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Why Should You Care about Cities? (3/3)

Who you are depends largely on who you have been with. And most of what you know you have learned from other people. If these statements are true, then it must be vitally important to be intentional about our relationships.

A Christian’s most vital relationship is with Christ. If your relationship with him is all it should be, then he can help you survive even the worst set of human companions. The normal way that Christ strengthens and trains us, however, is through human relationships.

What kinds of relationships will help you grow? Diversity helps. Let me suggest a sample:

  • People who have known you well for a long time.
  • People who are wiser than you—mentors.
  • People who are eager to learn from you—disciples.
  • People who are like you, who help you feel at home.
  • People who are different from you, who make you feel not-at-home.
  • People who don’t know you well.

The last couple categories might be less obvious, or at least less comfortable. If you are surrounded only by people who don’t know you well, it can be hard to develop a secure or accurate self-identity. (See my poetic musings on that possibility.)

On the other hand, if you are surrounded only by people like youself, then your picture of yourself might be rather two-dimensional, lacking depth and perspective. Spending all your time with people just like you won’t teach you much about the rest of life, either. This is why youth need adults, men need women, and you need the city.

Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:

  1. God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

This post will discuss the third reason. Why should you care about cities?

You Need the City!

This might be the least expected reason why you should care about cities, but it might also be the most important. If you would be a wise and effective Christian, then you must first be a learner.  And Christians, including rural Anabaptists, have much to learn from the city.

Cities can help you learn about yourself. When I was in Thunder Bay, I was one of a team of five Mennonite adults surrounded by First Nations youth. When went to college, I was the only Mennonite in my city. When I taught school in the Bronx, I lived in a neighborhood that was about 80% Hispanic. When we lived in Queens, there were at least seven ethnic groups on our immediate block—Chinese, Puerto Rican, Guyanese, Sri Lankan, African American, and, including us, two white households.

Each of those contexts taught me things about myself. Now we plan to move to a neighborhood in Atlanta that is over 95% African American, also within reach of multi-ethnic college populations. I anticipate many new learning opportunities.

I think it would do most people good to live for at least a year as an ethnic or cultural minority. When you live as a minority, you learn that you are not normal—most people are not like you. You learn that your heritage has some unique strengths. You also learn that your culture has some besetting sins (perhaps selfishness with time and possessions, thanklessness, or impatience). And you probably even learn that you have some unexpected racist tendencies (I did).

Cities can remind us that we really don’t understand “the lost” as well as we think we do. Here I begin with a point I made in my last post—that too often conservative Anabaptists think of missions in terms of caring for the poor, tending to overlook other kinds of people. But a happily married (gay or otherwise) university professor or plastic surgeon with a six-figure income needs the gospel just as much as the whino on the curb.

A friend and I were recently discussing the idea of Anabaptists doing missions in Toronto. This friend has lived in Toronto for eight years and continues to work there. Here is some of what she had to say:

It irks me to no end to hear about “mission trips” to Toronto that consist simply of people standing on street corners handing out tracts—likely to tourists because that’s who hangs out around the Eaton’s Centre. How exactly is that addressing the needs of the hipster in Liberty Village, the professor in the Annex, the young family in Riverdale, the public servant at High Park, the gay couple on Church, the young graduates in the Beaches, the writer in the Junction. Those are my friends and colleagues. And they have spiritual lives and needs too…

I am puzzled by the notion that our life in in city is different than life in Elmira or Parry Sound or Newton or Harrisonburg or Shipshewana or Walnut Creek. Urban people do the same things—go grocery shopping, volunteer at school, walk their dog, visit the library, help out with neighbourhood events, go out to eat, see plays and hear concerts, enroll their kids in swimming lessons. If we as Anabaptists believe in lifestyle evangelists—just go. But check out the demographics of more than the poor and needy. If God is truly no respecter of person, then the urbane, literate, middle class professionals are in as much need of Christ’s love as anyone. But if you are going to live in their neighbourhoods (because let’s face it—the best way to get to know someone is through their kid or dog), you need to be able to afford it. This means having a profession that is transferable to a urban centre and being socially fluid.

