Why Cities Matter (and Let’s Plant a Church in Burnaby)

7111940003_largeAfter 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.

Metro Vancouver & Fraser Valley

church 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.

9781433532894_p0_v1_s260x420I 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.

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  1. Anthony Vandergugten says:

    Some info about Chilliwack. http://www.city-data.com/canada/Chilliwack.html
    I think if you’d cut off all the Chilliwack River Valley, we’d come closer to the urban standard, which is defined at above 150 people per square km.

    • Leave it to you to try and prove me wrong 😉 Chilliwack – last I heard had a population of 93,000 – hardly a small town. If we remove the river valley then yes you are probably correct about Chilliwack’s urbanization… but we are still a long ways off from 150 inhabitants per sq km. 🙂 it is still largely an agrarian society out here and our church building is surrounded by miles of farmland…but with all that said, why then are we keeping our truth in the barn and not spreading it around the denser downtown areas?

  2. Jaco Devisser says:

    Hey Ryan, Great post! This reminded me of a video about cities I recently ran across. The part I thought might interest you (and what this post reminded me of) starts at the 11 minute mark and goes to the 16:30 mark. http://www.missionexus.org/category/speed-of-life/ Jaco Date: Mon, 22 Apr 2013 02:21:19 +0000 To: jacodevisser@outlook.com

  3. Good points, Ryan. Here is another great resource on positively impacting our communities, called “This Is Our City” – http://www.christianitytoday.com/thisisourcity/ .

  4. Thanks for this, Ryan. It is refreshing to hear a Christian brother from the eastern Fraser Valley thinking critically about this demographic shift in the Canadian Reformed Churches. Demographic studies suggest that Surrey may become the most populous city in BC by 2030.

  5. My wife and I are members of Maranatha CanRC and are also currently attending Burnaby Bible Study. We have already seen growth in membership in the short time we have existed. Rev. Souman (who leads our Bible study) can attest to number of people interested in Reformed doctrine in the Burnaby/Vancouver area. LORD willing, we intend to begin gathering together on Sunday evenings in the fall, with the hope that the “Gospel of Grace” will take root in this area. The preliminary planning is already underway, and we encourage all members of our CanRC churches to promote, support, and pray for this.

    As for MY personal opinion, over the long term, if the LORD will bless our efforts, the Reformed church will grow GREATLY both West of the Fraser River and in Surrey. The so called “oversees” mission field has come to our front doorsteps, and there is a genuine hunger for the Gospel of grace in these areas. Contacts are being established everywhere in these urban centers. Those who “write off” congregations such as Maranatha & Cloverdale, saying that these churches will close their doors due to the migration of families, need to be rebuked and corrected.

    On another personal note, justifying the closure of William of Orange Elementary due to migration eastward is FALSE. Yes, generally traditional families with Dutch ancestry have moved Eastward; however, this is NOT the entire make-up of the Reformed churches. The Chinese Reformed Church was just recently instituted (and is growing), Maranatha has members of the Indo-Canadian community attending worship services and its home mission intends to reach out to the surrounding community, Willoughby Heights is gearing up it home mission activities as well, and Burnaby Bible Study is located in an area with a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds.

    I only encourage Eastern CanRC members to MOVE WEST or support those who currently live there. We have a calling to fulfill the “great commission” to go and make disciples of all nations. This calling is laid before us on our doorsteps in the cities. I agree this is easier said than done, but do not abandon ship and move East or close WOCS because of popular opinion of the “so-called inevitable closure” of our western churches.

    I know I’ve just preached to the choir, but I encourage this discussion to continue and hope our church members continue to support our efforts and promote Burnaby Bible Study.

    P.S. I also enjoy a nice short commute by living farther west in Surrey, another incentive to come this way 🙂

    • doulanic says:

      While you, and many others consider it deplorable that people continue to move eastward, I do think that practical matters HAVE to be taken into consideration. My husband and I were one of the Maranatha members who moved out to Aldergrove a year after we got married. We were able to buy a townhouse – but there was no way we could afford to do so in or around Surrey. Fast forward 17 years – with four children and school payments, there is simply NO WAY we could afford to move back to Surrey! We are currently renting in Abbotsford, and the space we need for 6 people would barely get us a town house in Surrey. Add to that $600/month school payments on a teacher’s salary – and well ….. there you have it. (and I know A LOT of families in the same boat ….and I also know a lot of families who have moved out of province for similar reasons!)

