Why Cities Matter (and Let’s Plant a Church in Burnaby)
After we were married, my wife and I lived, worked, played and went to church in Surrey, BC – Canada‘s 5th most populous city. After 5 years of marriage and suffering 2 miscarriages, we assumed that we would never be blessed with children to raise, so we were discussing moving to the big city, Vancouver, and becoming lifetime DINK’s (dual income no kids). Since Teresa worked in downtown Vancouver, it would not have been a difficult transition for us. We were well on our way to a lifestyle of eating out, karaoke, pubs, movies, etc. But then our whole lives changed in a flash…Teresa became pregnant…and stayed pregnant…and we were blessed with a little baby girl and our self-centered lives were changed forever. The 2 seater pickup truck was traded in (reluctantly) for a minivan, and instead of moving from Surrey to a downtown Vancouver condo near all the amenities and night life, we move 100 kilometers east and now live in a house near a farm and not much else.
My family moved from the city to the country. I never saw it coming. But similar stories, with different details of course, are fairly common in my church. Though it seemed dramatic, drastic and “crazy” to me…we essentially went with the flow and followed most of the other young families in our churches. You see, I attend a denomination that, out here in BC, has seen a mass exodus from the urban centers of New Westminster and Surrey to the rural pastoral settings of the Fraser Valley. In fact there is no longer a congregation in New Westminster as that congregation packed up and moved to Surrey as the members moved east across the Fraser River. This same congregation, now located in Surrey, has dwindled from 270 members when I joined as a member in 1998 to 145 members in 2013 – mostly due to an exodus east by members looking for cheaper homes away from the urban centers.
However, recently there has been a push to plant a church in Burnaby, a city which borders the bustling metropolis of Vancouver. In Burnaby there is a small group of people meeting for Bible study who would love to form a church. I heartily applaud this effort and approve of a church plant in Burnaby– but if you know me, I am all about evangelism and outreach (and I am still secretly infatuated with the big city – but don’t tell anyone!). As well, there is something that does not sit well with me when Bible believing churches shut their doors or see their membership dwindle; especially in urban centers where there are so many lost people who are hungry for the truth.
I recently read the book “Why Cities Matter” by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard. Stephen Um is pastor of City Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Boston. Justin Buzzard is Lead Pastor of Garden City Church (Non-denominational-Reformed) in the Silicon Valley. When this book crossed my desk, I was eager to read it because of the above mentioned exodus of Canadian Reformed Churches out of urban centers. The authors share what the book is about so I will quote them here:
The first chapter seeks to answer the question, “What is the importance of cities in our world today?” We consider the past, present, and future of cities, along with some basic categories for identifying a city. Chapter 2 looks at the way that cities function, and asks, “Why do cities play such a crucial role in our world?” We find that there are several common characteristics that explain the cultural prominence of cities in our world today. The crucial task of determining what the Bible says about cities is taken up in chapter 3. Then, in the last three chapters, we consider various issues that face those seeking to minister in our world’s cities: chapter 4 looks at the topic of contextualization; chapter 5 explores how we should relate to our city’s dominant storyline; and chapter 6 thinks through the development of a ministry vision for your city. (p. 20)
The authors argue that a major contributing factor in the success of the Reformation was the growth of densely populated cities and the development of technologies within the cities. They claim that the reformation was “a uniquely urban event.” With the invention of the printing press, tracts and Bibles easily spread throughout densely populated cities and towns. Of course I would argue for the Holy Spirit, but I understand the point they are making. “The city stands as one of our great hopes for renewing our broken world” (p. 17). This claim was what really caught my attention, especially as people in my denomination (in the west at least) leave urban centers for rural settings. This statement is central to the argument in the book. While it is an interesting and intriguing statement, my concern was whether this statement could be proven Biblically, or if it is merely a sociological argument.
“… we can see that the optimism of the new urbanist is based in part on the reality that cities are ideal places for human flourishing. We see this in the Psalms where the creational language of flourishing (“springs of water”; “fruitful yield”; “multiply greatly”) is connected with an earthly city that the Lord provides for his people (107:4–9, 35–38). The prophet Jeremiah is unafraid to connect the flourishing of an exiled people with the well-being of a pagan city (“in its welfare you will find your welfare,” Jer. 29:7). In the same way, we can look at the welfare of our present-day cities and find both the blessing of God’s common grace and the foreshadowing of the promised final city.” (p. 52)
OK. I get what they are saying. I can see the validity of the link that they are making between these texts and the emphasis that is being placed on urban missions. However occasionally the connections they attempt to make appear to be a little bit contrived. An illustration of this is when they make a case for the importance of cities based on Jesus’s birth taking place in Bethlehem (p. 67). Bethlehem was more like Chilliwack than Burnaby…it was not a tiny place, but it was hardly a bustling urban center.
The third chapter is where they make a strong Biblical case for the city. What the authors do, is effectively retell a shortened version of the historical spread of Christianity in an urban context. The analysis of Paul’s missionary strategies (pp. 73-76) and the new city of Revelation 21 (pp. 80-83) are points which were strongly presented by the authors. They show how Paul strategically plants churches in the hubs of culture, religion, power, and trade in his day; and the Bible ends with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven. They effectively make the argument that the city certainly does play a role in the advance of the gospel.
Having shown that historically Christianity has grown in urban settings, they then spend two chapters on the question of how to contextualize Christianity to serve the city. This starts with understanding the city itself on its own terms. They state that Christian’s tend to make two very different but equally damaging mistakes in their approach to the city: abandoning their worldview or privatizing their worldview. Both of which are nothing more than over-contextualization and under-contextualization, respectively. They argue that if we are to properly, biblically, contextualize Christianity, it starts with knowing the city’s story. Some questions they suggest asking include:
1. What is your city’s history?
2. What are your city’s values?
3. What are your city’s dreams?
4. What are your city’s fears?
5. What is your city’s ethos?
In the 6th chapter the authors get to the meat of the book: Ministry vision for the city. I was concerned about this as I assumed (never assume) that the contextualization they were speaking of would be to change the gospel message to fit into the context of the city. But I was pleasantly surprised to read a solidly reformed view of urban missions. Here is a quote:
City churches must connect people to God through the gospel. They can do this best through gospel centered, evangelistic, corporate worship. Clear contextualized worship services that place the good news of Christ at their center are the bread and butter of the faithful city church. Our speech, prayers songs, liturgy, and preaching must all be shaped by the good news of what God has done for His people in redemptive History. (p. 138)
I found the book to be very intriguing and well written. It is easy to read, and while I found the occasional biblical connection to be forced, I do highly recommend the book. Being a member of a rural congregation, I am sure that many of my brothers and sisters will not find the book as interesting as I did. However the authors of this book certainly show, Biblically, why the church should seek opportunity to spread the gospel to the city. After all, there are many people seeking the truth, and we have it…let’s share it. Let’s not keep it to ourselves in a locked barn on the farm, let’s release it into the urban jungle.
After reading this book, I am more convinced now that the Canadian Reformed Churches should plant a church in Burnaby.
Purchase your copy of “Why Cities Matter” Here.