We like to talk about how Jesus hung out to the poor and marginalized. But Matthew was a tax collector and Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. Imagine being friends with the policy wonks, decision-makers, financial investors and cultural creators of our times!

Then, in a final reply to the idea that the poor are often more open to the gospel (which I would argue is almost certainly true, on average), she added this:

…People who are not in desperate socio-economic straits are not open to the gospel? Using that logic, most of Mennonite-land should be impervious.

Ouch. And probably truer than we like to think.

Street-corner evangelism certainly has its place. Many have come to Christ through such efforts. But I would suggest that most are unlikely to respond to Christ unless they experience a meaningful, ongoing sharing of life with Christian friends. Why should we limit our city mission efforts to “hit-and-run” approaches?

And most of us are somewhat poorly prepared to win people to Christ. We may understand the gospel well enough (see my next point, however). But to be an effective “gospel-er” we also need to understand our audience. Consider how Paul adjusted his message to his audiences.

I still do not consider myself an effective evangelist. But I do know that I have a better grasp today than I did in my youth of how a secular, post-Christian mind can tend to think. How did I grow in understanding? By spending time around secular minds. When I was in university (or college, as they say here in the U.S.), it took me about three years before I felt that I understood my classmates and professors well enough to start writing a Christian opinion column in the student paper.

Some are faster learners than me. And even after three years I’m not sure how effective I was. But my basic point remains: Growth in my understanding took time—long, daily time spent with unbelievers.  (Ask any cross-cultural missionary.) And if I had never moved to the city for school, I would never have debated Freud, traced Islamic history, analyzed Milton, read Genesis, tiptoed through feminist assumptions, debated homosexuality, and laughed in the hall with my new postmodern friends.

Such educational cross-cultural relationships can be formed almost anywhere, if you try hard enough. But they are almost unavoidable in most cities. What an opportunity!

Cities can help you understand the gospel better and experience it more fully. Nothing makes you appreciate a homegrown tomato like eating the cardboard imitation found in your local supermarket! Similarly, meeting people from other world religions can help you see the unique vitality of the Christian gospel. Wrestling with heresy helped the early church identify orthodox belief more precisely. Engaging thoughtful non-Christians today can help us do the same.

Being surrounded by undeniable, unavoidable needs can help you focus on the core message of the gospel, with its power to save. Well-manicured hands are nice, but when a patient arrives with a heart attack, you aren’t going to reach for your nail clippers. And when you are helping youth escape the sensual tentacles of mass youth media, you might not worry too much about whether they become skilled at singing four-part choral music.

Both Christians and unbelievers from other cultures can push us to do a better job of distinguishing between our cultural traditions and gospel traditions. (“I don’t see that in the Bible!”) Diversity within the church can give us a sense of proportion about the little things that sometimes divide us. (Fact: Most Christians have never given a moment’s thought to questions about how big your beard should be or whether you should wear covering strings.) As we ponder together how we can best meet the needs of our communities, the differences that otherwise might divide are sometimes revealed to be assets, turning the local church into a veritable Swiss Army knife of multifaceted strengths.

Diversity in the church gives all sorts of opportunity for growth in character. For example, some Caribbean cultures might think Germanic Mennonites are too quiet. Why don’t we show more zeal in worship? How can they tell what we are really thinking about them and their ideas when we hide our disagreement behind so much polite silence? And they might find us disrespectful. Why don’t we wear ties to their funerals? Why do we walk right past our elders at church without greeting them (even if they are in the middle of a conversation)?

So, who is right—Germanic Mennonites or Dominican Christians? Both! Or neither! But seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is informative, and learning to love each other is a challenge that can cause us to lean harder on the gospel. And if you lean hard enough, your shame of the gospel will evaporate when you discover, like Paul, that the gospel has the power to bring people of all cultures together as one in Christ (Rom. 1:16-17; Eph. 2-3).