      I’m curious as to why it’s so easy for you to say that the migration eastward is false. You do realize the time and effort and work that went into the recommendations from the Joint Strategic Planning Committee? I’d challenge you to take up personal contact with one of the committee members to get a better understanding of how they came to their conclusions.
      Yes, it’s sad that W of O may need to close their doors. Believe me, I get it. My grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the W or O School society back when it was in New West in a chicken coop! If ever there was a sentimental attachment to that school, there it is. But right now there are serious financial and space implications that ALL three elementary schools need to address. We can’t wait for a potential increase in church members. Now if there was all of a sudden a HUGE increase in church members who currently do not pay school tuition who would be willing to shoulder a large part of the financial issues …..that might change things. But for families like ourselves who are already stretched to the limit, there HAS to be a change because we simply cannot keep on the way its going.

      Perhaps if more and more of the older generation who are sitting financially well moved back westward towards Surrey there would be something new to discuss. But even those members moved eastward. It’s not “our” fault that housing costs and property taxes, and gas prices etc etc keep moving up and up and up.

      Also, in the years that I was a member of Maranatha (a total of 16 years) – there was always a lot of home mission activity geared towards our community of Indo-Canadians. Even when I was in YP’s, we did Outreach Pancake breakfasts, delivered brochures about the CanRef church etc… coffee break was an actual outreach with a number of women attending. VBS drew in a lot of neighborhood children. There was a lot of activity, but not a lot of fruit. Maybe things will be better now? That would be great. But I wonder at the wisdom of keeping W of O doors open in the hopes that maybe there will be a surge of new members……

      And your comment that you enjoy a nice short commute by living farther west shows a bit of ignorance — not everyone works out that way either. 🙂
      Just wanted to address some of your comments from the other side of things.

      • Hi Doulanic, thank you for replying to my comment. I will try respond to your questions and concerns respectfully, but I will defend my comments. Yes I have spoken with a member of the JSPC, former board members, WOCS Principal, current members of all 3 school societies, read the carefully drafted reports…and my opinion still stands, and I do not stand alone.

        I did not want the discussion of an urban church plant to develop into the discussion whether WOCS should close its doors; however, both issues are interrelated and inseparable. What disturbs me is that people will indicate they support the concept up an urban church plant through Burnaby Bible study, yet in the same breath they will endorse the closure of WOCS. It will make Reformed education nearly unattainable for those living in West Surrey/Delta or west of the Fraser, unless it is done via homeschooling. This will discourage any new families from settling in this area. This is why I am an advocate for proposal 4A instead of 4B, or anything that avoids the closure of WOCS. Tough decisions and sacrifices will have to be made, but if this advances our ability to take up the calling of “the Great Commission,” then that is what needs to be done. This requires support of the ENTIRE Fraser Valley. The Great Commission was a command, not a request. Permitting an attitude of an “inevitable closure” is contrary to this command.

        Article 58 of the Church Order reads: “The consistory shall ensure that the parents, to the best of their ability, have their children attend a school where instruction given is in harmony with the Word of God as the church has summarized it in her confessions.” If WOCS is closed, the the consistories of Aldergrove and Willoughby Heights will be unable to fulfill this mandate for those members of a church plant in Burnaby, and Maranatha will be in the same predicament. We are also called as believers to support our consistory, so that they have the means and support to fulfill their mandate. We may not share the same consistory, but as believers in Christ we still should support one another in a time of need.

        I am not suggesting that everyone east of 232st, pack up and move west, rather I am asking those individuals and families with the means to do so prayerfully consider this option. And yes, these people do exist. I have spoken with or know of many people who work/study in Surrey, Coquitlam, Burnaby, Vancouver, North Vancouver, and still they choose to establish themselves out east because of the “inevitable”. A prevailing attitude among young and middle aged Reformed people is that it is unaffordable to live in Surrey or west of the Fraser. It may not be a shiny Castle, but it is still affordable. A quick look at the Classifieds and Craigslist will quickly prove this. It comes down to people’s priorities, but that debate deserves a blog in itself. From the conversations I’ve had, the option of moving West is not even considered, rather they are just “going with the flow” because closure of western churches and schools is inevitable. This is False, for we do not know what the Lord has planned. However this fact remains…people in Surrey and west of the Fraser are hungry for the Gospel of Grace.

        I would like to close by drawing a comparison between the urban mission in Surrey and Brazil. In Brazil it was extremely tough, it did not produce immediate results; however, our missionaries AND SUPPORTERS stayed the course. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the church there has massively grown, and the harvest is ready. Help us try do the same, the mission field is here as well.

