Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Religion and the City

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 have welfare. – Jeremiah 29:7

Religion is another one of those topics seldom discussed in urbanist circles. Though Christianity was originally an urban religion, modern Christianity has always had a bit of a problem with cities, with their licentious ways, anonymity, and the little bit of Babylon and Sodom they all contain.

The religious in the US are often associated with the political right and conservative stances on social issues – just the type of people who don’t like cities or city dwellers much, and vice versa. In particular, the strident opposition of many to abortion and homosexuality puts religion on the wrong side of what are also litmus test issues for many urbanists.

Yet urbanists should take religion much more seriously than they often do. That’s because it plays a much bigger role in the city and civic health than currently believed, and because many urban congregations have mastered the art of outreach and conversion in a way that transit and density advocates can only dream out.

The Importance of Religion

Churches have always been important institutions in cities. Even today, the only reason many families with children are confident enough to stay in the city is because they can enroll their kids in Catholic or other religious schools. I can only imagine what a place like Chicago would look like if its religious school network wasn’t there. Religious institutions are also heavily involved in poor relief and other social service activities that help reduce the tax burden. And regardless of what you personally think about any particular religion, if someone is able to use faith to help them get over serious personal dysfunction like criminal behavior or alcoholism, more power to them.

For ethnic and minority communities, churches have long been key community institutions and support organizations. In a video I’ll get to shortly, Tim Keller notes as one example how the Jewish community of New York City has built extensive institutions there that made it much easier for Jewish families, not just young Jewish singles, to stay in the city. Churches have long been important in black communities that are often neglected and underserved by government, and many black pastors are seen not only as religious, but very important community or political leaders as well. I suspect religious institutions play a particularly key role in fostering community networks for what are niche minorities in many cities – Muslims, Sikhs, etc.

This is an urban world that doesn’t feature much in the landscape of the traditional affluent white bobo demographic that dominates urbanist discussion. But even in that group, I see many examples of how religious minded urbanists types have helped boost and build a better future for their city.

For example, in Indianapolis, the Earth House Collective, a “group of peace activists, conservationists, artists, musicians, Methodists, teachers and many more dedicated to peace, wellness, community and culture” is based in the heart of downtown Indianapolis at Lockerbie United Methodist Church. Similarly, the Harrison Center for the Arts, one of the city’s most important arts venues, is housed at Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Both of these are taken seriously by even the most hardened atheists in the city.

The Harrison Center’s executive director, Joanna Taft, was one of the people who helped found the church as well (and the charter Herron High School and lots of other things). She explained how her Christian motivation propels her work in city revitalization:

I have been Presbyterian my whole life and my worldview has been influenced by the protestant reformed concept of the cultural mandate. This is the idea that humankind has been called to continue God’s work of creation–building cities, restoring broken neighborhoods, creating beauty, raising children, planting gardens, etc…..While some of our Christian friends would feel guilty doing this work because it was not “full-time Christian service”, understanding the cultural mandate gave us the freedom to pursue what some would see as secular work.

There’s a lot more to religion in the city than just abortion protests. It’s time urbanists took religion and religious institutions a lot more seriously, even if they don’t agree with the religious in many cases.

Learning from Evangelism

Not all religions seek out converts, but Christianity and Islam, two of the big kahunas, do. Since in most countries you can’t force someone to belong to a religion or have a particular set of beliefs, this requires the ability to persuade, and really speak to the people you are trying to convert.

If you really are trying to save souls, then it isn’t enough just to be right, you have to also be effective. That’s the part of the message that’s too often lost on urbanists of various stripes. They are pushing transit, density, sustainability, etc. largely based on a belief that these are self-evidently correct policies. I find that often their ability to sell them to people who are skeptical or come from a different worldview is poor. When people don’t sign on to the latest carbon reduction scheme, rather than blaming a bad sales job, the blame is almost always put on the people rejecting it, such as by calling them idiots, intellectually dishonest, shills for corporations, or “deniers.” I’m sure there are some of these types out there, but I believe the vast bulk of people don’t fall into these categories.

Not all, but a good chunk of religious evangelists actually care about what works. Their mandate doesn’t allow them to simply write off unbelievers as a hopeless sinners. As a result, you often see a lot more analysis of what they think they need to do to be successful in their mission.