Consider the counsel of Christena Cleveland, from her book Disunity in Christ:

Culturally homogenous churches [churches where everyone shares the same culture] are adept at targeting and attracting a certain type of person and creating a strong group identity. However, attendees at such churches are at a higher risk for creating the overly simplistic and divisive Right Christian and Wrong Christian labels that dangerously lead to inaccurate perceptions of other Christians as well as hostility and conflict. What often begins as an effective and culturally specific way to reach people for Christ ends up stifling their growth as disciples. Perhaps this is because we often fail to make a distinction between evangelism and discipleship. People can meet God within their cultural context but in order to follow God, they must cross into other cultures because that’s what Jesus did in the incarnation and on the cross. Discipleship is crosscultural. When we meet Jesus around people who are just like us and then continue to follow Jesus with people who are just like us, we stifle our growth in Christ and open ourselves up to a world of division. However, when we’re rubbing elbows in Christian fellowship with people who are different from us, we can learn from each other and grow more like Christ. Like iron sharpens iron.

For this reason, I believe that churches and Christian organizations should strive for cultural diversity. Regardless of ethnic demographics, every community is multicultural when one considers the various cultures of age, gender, economic status, education level, political orientation and so on. Further, every church should fully utilize the multifaceted cultural diversity within itself, express the diversity of its local community, expertly welcome the other, embrace all who are members of the body of Christ and intentionally collaborate with different churches or organizations in order to impact the kingdom. And churches situated in multiethnic communities… should absolutely be ethnically diverse. (pp. 21-22, bold added)

Let me share an hypothesis: I suggest that conservative Anabaptists risk becoming increasingly ingrown, divisive, and ineffective in missions unless more of us experience the sort of cross-cultural challenges that urban living offers.

In closing, let me repeat some advice to myself: When you do move to an urban setting, bear the gospel, yes, but go as a listener and a humble learner. 

Let’s face it: All this rightfully-urgent talk about urban missions can be perverted by our pride. Among some of us, urban ministry has given us not only a sense of urgency but also a sense of superiority. For many who have cut their rural umbilical cords, urban ministry is cool (substitute the latest relevant slang). We may forget that rural and small-town living are also honorable.

We may also overestimate our preparedness for urban living and ministry. For some hard-hitting warnings to white wanna-be urban missionaries, read Christena Cleveland’s article “Urban Church Planting Plantations.” Here is the burden of her words:

So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations… I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job… This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped.

Ouch. Read her whole article. Be humbled. But don’t give up on the city. Just go with a renewed determination to be a learner—a disciple-maker who is first a disciple.

I know I will have a lot to learn when we move to Atlanta. One thing I hope to learn is how Anabaptists can better participate in Christ-centered racial reconciliation. Though our heritage has unique gifts to bring to this work, most of us are either pretty ignorant or pretty ineffective. Too many of us are still happily colorblind, which is a problem, as my friend Lowell Herschberger explains. We have much to learn.

I need the city, so do other conservative Anabaptists, and so do you.


This is the end of my series called “Why Should You Care about Cities?” Much more could—and should—be said. And I’m aware that some of what I said could be misunderstood. I have spoken strongly, and I have made some generalizations. But what will it take to engage God’s people to respond to one of the greatest challenges of our time—the rise of global cities with their multi-ethnic, multi-need populations?

Rest assured: If you don’t go to the city, the city will come to you. It is already coming. It is coming in the form of your news media, the designs of your consumer products, your college-trained bankers and doctors, the teachers and curricula in your local public school, your construction products, your farm commodity prices, government regulations, the election of your next president, your Amazon orders, your cell phone apps, your Internet signal, and, hopefully soon, Dwight Gingrich Online.

Will we run to meet this Goliath? Or will we merely try to dodge his spear? Better, will we see the city as not only a giant to be slaughtered, but also a fertile field? Will we take a proactive approach to global urbanization? Or will we retreat behind ever-less-effective geographical and cultural walls?

It was in the world’s third-largest city (population c. 500,000) that Christ’s followers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). And it was to the largest city in the world (population c. 1,000,000) that Christ specifically sent his apostle to the Gentiles: “Take courage… you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). The big city just might be the most ideal habitat one could possibly imagine for a Christian.

