Saturday, 29 October 2011

Andy Crouch on a New Kind of Urban Ministry

Andy Crouch, ‘A New Kind of Urban Ministry’, Christianity Today (28 October 2011).

‘This is Our City’ is a multiyear Christianity Today project spotlighting the ways Christians are ‘seeking comprehensive flourishing’ in six cities in the U.S. It looks very interesting, and I’ll be curious to see how it might play out in the UK context.

Andy Crouch has an excellent article here, which introduces the project by reflecting on what he calls ‘a new kind of urban ministry’.

He begins with what we know – that cities are thriving, that they are ‘the destination of choice for many young adults... and the hub of revivals in food, architecture, and entrepreneurship’, that even ‘many suburbs are now taking cues from the ‘social fabric of cities’, where the ‘markers of the good life are increasingly urban’.

There is, he says, a shadow side to these trends, that ‘not every city is thriving’, and that ‘thriving is in the eye of the beholder’. And yet ‘renewed cities, and our culture’s renewed interest in what makes for thriving places, are an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the biblical mission that is meant to prepare us for the city whose builder and maker is God’.

He notes the wide use of the biblical model of the exile for urban ministry, that ‘while the exilic prophets never gave up promising a return to the Promised Land, they also exhorted the exiles that exile was an opportunity for faithfulness and mission’ In this respect, ‘Jeremiah’s injunction to seek the peace of the city where God had sent his people (Jer. 29) has become a touchstone for a generation of urban Christians’.

And yet, as he points out, ‘there is one overwhelmingly obvious difference between the Hebrew exiles and Christ-followers in 21st-century cities: the Hebrew exiles were captives. Churches in every American city, on the other hand, are full of proud citizens and hardworking visitors, not captives. Most of us are not hapless exiles; we are purposeful arrivals.’

This, I think, is a crucial point to note in the current surge of enthusiasm for all things ‘urban’ on the part of many Christians.

As something of a personal aside, Christian have rightly been warned about applying the wonderful promises in Jeremiah 29 to themselves without taking account of the original exilic context; but I have been wondering recently whether a whole raft of readers are now in danger of unthinkingly applying to themselves and their particular ‘group’ the commission to seek the shalom of the city without also taking account of the original exilic context. Of course, this doesn’t mean Jeremiah 29 has nothing to say to urban situations today; only that we exercise due caution in how we appropriate it and the implications we draw from it– not least given the fact that salvation history has moved forward.

Crouch goes on:

‘Is there a biblical model, then, that describes better the situations of churches and Christians in cities today – that retains the valuable features of Exodus and Exile while accounting for our responsibility for our communities? Yes, and it is rooted in the 50 days that make us Christians – from Resurrection, through Ascension, to Pentecost. This story redefines our relationship not just to God but to our world. It is a story summed up in one word, Expectation, that keeps us rooted in and responsible for the flourishing of the world precisely because we have a hope outside of history in the usual sense.’

Resurrection, he says, ‘anchors this story’. ‘The exiles had Isaiah’s words of hope for future restoration. But in Jesus’ resurrection, the restoration of all things has already begun – it is not just future, but here in its earliest stages. It is not only possible, but achieved. Resurrection empowers us to live infinitely more boldly than exiles who wait to see whether God will come through.’

Furthermore, ‘rather than an imperial takeover, Jesus commissions his people for what has turned out to be a lengthy and thorough process of bearing witness to his lordship’. Hence, ‘when we say “this is our city,” then, we are staking a claim to a certain kind of Christian responsibility... Not the chastened diligence of exiles captive to an earthly power, but the eager investment of those sent to a place by the Spirit’s power, graced with more resources than they deserve and a longer view of the world’s story than anyone else could imagine’.

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