teaching of Dr Tim Keller, whom I heard the other day on this subject. He made the case for the church engaging the culture and reaching cities.

Cities he argues, rightly, are the centres of commerce, culture, art, law, politics, justice and right now for the first time ever more than 50% of the world's population live in cities. You can't ignore the city. I totally agree.

However, there were some working assumptions here than I think need some attention. It seemed to me that it was the culture that Dr Keller called on us to engage with and to do that we must be in the city. The argument goes like this, Christians are mandated to shape culture, cities shape culture therefore we need more Christians in cities. Get enough Christians in a city, say 10-20% of the population and you hit a tipping point and the values of the cultural products from the city (films, books, art, TV etc..) will begin to change and reflect kingdom values and that in turn will change the wider culture in the backwaters.

Here are some of the questions that I'm going to ask and wonder out loud about:
  • Are we actually mandated to create culture?
  • What do we mean by culture and cities anyway?
  • Is Dr Keller (and others) right about the Biblical importance of the city?
  • Are towns and villages merely passive recipients of city culture or can they form their own cultural products and resist the city?
  • Will the rise of the internet diminish the cultural influence of the cities?
  • Have Christians ever actually shaped whole cultures as a result of a city focused strategy?
  • Have revivals or Christian movements that shaped culture been dependent on cities?
  • How can we as a movement do both city and suburban, village and rural mission?
Got any other questions to throw in?


dave bish on 27 February 2009 at 11:57 said...

Good questions. I sort of agree with Keller but if changes comes by moving into the cities to take them, then it's the villages that really do the driving... which suits me having come from one.

You're gonna love this angle if you're David Stroud or Tim Keller or Mark Driscoll and are called to pastor in London or NY or Seattle, but if you're in a north-west town or a provincial city, or a village...

Seems good to ask whether the internet changes things... you could argue that a baptist pastor from Minneapolis - a city smaller than Bristol has done more to shape the church than almost any other church leader of his generation - because he has harnessed the power of the internet.

Caleb Woodbridge on 27 February 2009 at 12:17 said...

Culture-making is part of our God-given humanity, and part of the creation mandate to fill the Earth. Jesus didn't just come to make us Christian, but to make us human; not just to save individual souls, but redeem the whole of creation. This has to flow out from personal conversion and commitment, but cultural transformation is an important outworking of the church's mission.

I think that cities are strategically important, but we shouldn't wait to gain influence in the cities before taking the gospel to the country - for us as Christians, there should be no little people and no little places, and that means taking out the Gospel on all fronts.

Often local communities are quite culturally independent from cultural centres. If you're going to reach people with the Gospel, you need to go there and preach it to them. But this needs healthy sending churches, which can thrive more easily in larger population centres, so rural or urban is one of those false dilemmas - we need both, connected together.

I think that the American situation that Tim Keller writes in has a sharp divide between the rural Bible-belt and the much more secularised cities, and there's an imbalance to be addressed there. I don't know whether or not that's the case in the UK, but I don't think there's quite the same stark contrast.

One of the big issues facing the church in the UK is how to support Christians in rural areas in the face of declining church-going. I grew up in rural North Wales, and it's tough being a long way from other Christians, especially those of a similar age, and there's a danger of Christian witness disappearing altogether from many rural areas. How do you ensure fellowship and pastoral care in rural areas when there are small numbers of believers spread over large areas? It's going to be an increasing challenge, and we may find that thriving churches become more and more restricted to cities and large towns simply by decline.

Phil on 27 February 2009 at 19:15 said...

All good points. Caleb I guess I'm not yet convinced of the 'mandate', is it a goal of biblical living to transform culture or is it a by-product of kingdom living? How much should it be our clear and stated goal to shift culture and shift it to what exactly?

However city churches do need to have a vision for the surrounding area and not just cities. As you say we need both.

Jeremy on 2 March 2009 at 11:27 said...

The world's population, as you say, is more urban than rural. It's only natural then that we should focus attention on them, but to me that's a strategic point, not a biblical imperative.

On tipping points, I just can't see that. God can use one active Christian in a given cultural medium, or you can equally have 10-20% Christians in a city and see no change. Numbers aren't what it's about.

As for culture, I love the verse in revelation that talks about 'the splendour of the nations' being brought into the city of God. To me that's a validation of culture, that God rejoices in what we create. I'm not sure if it's a matter of 'shifting' culture, as much as it is just contributing to it, being part of it. I'd say it's part of being fruitful and multiplying, something God made us for.

From a sustainability point of view, by the way, I'd say villages are the future!

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