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations in your nearest city!


Do you agree that more Anabaptists could benefit from urban living? What do you think we need to learn from the city? What should we learn about ourselves, our neighbors, and the gospel itself? Share your observations in the comments below. And thanks for reading!


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Why Should You Care about Cities? (2/3)

Where can you serve God most strategically? This is not always an easy question to answer. There are needs everywhere, and diligent laborers are in short supply all over.

One answer is to simply say that I am most needed right here, right wherever I am. This is certainly true on one level. If I’m not useful “here,” I’m unlikely to be useful “there.” Discipleship begins here and now, not there and later.

This is one popular application of Jesus’ final words to his apostles. He told them “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Therefore, we often hear, we should imitate the apostles by starting at home, in our “Jerusalem” hometown, then expanding outward to Samaria (nearby regions) and eventually to the end of the earth.

But Collier Berkshire of IGo (Institute for Global Opportunities) once corrected my thinking on this. He pointed out that Jerusalem was not the apostles’ hometown! Most of them were from Galilee, after all. Then why did Jesus instruct them to begin witnessing for him at Jerusalem? The answer is a strategic one—Pentecost was coming. Jesus wanted his apostles to be in Jerusalem during Pentecost, because he knew that this annual Jewish feast would attract “devout men from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). New disciples from among this pool of feast-goers would then return to “every nation under heaven” (slight biblical hyperbole there, but we’ll skip that valuable exegetical lesson), carrying the gospel with them.

So I ask you again: Where can you serve God most strategically? For some of you, I suggest, the answer will be “in a city.”

Why should you care about cities? I’m sharing three reasons in this blog series:

  1. God cares about cities.
  2. The city needs you.
  3. You need the city.

This post will discuss the second reason. Why should you care about cities?

The City Needs You!

Two facts: Cities are growing, and globally they are growing faster than their Christian populations. An article by Al Mohler summarizes the first fact well:

In 1800, only 3 percent of the human population lived in cities. By 1900, cities held 14 percent of the population. By 2000, fully half of all human beings lived in urban areas. We are fast becoming an urban species…

As Stewart Brand argues, we are becoming a “city planet.”… “At the current rate,” Brand writes, “humanity may well be 80 percent urban by mid-century. Every week there are 1.3 million new people in cities. That’s 70 million a year, decade after decade.” (bold added)

Are Christians keeping up? Timothy Keller (see his book Center Church) doesn’t think so:

The people of the world are now moving into the great cities of the world many times faster than the church is… The Christian church is not responding fast enough to keep up with the rapid population growth in cities.

There are five million new people moving into the cities of the developing world every month—roughly the size of the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia or San Francisco. Think of that—how many churches ought there to be in a city the size of Philadelphia? Even if there were one church for every five thousand people—which is five times fewer than the United States average—this means we should be planting a thousand urban churches in the world every month. (p. 158, bold added)

Let’s add some Anabaptist context here. Not only are Anabaptists moving into cities at a rate far below Christians of many other denominations. More importantly, we also have a long heritage that values and often prioritizes rural living. But the data above shouts what should already have been evident from the pages of Scripture: The idea that people should leave the city so that they can experience optimal spiritual growth in rural environments is simply unreasonable. There simply isn’t enough farm land available for all urban converts to come join rural Mennonites. Mennonites are even running out of farm land for their own children!

Unless Anabaptists learn how to be faithful disciples of Christ within cities, several trends will become increasingly true:

  • Children of Anabaptists who find their needed living space in towns and cities will tend to join other denominations.
  • Anabaptism will remain a primarily rural phenomenon, with little direct impact on most of humanity.

I think there are theological repercussions, too, but we’ll stick with those sociological ones for the moment.

So, the city needs you, because you have the gospel that the city needs. What kinds of people in the city need you and the gospel?

