CHURCH: The Challenge OF The City, A Challenge TO The City

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We are on to chapter 2 “THE CHALLENGE OF THE CITY” of Hooker & Young’s HOLINESS & MISSION: Learning From The Church About Mission In The City. I have to admit that I didn’t think this chapter had quite the “cohesion” of the first chapter but it still has some helpful ways of conceptualising what our reaction to the “CITY” should be as Church.

Morna Hooker authors this chapter as well the first and starts off by quoting a piece of sociological research which basically states that as humans we can’t cope with more than 150 relationships. Hooker than suggests that this means cities are alien environments for us as humans and will invariable create, division, suspicion, class systems, conflict, exploitation violence etc. She seems to view the city as a “necessary evil” in human development. I am not sure that villages are always the rural idyls we often assume them to be but Hooker is right, cities are hard environments to be human at times. In the same way a dirty kitchen becomes a uniquely conducive environment to breed dangerous bugs, cities are environments which are uniquely conducive to human sin. Nevertheless for most of us especially in the West and now increasingly in the two thirds world, life in the city is the norm. So what does Morna Hooker have to say to those of us who have to live as the Church in the city?

She draws attention to the fact that the Bible seems to hold almost mutually exclusive attitudes to cities. Cities like Babel, Babylon, Nineveh, Rome and Jerusalem are all roundly condemned for being the breeding ground of human sin and arrogance as well as the source of rebellion against God. Given this strain of condemnation of cities its surprising that when we get to the book of Revelation and God reveals his future for humanity, as well as picturing it as a return to the garden of eden, the future of God’s people is also seen as a “holy city.” A city that embodies God’s character. Revelation is drawing on the imagery of the OT when it comes to humanity’s future being the city as well as the garden. Prophets like Isaiah had pictured Jerusalem as being restored to its intended purpose a place of encounter between God and humanity and as a result the nations flocking there to encounter and worship the true and living God. Jerusalem as well as being a centre of rebellion against God and the place which has murdered his prophets was to be “the city of the Great King” Ps 48:2, the dwelling place of God. The earthy Jerusalem was to be a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem according to the writer of Hebrews a city “whose architect and builder is God.” Hebrews 11:10

So its seems that when we turn to Scripture we get two apparently opposing ways of understanding the city. It is a place of oppression and injustice and an expression of humanity’s rebellion against God. Yet there is also to be a holy city where humans will live in harmony with each other and with God. So we have this tension between what cities are now and what God’s intention is for the city. How do we understand this tension? What does this understanding of the city mean for those of us who have to live in them now in the 21st century. Well Hooker says we could interpret these two understandings of the city as discontinuous. The city now is evil and we have to live with it, suffering in it and long for the future when God will intervene in history and end the evil city and ushers in the “new holy city” Obviously the implications of this view would be to create a very evangelistically active church but one which saw little point in attempting to work for social transformation and justice, as the city is inevitably corrupt and evil and will be swept away. Of course in much of evangelicalism that is exactly what happened. I remember reading, but not who wrote, that the calling of the church was “to fish in the fishbowl, not clean it up.”

Hooker argues for an alternative perspective, for the Church in the city to be shaped by God’s promised future for the city, to embody in the christian community and work for it in the wider city. Of course this is down with the realisation that no matter what progress we make evil will still be a reality in the city until the “holy city descends from heaven” until God decisively creates it. I like what Hooker says “Our task, then, is not to despair of this world, and dream of a future utopia, but to endeavour to make this world what God intended it to be. True, the task is an impossible one: in spite of all our endeavours to make this world what God intends it to be, we are not going to build the Kingdom of God on earth. But for those of us who live in cities, or who work in cities, as most of us do, the biblical vision of a new Jerusalem is not just a promise but a summons to action. The task of God’s people is to witness to what the city could be: a just society, a caring society, where every individual has his or her place, and where all live in harmony. Holiness is about transforming this world” p25

Hooker then goes on to look at what Jesus actions in Jerusalem have to say to us about mission to the city. She notes that Jesus by his words and actions challenged the corruption and false religiosity of the religious authorities and the injustice and oppression of the secular authorities personified in the Romans. She develops this theme reflecting on one of key ideas of the book, the mission happens when the Gospel is embodied as well as proclaimed. She shows that this was equally true of those who were who were called to follow Jesus as it was for Jesus himself. “The disciple is required to be with Jesus and learn from him; the disciple is then sent out, as Jesus himself was sent, to preach and live the Gospel, and must be prepared to be received in the manner he was” p32 I found myself wishing that the author had spent more time reflecting on and developing this idea that disciples spend time with Jesus and then are sent out by Jesus, that there is a missional rhythm of “gathering and going.” It seems to me that the gathering aspect has come to predominate our experience of living as God’s people to the determinate of the “going” aspect of our calling. Gathering and going seem to me to be like the blades of a pair of scissors, both are essential and the absence of one renders the other ineffectual. In the same way if we have developed a mode of church which is primarily about gathering, and gathering in a specific sort of building for an event we are in effect undermining the “going” dimension of our existence as God’s missional people.

Using evidence primarily from Acts Hooker shows that the Disciples did indeed follow Jesus, went as he went into the world and they did so by using the strategic importance of cities in the Roman empire. Indeed she shows that up until Constantine there is little evidence of Christianity outside urban centres. Of course we shouldn’t really read to much into that as by their nature cities and what they contain will last longer than small villages, but the general point is probably correct. Again mission was holistic “The New Testament suggests that mission was accomplished by embodying the Gospel, as much as by proclaiming the Gospel, and embodying it requires a phyical presence. The network of Christian communities” p34 These communities offered a different experience of urban life. Within the Christian community the class structures of city were abolished and there was “neither jew nor gentile. slave nor free, male or female for all are one in Christ” Gal 3:28 Instead of exploitation and need, there was an ethos of love and care. The Church in a Roman city, Hooker again implies but doesn’t state plainly, existed as a colony of the New Jerusalem, a living breathing model of God’s intention for the future city in the midst of contemporary city.

Hooker ends this chapter with a remark which I find myself once more wishing she had expanded on “… mission means not just meeting the challenge OF the city, but being a challenge TO the city.” As the Church we are called to the city with all of its challenges, and modern Edinburgh and New York are just as challenging for us as humans and as God’s people as Babylon and Rome were for our predecessors. We face the challenge of an all too often hostile environment for us a citizens of the Kingdom of god but which like the cities of the Roman empire did for the first wave of missional christ followers offers us with strategic opportunities to spread the Gospel. The church must also be a challenge to the city. We are to follow Jesus into our Jerusalems, challenging injustice and exploitation which we encounter and the dead religiosity which would seek to silence the new wine of the Kingdom.

Personally for someone involved in mission to a city this chapter has caused me to be both realistic and optimistic about that mission. Its reminded me to be realistic to realise that mission even in a beautiful city is a challenge, behind the historic streets and buildings as in ever other city there lurks evil. Mosaic Edinburgh will never turn Edinburgh into the New Jerusalem, that comes down from heaven, its God’s gift. Nevertheless I am also optimistic about what we can accomplish, we are to be a community which is a foretaste of God’s future for the city. Our lives and our community life is to be a challenge to our city, our love challenging the city’s indifference, our compassion challenging the city’s needs, our fellowship challenging the city’s isolation of people, our mission challenging the meaninglessness of much of the city. I have seen many of these three models for urban redevelopment in cities, Mosaic Edinburgh and every church, is to be God’s 4D living model of his plans for the redevelopment of human urban culture.

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