Because life is a series of edits

City of God or Country of God?

In Books, Calling, Church, Nature, Places & Spaces, Seminary, Theologians, Thought, Writers on November 21, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Maybe I've read too many Wendell Berry books, but it's taken some time for me – a country boy – to come around to the thought of the city being a cherished part of the Christian mission. Indeed, I get the concept of the biblical narrative taking us from the Garden (Genesis) to the City (Revelation), and it does seem God spends an awful lot of time in the Scriptures interacting with ancient cities and their inhabitants, but it's only been since moving to a big city myself that my heart has warmed to the idea.

Growing up six miles outside a town of 1,200 (Griggsville, IL – "Purple Martin Capital of the Nation") two hours north of the STL, my big city experiences were few and far between. When I did visit St. Louis or Chicago (which my family rarely did), or even when I traveled overseas at the age of 16 to major cities like London, Paris, or Munich, I was rarely scared by them, but I was not all that enamored, either. While I enjoyed the idea of being there, the cities all felt too touristy to me (granted, a tourist), and I just couldn't figure out who or how one enjoyed living in a place so overrun by millions of non-residents.

This theme continued when I moved west. Colorado Springs – as beautiful as it can be – seemed to prostitute itself to the spring break and summer tourist crowds. Add to that feeling the fact that there's absolutely no good way to drive east-west in town (which was unfortunate, since that was how we had to go to get to our PCA church), and I began to lament our attempts at church community in the city. I couldn't figure out how church "happened" naturally and personally in a city of 350,000, let alone 3.5 million.

Then we moved to St. Louis – a classic example of an American city that has suffered from decades of racial tension, white flight to the suburbs, and inner-city poverty (both financial and human). As the middle-class moved out, so grew with them the megachurches. Harvie Conn, in his book The American City and the Evangelical Church, sums up well what seems to have gone on here and in other metropolitan areas like it:

"The community church has become a regional church. And in
becoming a regional church it becomes a megachurch…In this
decentralized world the church loses its grip on local geographical
neighborhood and is transformed into a megachurch, twenty-five minutes
by car. The size of the megachurch becomes limited only by the size of
its parking lot. And the lost community created by this change finds
its replacement in the small cell groups and house meetings also
characteristic of the successful megachurch." (p. 191)

(Random thought: Maybe this is why I really don't like small groups – it's an unconscious rebelling against megachurches everywhere. Actually, I love the Catholic "parish model" with churches
geographically placed throughout the city and members living within the
neighborhood attending; in fact, if it weren't for those pesky doctrinal issues – worship of Mary, sainthood, purgatory, etc. – I'd probably have become Catholic by now if for no other reason than I love the architecture. But I digress.)

After we moved to Maplewood (where we live half a house from the St. Louis city/county line), we knew we wanted to be part of as local a PCA congregation as we could. Thankfully, Crossroads Presbyterian was just a ten-minute walk around the corner and up the hill from the house we bought, and we're glad for the fact that in terms of both vision and facility, there are no plans nor means to grow the church beyond 300 members without planting another church (which we're actually doing now) first.

All that said, my heart for the city (Maplewood and/or St. Louis proper) is growing in addition to my heart for the country. Yes, I'm still waiting for the PCA to catch a vision for church planting in more rural areas, but I know it's tough financially and (honestly) culturally. But, while I still feel the need to be an advocate for rural ministry here in the city, I'm glad to feel an expanding love in this country boy's heart for the city as well.

So, with apologies to Augustine, is it the city of God or the country of God that matters?

My best answer: yes.

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  1. Some interesting notes, for whatever they are worth…
    Abraham, a man who spent plenty of time in the country, spent his life “looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 12:10)
    Jesus wept, not only over his dead friend, but also over a city (Luke 19:41)
    Paradise ver.1.0 was a garden. Paradise 2.0 will be a city.
    “Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

  2. I started to get a bit panicky after reading the very beginning, thinking you were going to give up on the country. Ahhh, all is well.

  3. Just an agreement from being encouraged by seeing another country boy having the exact same thoughts I`m having as I have my own experiences of living in the city after growing up a farm boy.
    First of all, you and I are connected: Doug Serven was my campus minister, and I suppose still is, even though I`m a graduate student but I`m still at OU, and certainly a very good friend. He, and the book you guys wrote, actually had some to do with my coming to Christ as I came from a PCUSA church (after coming from a completely atheistic upbringing) but was not finding any peace between the Bible and Christian living. That being said, Doug said if I ever commented on one of your posts, Doug says hi.
    So, this is something I’ve really been thinking about. I’m in a school of music where I find myself constantly bombarded by the lost, but it’s often a hostile lost; at least, if I name Jesus, it becomes hostile. So, I’ve just got to live and love and let that be my witness. But, part of the problem, I think, is they really don’t see my Christian community living together, and so, they don’t REALLY understand what Christ does to people. They see him as divisive, and certainly he can be, and purposely, but, where evangelism and missions is concerned, this is about bringing people in, and what is missing here is them not seeing the beauty of the community he brings.
    I’m EXTREMELY fortunate to be a member of Christ the King here in Norman, OK, because, I’m going to say we are probably one of the more fortunate churches with the community we have. We have something very similar to what you have described, as far as community, though unfortunately we’re not quite as locally established since we don’t even have our own building, but, the community has found ways to incredibly intact (though, part of that, we DO utilize the small group system, which I understand why you feel resistant towards them, but I’ll address that later when I talk about something that just occurred to me) and we have very similar ideas as far as size and then planting another church.
    So, basically, I’m with you on the Roman Catholic parish idea and church size, and those parts, I agree with you there – it makes caring for the flock far more manageable, and community building within a church, and a WHOLE church a realistic possibility.
    In some ways, I think the PCA should sort of adopt that mindset of just planting more churches, closer together, and, within certain pockets. I think there is something to that. I mean, any suggestion has a feasible rebuttal and counter suggestion, well, we should concentrate on planting churches where there aren’t any at all. Yeah, well, they’re BOTH true, we should plant churches where there aren’t any at all AND more where there are to keep congregations smaller to build community. It’s simply practicalities and priorities, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other (or if one is, I’d have to think about it more). We want smaller congregations to build real community so it can be seen, but we need churches for real missions to happen, so, either way, it affects people hearing and seeing the gospel.) Here is where the mega-church idea and small groups make some sense.
    Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not pro mega-church myself, although I understand even the PCA has some comparable mega-churches. In some cases, it’s just what you have, because it’s what God has made available and possible in that area for the time being (and while we should strive to idealize the situation as God allows, we’ve got to remember God is sovereign and has set up the situations He has for a reason, so we’ve got to make the best of it, through God’s grace, and to serve Him, by the power of His Spirit.)
    This is where, in a big church, small groups are effective, because, at least the whole church is connected to a community, even if it isn’t the whole community, and even if an integrated community can’t exist, in some ways, it’s sort of like having mini-churches within the church, that’s why there are elders and pastoral staff in large churches. Now, mega-churches have tons of other problems, but that’s just sort of something in favor of the small group ideas.
    I don’t know if I really made in points here, or if I just sort of sent a personal message and a thought, but either way, I hope something here was actually thoughtful and useful and encouraging.

  4. Don’t worry Craig. When we’re all living in the heavenly city come to earth, I’ll occasionally visit the country with you so you can remember why the city is better. ;-)

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