Keller identifies “four important groups of people who must be reached to fulfill the mission of the church”:

1. The younger generation… In the United States and Europe, the young disproportionately want to live in cities… If the church in the West remains, for the most part, in the suburbs of Middle America and neglects the great cities, it risks losing an entire generation of American society’s leaders…

2. The “cultural elites.” The second group is made up of those who have a disproportionate influence on how human life is lived in a society because they exert power in business, publishing, the media, the academy, and the arts… Since cities now influence the culture and values of the world more than ever, the single most effective way for Christians to influence the culture of a nation is to have large numbers of them stay in cities and simply “be the church” there…

3. Accessible “unreached” people groups… The currents of history are now sweeping many of these formerly unreachable people into cities as rural economies fail to sustain old ways of life. Millions of these newcomers in the burgeoning cities of the world are more open to the Christian faith than they were in their original context…

4. The poor… Some have estimated that one-third of the people representing the new growth in cities in the developing world will live in shantytowns… An urban church does not choose between ministry to the poor and ministry to the professional classes. We need the economic and cultural resources of the elites to help the poor, and our commitment to the poor is a testimony to the cultural elites, supporting the validity of our message. (p. 160-62)

Of these four groups, which have American Anabaptists been most comfortable and successful in reaching? I think most of us would point to the fourth group—the poor. Organizations like Christian Aid Ministries have helped Anabaptists provide rapid response services after natural disasters, including in urban centers. Additionally, my unscientific observation would be that many of our few long-term urban efforts have focused on poor neighborhoods.

There are good reasons for this (we have a heritage of skilled manual service and material generosity). I suspect there are also sometimes bad reasons (scorn of the professional class, fear of education, inability to meet non-material kinds of needs). Consider the pointed questions raised by Allen Roth, in an article1 urging mission efforts in the materially-wealthy Canadian province of Quebec:

Might our neglect be due to a defect in us as a people… a lack of clarity about the Gospel itself and the need of all people for salvation, yes, even the prosperous ones who consider themselves superior to us? Are we unable and unwilling to share the Gospel unless we can hand some material benefits downward to those who “need us” and toward whom we feel superior? If… if indeed this might be the case, then God have mercy on us! (bold added)

I think we should continue our efforts to the poor, learning not only to hand out relief but also to live among the poor in long-term relationships. And I think we Anabaptists should also expand our vision to include the other three groups of urban dwellers that Keller identified.

One way to reach all three of these groups (youth, cultural leaders, unreached peoples) is to share the gospel with international college students. For example, consider a Foreign Policy article published earlier this month: “Leave China, Study in America, Find Jesus.” The article is part of a special series called China U. The description of China U. underscores the significance of Christian engagement with international students:

China U. is an FB series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

Indeed, how might a new generation, fluent in China and in America and newly won to Christ’s kingdom, shape the future of both China and America?

According to the article, the number of Chinese college and university students in America has multiplied more than four-fold in just the past 10 years. The article is full of fascinating personal stories of converts. Here are some excerpts with other data:

While firm statistics do not exist on the number of Chinese converts in the United States, it’s clear that a rapidly increasing number of Chinese students, including Cai, have come Stateside to pursue higher education; more than 304,000 Chinese studied in American colleges and universities in 2015 alone, many hailing from large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. China is the largest secular country in the world; young Chinese people often identify as atheists, although many may have visited a Buddhist temple to pray for good luck before an exam, or celebrated traditional festivals with roots in Chinese folklore. Public preaching is forbidden there, and the Communist Party-state oversees all religious matters, often with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, the state-controlled educational curriculum emphasizes patriotism and socialism, promoting a purely materialistic and scientific worldview…

As a result, U.S. universities are the first places that hundreds of thousands of educated young Chinese are exposed to different religious ideas, and invited to consider them freely…

Some predict that the future of Christianity lies in China. After all, they argue, the popularity of the faith is declining in the United States, the largest Christian country in the world. Meanwhile, in China, even government figures acknowledge a growing number of followers, from 14 million in 1997 to 23 million in 2010. (This number is generally considered a low estimate.) (bold added)

Such reports are a reminder that we don’t always have to leave our nation to reach the world. Often “the world” can be found right here in the cities of North America. For example, consider this sample of statistics about where immigrant populations live:2

