Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Replay: Religion and the City

Note: This post originally appeared on November 7, 2010.

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


5 Responses to “Replay: Religion and the City”

  1. Chris Barnett says:

    But Alinsky has been proved wrong: those institutions have shriveled. We’re “bowling alone” now, a scant two generations later. Nationality clubs and fraternal organizations are all but gone, and industrial unions have been eclipsed by service-worker and government unions. The major Protestant denominations are likewise diminished in the US, and Latino immigration significantly helps the US Catholic church.

    I would posit that some institutions remain strong where there is an “oral culture”, a culture of “I heard…” that allows institutional churches and clubs to play an important role in reaching otherwise non-connected people…largely the poor and lower middle class. Oral culture seems to thrive in the very same places where public education is neither good nor particularly valued culturally: cities’ core and collar neighborhoods.

    I agree with Aaron that those of us who work in community development in those very places ignore the important role of urban churches at our peril. Some of the most effective community development is done by churches directly: a great example in Indianapolis is Englewood Christian Church, which started its own community development corporation. And more broadly, Habitat for Humanity is at its core a Christian ministry.

  2. Chris, some things may have changed in the specifics, but I think he remains ultimately right. Working class voters are still here. Alinsky warned that if the activist left didn’t engage with those people in an empathetic way, they’d probably shift hard to the right politically, which is exactly what ended up happening.

  3. Danny Handelman says:

    Religion causes/correlates with people using “common sense” or “gut feeling” rather than evidence or facts, so should be discouraged wherever possible. All owners of property should pay appropriate property taxes, whether it is commercial, institutional, residential or industrial, as their successful day-to-day operations require municipal services. The absence of market forces for properties owned by religious organizations results in inefficient use of the land, and restricted market (increasing the cost of residential and commercial properties). Religion gets enough subsidies in the form of tax exemption for parsonage, not paying corporate income taxes, favourable sales tax treatment, and tax deductibility of contributions. A number of smaller religious organizations are surviving largely because it is legalized tax evasion.

  4. Chris Barnett says:

    Aaron, no argument there…but my point is that the non-religious institutions for engaging large masses of similarly-situated people (whether low, middle, or upper income) have diminished in scope and importance, and even the churches minister to a smaller flock today. “Engaging” generally is just more difficult than in Alinsky’s day. Organizing for depth of commitment is hard; just look at the now-faded “Occupy” phenomenon.

    As to your assertion that low-to-moderate income folks have shifted “hard right”, I don’t think so. I think working class folks still sit in the political middle, and depending on the issue of the day, go Republican or Democrat and thus decide most elections. How else do you explain Indiana voters going for Obama and Daniels at the same time?

    During general election season, national Democrats know the middle will support the big entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, so they use those clubs to bludgeon Republicans who dislike entitlements. Likewise, Republicans know most sensible working-class folks understand the concept of not spending more than you make, so they bludgeon “tax and spend” Democrats. Each is speaking to the mass of moderates who agree partly with them. Today, the appeal is no longer done through mediating organizations…one reason why the current campaign will cost over a billion dollars.

  5. dave says:

    As a devoted Christian, a planner and an unreconstructed city kid, I am always drawn to any bits that connected these three impulses the way I do. They are strangely hard to come by.

    The Christian mainstream is far, far too tied to the notion that cities are for heathen and that “family” (code for folks like us) also means “suburban” When they think of the church in the city, their first instinct still connects city with poor. It’s something you drive downtown to do and then go back to the suburbs to worship and live.

    At the same time, urban hipsters find religon a bit queasy.

    One of my favorite preachers, Mark Driscoll, talks about the early Christian church as primarily and urban phenomena. The early church congregated in major urban centers (Corinth, Ephesus) and that is how it spread. Urban space created the place where the seed of the new Christian church could take root and grow. Driscoll argues forcefully that churches must reclaim cities as a mission field because that is where ideas go to compete in the big leagues.

    Eric Jacobsen, a Presbyterian minister, wrote one of my favorite books on the topic: Sidewalks in the Kingdom. He sees the creation of great urban spaces as a legitimate calling. Cities and great urban spaces require that you experience other people who are not like you. This is one way the Holy Spirit writes compassion on our hearts. Anyone interesed in the connection between faith and urbanism should check out Eric’s book.

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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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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