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:
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!