  • Los Angeles: 80,000 Thai
  • Minneapolis–Saint Paul: 25,000 Somalis
  • Chicago: 100,000 Indians and Pakistanis
  • Detroit: 130,000 Arabs
  • Indianapolis: 14,000 Burmese
  • Philadelphia: 60,000 Chinese
  • New York City: 100,000 Bangladeshis

You might be surprised at who lives in your nearest city. Iowa is reportedly the sixth-least diverse state in America. (In contrast, Georgia, where we plan to move, is the fourth least white.) Yet even here in Iowa you will find immigrants. For example, here is some data on my nearest city, Des Moines:

Total Population: 207,510
Foreign-born residents: 15,713 (7.9% of Des Moines’ total pop.)
Nations of birth: 71 different countries!

Here are the top fifteen nations of birth for Des Moines’ foreign-born population. To help you see some significance in this list, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

Mexico: 8,164
Vietnam: 1,865
Laos: 1,480
Bosnia and Herzegovina: 1,023
El Salvador: 934
Sudan: 934
Liberia: 735
Thailand: 711
Burma (Myanmar): 622
Guatemala: 527
Iraq: 462
India: 427
Korea: 313
Canada: 293
Germany: 281

(Yes, you could reach nearly 300 Canadians right here in Des Moines, without needing to head north to the border and the nearest dog sled!)

It’s hard for me to imagine, but apparently 32,658 Des Moines residents speak a language other than English at home. And 17,225 of those speak English “less than very well.” All that is right here in Des Moines, Iowa—in one of the least diverse states in the nation!

I say it’s time to make Des Moines a little more diverse. Maybe it’s time some Anabaptists move there and help love the world for Christ.

And what about Toronto? Here I’d like to challenge my Ontario Anabaptist friends. What would it look like for the conservative Anabaptists of Ontario to put aside some of their differences and band together with a vision for the Toronto harvest field?

The opportunities in Toronto are immense! Here’s the big picture, from a good little article called “Understanding Toronto”:

Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and North America’s fourth largest city, with a population of 2.8 million people (5.5 million in the Greater Toronto Area, commonly called the GTA). It’s a center for business, finance, and education. It’s one of the most multicultural cities in the world… It’s one of the largest cities in North America, and it’s one of the least churched. (bold added)

Just how multicultural is Toronto? Well, 47.9% of its population is foreign-born! Nearly half! And growing! In hard numbers, that’s about 2,642,910 immigrants in the GTA.

(By comparison, over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born—totaling 3.07 million immigrants, more than any other city in the world. On a national level, 20.6% of the Canadian population is foreign-born—the highest percentage among all G8 countries—as are 12.9% of those living in the United States.)

Here is an interactive map where you can learn more:

Where do these Toronto immigrants come from—and visit on return trips, carrying the ideas they’ve found in Canada? Here are the top birth nations (data from Statistics Canada). Again, I will color-code nations based on the persecution index provided by Open Doors (red = extreme; orange = severe; green = moderate):

India: 279,425
China
: 237,025
Philippines: 185,085
United Kingdom: 116,655
Italy: 116,240
Sri Lanka: 105,565
Pakistan: 99,295
Hong Kong: 99,285
Jamaica: 97,660
Portugal: 73,740
Guyana: 72,090
Poland: 64,095
Iran: 60,785
Vietnam: 60,555
United States: 55,630
South Korea: 48,785
Trinidad and Tobago: 46,915
Russian Federation: 35,200
Ukraine: 31,795
Greece: 31,185
Germany: 27,635
Bangladesh: 25,560
Romania: 24,515
Iraq: 22,145
Afghanistan: 21,185

All told, there are over half a million people living in Toronto who come from countries where you may have to risk extreme or severe persecution to reach their families overseas! And the religious needs are immense. For example, Toronto has Canada’s largest population of Muslims, at just over 424,900. Equally significantly, more than 1,165,000 Torontonians claim no religious affiliation at all. Ontario Anabaptists, will you rise to the challenge?