As an example, I highly recommend watching the following 18 minute video of a speech by Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. (If the video doesn’t display, click here). If you aren’t familiar with the Redeemer story, this New York Times article from 2006 is good background. Keller’s speech is called “God’s Global Urban Mission,” and this segment discusses Contextualization. He gives 10 ways that urban churches are different from suburban or rural churches, and what they need to do differently to be successful in urban environments. Almost all of these are very relevant to urbanism.

He talks about items ranging from multicultural sensitivities to taking the arts serious to “being famous for helping the poor.” The latter was an item that jumped out at me because, as I’ve noted before, too many urbanist arguments are basically arguments for what I call “Starbucks urbanism.” If called on this, people will say, “But of course transit will benefit the poor too.” But that’s not how it’s sold. Urbanists ought to be famous for the way they design, implement, and talk about their policies as instruments for helping the poor and facilitating upward economic and social mobility. There’s a lot of other good stuff in the video that’s relevant to urbanism.

For those who prefer reading, Keller also wrote a paper called “Our New Global Culture: Ministry in Cities, which says of itself: “This paper surveys the rise of global cities, the culture and dominant worldviews within these cities, and a framework for ministering in them.”

You may think Keller’s analysis and framework is bunk, but at least he’s trying to look at the city as it is, and figure out what he’s got to do to adapt his ministry to it, not trying to make the city adapt itself to his ministry.

By the way, Keller is excited about immigration from places like Africa or China where Christianity is a lot more alive and expanding than it is in the US and especially Europe. I was clicking around Wikipedia and found this picture of a Chinese evangelical Christian church in Madrid is that is a perfect example of this trend and how it is changing the face of cities.

If you prefer a more purely secular example, Saul Alinsky also believed in understanding the worldview of people he was trying to organize. Even people he thoroughly disagreed with, he refused to hold in contempt, instead trying to see things from their perspective on their own terms. In “Rules for Radicals” (1971), he had this to say:

To bring out this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system, among not only the middle class but the 40 percent of American families – more than seventy million people – whose incomes range from $5,000-$10,000 per year. They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat.
Many of the lower middle classes are members of labor unions, churches, fraternal, service and nationality organizations. They are organizations and people that must be worked with as one with work with any other part of our population – with respect, understanding, and sympathy. To reject them is to lose them by default. They will not shrivel and disappear. You can’t switch channels and get rid of them. This is what you have been doing in your radicalized dream but they are here and will be.

Wise words indeed.

Thanks to Pastor Kevin Bruursema at New Life Community Church in Lakeview, Chicago for the Tim Keller video reference.

Topics: Urban Culture


11 Responses to “Religion and the City”

  1. Aaron –



  2. mike oles says:

    Thanks for the shoutout to Lockerbie Central and Earth House. I think it is easy to forget that Christianity started out as an urban movement–as I would hesitate to call early Chrisitanity a religion.

    I think your point about “starbucks urbanism” is right on, espeically as it relates to evangelizing/organizing. The early church was not hanging out in gentrified urban space but lived and worked in the overcrowded and under sanitized slums the of 1st and 2nd Century Mediterrean world. The early and urban church was created by people who lived and worked with some of the poorest and most desperate people on EArth. This is furnace in which the church was formed.

    So what does this have to do with urbanism? I think it tells an important story. Build a movement that is grassroots and very much incorporates the dreams and aspirations of all people in the city–not just the ones who you described as the “traditional affluent white bobo demographic that dominates urbanist discussion.”

  3. Chris Barnett says:

    This piece should be required reading for every teacher, student, or practitioner engaged in urban planning, community-organizing, transportation planning, quality-of-life planning, or urban social work.

    Not to mention Starbucks urbanists. :)

  4. Curt says:

    Bravo Aaron. Bravo.

  5. Steve says:

    Great summary. I have to say that Keller and a handful of others like him are directly responsible for why I am a passionate advocate for cities, and spend my day job as an advocate. As a believer, I very much identify with the idea of the cultural mandate — that our job as believers is to bring the “shalom” of God’s kingdom to earth now, through means as varied as feeding to poor all the way to creating great art for city dwellers to enjoy. Thanks for this much needed message in urbanist circles. Not because more of us need to be believers per se, but because a large portion of urbanists tend to dismiss all of this out of hand or harp only on the negatives of institutionalized religion. And we should embrace the benefits of it as well as the necessity of religion and church for large numbers of people who prefer it and need it in these cities we want to create or renew.