  6. Jerome Lengkeek says:

    Interesting observations – thanks for your thoughts on the book Why Cities Matter. I share your concerns about the migration out of the city. I find it interesting that you quite enthusiastically support the Burnaby church plant idea, but for yourself it seems that as soon as you realized you would be raising a family you abruptly changed direction both literally and figuratively and decided to settle in the outer periphery of Greater Vancouver. My own family was one of a very small number of CanReffers that have moved against the flow leaving Chilliwack for Surrey (FYI for purely professional reasons at the time). Although many of us share nostalgia or regret about the general drift eastward, in practice it seems that the moment raising a family is part of the picture the target area for settlement is Aldergrove or points east. Not a personal judgement against you, Ryan, just interested in the dissonance between your viewpoint and the reality of your decision on where to raise your family – one that seems to be very commonplace among our peers. Although we all wish we would see CanRef families settling west of the Fraser River, the reality is that we hardly even see any settling west of 200th Street these days.

    • Jerome (there is a lot to take in on everyone’s responses, but I will answer your question first): When we had our first child, I was struggling to find a good job. I was working a cold beer and wine shop, smoking and drinking too much, and my faith life was on the decline. I was not in a good place spiritually so church was not even on my mind. I had a lead for a job in Chilliwack and moved here. Now we have roots down in Chilliwack ( and my spiritual life is getting better) I would love to move back to the city one day, as that is where my heart is.

  7. Ted Van Raalte says:

    Great to hear about this book, Ryan, and thanks for blogging. As the pastor of Maranatha here in Surrey I am wholeheartedly in support of the Burnaby Bible Study but unfortunately have not been able to dedicate much time to it. Willoughby Heights has really moved forward with this plan. But other ministers have been asked to be involved in evening preaching sometime in the coming months. That’s another step forward.
    I stand by my observation made at the church planting and evangelism conference in January 2012 that CanRCs are predominantly rural and are much more comfortable that way. There are various reasons for this.
    Our CanRC institutional culture includes spacious buildings, lots of parking space, 99% of members driving to church and many from far away. For example, currently Maranatha has only one elderly couple in walking distance to the church building. None of these things are bad as such, but they’re not helpful for urban church planting. Our vision for urban churches should consider: smaller congregations, neighbourhood churches (people living near the building), rented locations, people coming by public transit, etc. We have to get to the core of what the church actually needs in order to function as the church, and let go of some of the trappings we’re used to. Maybe in due time a church plant will grow and snap up an existing church building in the city so it won’t become another art gallery, but in the short-term we need to consider things that seem unusual to us.
    A couple of questions I would love to consider in more detail are:
    1. How can a large Christian family flourish in the city?
    2. How can the average Christian family afford to live in, e.g., Vancouver City?
    Even Faith PCA, whose building is at West 45th in Vancouver, has many of their members living in Surrey. Their pastor just moved to Delta. So we CanRCs are not the only ones whose orientation is more and more eastward. Yet the people in the city need the gospel!

    ps. Going back to an earlier blog entry of yours: We’re another church that’s run the Two Ways to Live course (Winter 2012). We did this with New Westminster URC and we will be doing it together again for a Teens Actively Serving Christ week (June 29-July 05). Highly recommended by every student who took it, from age 20 to 65.

    • doulanic says:

      Rev VanRaalte —- just interested in your thoughts on the two questions you pose. A large Christian family can “flourish” anywhere …..but I would like to hear your thoughts on how an average christian family can afford to live in “the city”. Especially when a large chunk of our income needs to first go towards the church and private school. Or is that something that wouldn’t be in the picture anymore? Would you support a movement of Can Ref families sending their kids to public schools to be witnesses?? Considering the cost of housing, living etc … I just don’t see how it would be possible. After all, isn’t Vancouver one of the most expensive cities to live in??
      Also —- the other thing to consider is that people generally move close to where schools are. Why would families want to move farther away from the hub of activity for their kids? Especially when it comes to high school. Practically it would require some huge changes in family living …and I wonder how possible that would be.

  8. Jerome Lengkeek says:

    Thanks Ryan – an interesting parallel in our own choices but the other direction. We didn’t move west out of any kind of desire to “take back the cities” etc., it was strictly a decision that was made out of trying to do what was best for our family. My work was on the western end of Surrey, and the commutes from Chilliwack added to long days and were a heavy burden on my ability to fulfill my calling as a husband and father. We moved to Cloverdale for the good of our family despite the economic cost. Now that we’re here, however, we’ve grown to love the community and the benefits of being closer to the city. Based also on how much we enjoyed our time in Chilliwack it sounds like you’ve made the best decision for your family the other way. A good illustration perhaps of how important it is not to judge people’s choices without knowing the circumstances – it is often possible for people to make the opposite choice but both of those to be right for their own respective situation.