What about your own city? To find immigrant data for your nearest city, visit City-Data.com or Statistics Canada. And remember, behind every data point is a person who needs Christ.

The city needs you, so you should care about the city. And, who knows? Perhaps you will conclude that the city is the most strategic place for you to serve God!


Come back here soon for one more reason why you should care about the city. And, as always, I welcome your responses in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Allen Roth, “What About Neighbors Who Aren’t ‘Needy’?” The Alliance Newsletter (Vol. 16, No. 6), Nov./Dec. 2013, p. 1.
  2. Compiled by Destinations International, shared with me by Ian Miller.

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The Arts and the Absence of Jesus

I am a house church guy who likes cathedrals. My spiritual forebears in the Reformation include some who smashed statues and images and others who banned organs. My spiritual contemporaries include some who participate in the Anabaptist Orchestra Camp and others who are performing complex choral works tomorrow afternoon by the great Lutheran composer Bach. (If you live near Lancaster, PA, perhaps you can catch this Singet dem Herrn concert, which appears to include a 40-page piece for “double choir and strings with continuo, vocal ensemble and soloists,” complete with “intricate passages of fugue, which is sort of like a round in different keys that expands as it goes.” Good stuff, and definitely not the sort of thing that Conrad Grebel would have approved.)

I am an Anabaptist and, like most Anabaptists, I am somewhat ambivalent about the place of the arts in the Christian life.

When I was a young teen, I dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. My father didn’t think this was very practical. He was probably right, though he and I may not fully agree on why. While I have never lost my capacity to delight in the arts, especially the musical ones, I am afraid I would have made a bad concert pianist. I am not sure I believe in the cause strongly enough—even though there are times when I have felt that my soul would surely have shriveled up and died were it not for the beauty of musical (near-)perfection. I have worshiped while listening to Rachmaninoff piano concertos and while listening to Phil Keaggy guitar solos. But if I had attempted the life course of a career concert musician, I am afraid I would have been only an all-round poor imitation of the great Albert Schweitzer, who abandoned a promising musical career to be a medical missionary.

All that for background. This week at work I was blessed to listen to the three synoptic Gospels—Matthew on Tuesday, Mark on Wednesday, and Luke on Thursday. One story that caught my ear was the familiar account of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment. Here is the story as it is told by Matthew:

Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:6-13)

You can also find this story in Mark 14:3-9 and in John 12:1-8 (where she is named Mary).

Perhaps you, like me, have sometimes heard people draw implications from this story for our understanding of the arts. I’m quite certain I’ve heard, though I can’t say where, this line of thought suggested: This woman, in a creative and symbolic act, expressed her deep devotion to Jesus. Jesus praised her for this extravagant and apparently wasteful gift. Similarly, Jesus is pleased when we give extravagant and apparently wasteful displays of devotion to him through the creative arts.

Some quick browsing now online confirms to me that something like this kind of thought is sometimes expressed by Christians writing about the arts. For example, read this from Steve Scott (otherwise unknown to me):

Jesus placed a value on signs and sign making that had little to do with the price of the materials involved, and he seemed to show little regard for the social controversy and the lack of immediate graspability that came with the sign. Mary, in some ways, faced the problems that many sign makers and artists face today. They are told their work is an expensive luxury. They are told their work seems controversial, often for the sake of controversy, and they are told their work is obscure, for the sake of obscurity. When Jesus told the other celebrators to leave her alone, he upheld her dignity as a person and gave his support to the dignity of her gesture. He stated that this gesture of hers would be recalled wherever the gospel is told. Jesus reminds his audience—then and now—that images and symbols have value. And those who work with signs, metaphors and images are doing valuable work.1 (emphasis added)

Or consider this footnote find:

Calvin Seerveld makes a compelling case that beautiful works, such as that of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany…, should be allowed a place in the Christian life alongside activities such as evangelism and feeding the poor. Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves: Alternative Steps in Understanding Art (Toronto: Piquant, 2000), 1-5.2 (emphasis added)

And there is much of the rub for me: I often find myself identifying more with the disciples (worse, Judas, according to John’s version) than with Mary. I walk into an ornate church or indulge in live musical soundscapes, and I sense that something is profoundly right, and I even find myself drawn to worship the Creator—and then I wonder how we can spend such measureless loose change on such extravagance while God’s children elsewhere are crying for bread.