  6. Cynic says:

    The corollary to the vital role religious institutions play in strengthening urban communities is the role that urban communities play in revitalizing religions. The same processes of stratification, specialization, and differentiation that mark other aspects of urban life mark its religious institutions. A small town may support a single synagogue, say, or a pair of Episcopalian churches. A city? It may host dozens of synagogues, giving Jews the choice of differing emphases on tradition and modernity, on ritual and social justice. Those churches? Instead of one for the north side of town and one for the south, there may be some aligned with the progressive wing of the church, others sympathetic to the more conservative strains of the Anglican communion, one which caters to the black population, another full of congregants from Hong Kong and services in Chinese. The ability to separate and differentiate is crucial, and distinctly urban. And it gives rise to new strains of religious life. Even those holding unusual ideas can often find a group of like-minded coreligionists in the city; in the country, they’re just odd ducks.

    That’s wholly apart from the supra-congregational institutions you reference – the charities, seminaries, schools and missions that require the support of many different individual congregations. These, too, are urban creations.

    Finally, and not least, there is the reconciliation with the challenges of modernity. Vital faiths engage with the challenges of our times, and respond to them; they do not wall themselves off from change. Ultimately, it is those religious that can thrive in an urban context which will prove resilient as these changes ripple outward from cities into more conservative areas, where innovations are slower to penetrate. Cities speed the process of adjustment and innovation.

    In all these ways, and more, cities are vital to religious faiths. And we don’t merely need to convince urbanists of the utility of organized religion; convincing organized religions of the virtues of urbanism is an equally crucial task.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    “And we don’t merely need to convince urbanists of the utility of organized religion; convincing organized religions of the virtues of urbanism is an equally crucial task.”

    I don’t think the organized religions require convincing. I think they’re already convinced, and have been since the days of Jane Addams and the settlement-house movement.

    However, the mid-20th Century American move toward “slum clearance” embodied in redevelopment law (as still the case in Indiana Code) did take one moralistic thread from that earlier era: that density is bad, that too many people living in close proximity breeds vice. I hope religious people are over that idea.

  8. Sean K. says:

    Excellent, intellectually-honest, and enlightening piece on “religion and the city”. Thank you!
    I participated with your bloggers in your Labor Day question “What makes low income neighborhoods successful?”, I “dipped my toe” into that dialogue with the introduction of the topic of “faith/religion” — being an important part of the solution. Your “Religion and the City” piece raised the awareness of the cultural mandate that Christianity poses. This is critical. Sadly, I don’t think a high percentage of church goers are aware of this mandate. Thank you again for your enlightening piece. You are quite an evangelist! :)

  9. Aaron M. Renn says:

    Thank you all for the comments and kind words.

  10. Cindy van Empel says:

    Phil Bess, architecture professor at Notre Dame, has long been an advocate for good urbanism and has shown–and argued–the links between religion and urbanism. Phil is a huge baseball fan and a big proponent of urban ballparks. You might want to read him, too.

  11. Steve says:

    Phil Bess is fantastic. I discovered him reading a book by a Missoula pastor named Eric Jacobsen called Sidewalks in the KIngdom. Which was a great examination of new urbanism and old urbanism and how all of it should be informed by a Christian’s belief.

    For the comments from Cynic and Chris: “And we don’t merely need to convince urbanists of the utility of organized religion; convincing organized religions of the virtues of urbanism is an equally crucial task.”

    I’d agree with Cynic, Chris, that there are scores of newer evangelical denominations that have been far too focused on planting new churches in cities and urban areas, while leaving the cities behind. The denomination that Keller belongs to, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), has been planting churches in mostly Southern suburbs for the last 40 years, and Keller’s movement of urban church planters is an outlier itself within that denomination. Plenty of other churches in cities are holdovers — left with dwindling congregations that decamped out of the cities when the populations fled in the 50s and 60s. Their buildings may be there, but there’s a difference between being located in the city and being an integrated part of it’s people and culture.

    Where I live in DC, there are churches that are most known for their negative impacts that they bring, like streets choked with cars every Sunday from parishioners who no longer live in the city that their church claims to serve. Just because a church is in the city, does not equal being “for” the city. And “for” the city is the mandate that Keller is talking about; the need to have churches that care about bringing God’s beauty, peace, and justice to the city and the people in it.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it is most definitely every bit as urgent to convince “organized religions of the virtues of urbanism” as it is to convince urbanists of the necessity to provide for religion in the city.

    Thanks again Aaron for the thought-provoking post.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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