I do not have a theological resolution for this problem that I can share with you in this post. Rather, I want to share an exegetical observation that occurred to me while listening to the Gospels this week.

One phrase stood out to me. Hear Jesus’ words: “You will not always have me” (Matt. 26:11). Mark includes the same statement (Mk. 14:7). John highlights this thought by placing it at the very end of the story: “You do not always have me” (John 12:8).

What this phrase means, at minimum, is that Mary was doing something for Jesus that she and the disciples would not be able to do later. There would be opportunity later to care for the poor. But there would be no “later” for doing whatever it was that Mary did to Jesus.

What was it that Mary did to Jesus? In Matthew, Jesus explains it like this: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial” (Matt. 26:12). Mark’s Jesus says, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” John’s Jesus speaks parallel words.

Can you see where my thoughts are headed? Consider R.T. France’s comments on this story:

The woman’s extravagant loyalty offsets the shameful horror of crucifixion. That is why it must always be remembered, not simply as a model for uncalculating devotion (though it certainly is that) but as an affirmation of the value of his death from the point of view of faith.

It is a matter of priorities (cf. the rather different lesson on the priority of the spiritual over the mundane, also set in Bethany, in Luke 10:38-42). A definitive moment is upon them, and even the duty of helping the poor must take second place. Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves. It is because this unnamed woman has seized on that sense of special occasion that her act is to be remembered. Probably without realizing it, she has provided a pointer to the theology of the cross.3

So let me sum up what I’m observing: It seems to me that Jesus very clearly indicates that what Mary did for him was an act specially suited to a unique, non-repeatable opportunity. No Christian artist today has Jesus in the flesh before him or her, on his way to the cross. No one today can anoint Jesus in preparation for his burial, either literally or figuratively.

More than that, listen again to France’s suggestion: “Once this unique drama has been played out, the claims of the poor will rightly reassert themselves.” In other words, let’s say that Mary owned a second flask of ointment. What would be the right way to use it after Jesus’ death and resurrection had passed? According to Jesus’ words, the right thing for Mary to do with another such flask of ointment, would not be to use it to anoint Jesus. Rather, it would be fitting to use it to care for the poor.

So… my ambivalence about the arts continues. I conclude that we should exercise more care not to take this biblical account out of context as support for our artistic endeavors, especially our expensive ones. I suggest that we will need to look elsewhere if we want to find strong biblical basis for extravagant expense in art or worship.

(Help me out. Do you see a biblical basis somewhere? To be clear, I am not claiming or aiming in this post to deny any such biblical basis for investment in the arts. Rather, my main concern is that we keep our theology tethered to Scripture through careful exegesis.)

And if I were to try to draw any tentative positive lessons for our art from this passage, I might suggest the following:

  1. Our art should be consistent with “a theology of the cross” (to borrow France’s words). This suggests to me that (a) what artistic expressions we do create must be consistent with all that the cross represents, and (b) sometimes the call to bear the cross will be a call to surrender our present artistic desires.
  2. Our art should point us to the day when Jesus will return in the flesh. Yes, Christ is present by his Spirit now. But this is yet the day of the Bridegroom’s absence, when fasting and mourning are still appropriate (Matt. 9:15). Only when he returns will the full consummation of true art be realized. Any artistic perfection now must strengthen our hunger for the perfection of Beauty (Christ and his likeness) then.

This post raises unfinished thoughts. What do you have to add to the discussion? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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  1. Steve Scott, Like a House on Fire: Renewal of the Arts in a Postmodern Culture (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 102-103.
  2. Jason S. Hiles, Images in the Service of God’s Word: A Theology for the Christian Use of Visual Images, a dissertation presented to the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest, 2008), 262, fn 75.
  3. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2007), 974.

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