Loving the city

Neither assimilation nor separation: Our ministry to the cities.

Samir Selmanovic, Ph.D., is a teaching pastor at the CrossWalk Seventh-day Adventist Church in High/and, California.

Since beginning to pastor a down town church five years ago, I have kept asking, "If our Lord 'so loved the world' (John 3:16), why can't we?" I have also begun to wonder if our fear of secular culture is not so much an out growth of our piety as of our lack of love and care for the non-Christian people who live in our cities.

The ministry of the early church was noted for its extravagant love for people. It extended the love of Jesus through humility, inclusion, generosity, and martyrdom. But the picture today is different, and that can be traced to three historic developments.

First, back in the fourth century, during the reign of Constantine, a church that had once been a humble, yet potent underground movement was transformed into one of the greatest power brokerages of all time. During this period, the church developed its own culture of pride, exclusion, greed, and persecution. It turned from a strong countercultural influence into the world's definer and enforcer of culture. The serving church became the conquering church.

Second came the Enlightenment when the church was toppled from its position of power. It remained in society with a mandate to adapt to, support, and bless the newly enthroned values of reason and progress. It turned from being the broker of the culture to the keeper of culture. The conquering church was demoted to the role of custodian.

Third, postmodernity came in the second half of the twentieth century and completed the process of marginalizing the church, relegating it to just one of many voices in the cacophony of ideas. In this process the church turned from being the custodian of culture to being just one part of the culture. The culture custodial role dissolved into a survivalistic participation in the culture.

With these three leaps the Christian church has become a wandering exile in a hostile, secular, pluralistic, polytheistic, urban world.

How should we love such a world?1 Or is that still the mandate?2

The blueprint: Neither assimilation nor separation

God's people have been in exile before in Babylon, for example. Babylon was a hostile, pluralistic, polytheistic culture, divorced from biblical education, arts, and society. The Babylonian emperor had a clear goal for Israel: assimilation.

This was attractive to Israelites since it promised them economic prosperity and social acceptance. The false prophet Hananiah (Jer. 28) had another goal for them: separation. Staying outside of the city, remaining unpolluted, and praying for God's judgment against the pagan city seemed to be in line with their heritage.

The same two options are still open. A number of denominations have led their congregations into assimilation. Assimilation occurs when the church's theology is desupernaturalized, thus losing its innate identity and authority. It becomes indistinguishable from the host culture, assuming similar value systems and customs.

It can also happen by creating a subculture within the dominant culture. Subcultures are usually set apart by external social markers such as food, dress, social-cultural habits and religious jargon. But such subcultures do not exhibit a truly different value system. In other words, they are different only in ways that are, in and of themselves, not ultimately defining.

Other Christian groups opt to separate themselves by creating Christian ghettos where they can remain separate in their schools, hospitals, and other institutions. The lure of this arrangement is the sense of safety and superiority that one gets from living in an "unpolluted culture," and feeling vindicated by denigrating the deterioration of that which is outside: the secular culture.

Such groups or persons can live as Christians only if they exercise a cultural control in their groups. While disengaged from secular society, they may launch efforts to increase their numbers, praying that God will compel people to join their separate, parallel culture.

While Israel, in the dramatic days of Jeremiah, was torn between assimilation and separation, God revealed His will for His people in exile. "This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 'Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace [shalom] and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper'" (Jer. 29:4-7, NIV).

This counsel must have been absolutely astounding to Israel. It was counter-intuitive to what they (or we) thought God would say. The message clearly conveyed the idea that the Exile was part of God's plan to care for His people ("I have carried you" into exile).

But all God's acts come from His love. Jeremiah described the Exile as a blessing disguised as a curse! The Exile was used by God to strip His people of their cultural power in order to give them something far more precious. And the message reveals this blessing by denouncing both assimilation and separation.

God refuses to have His people think of their mission in either of these ways. He urges them not to assimilate and to keep their identity strong. On the other hand God tells them not to separate from Babylon either, but to settle down in the city. By taking away their power, He planned to lead them into an experience by which they would learn to truly love well, and bless the people of the world. This was the reason for Israel's creation and existence in the first place (Gen. 12:2, 3). God's commitment to this runs deep. Praying for Shalom the city (Jer. 29:7) meant asking God for its complete well being: spiritual, material, emotional, and social.

Moving from the experience of Israel to our times, consider how God may address us here and now: "I have taken away your cultural power and want you to live as exiles. I don't want you to live in separate, culturally con trolled enclaves from which you bemoan the state of the culture. And I don't want you to go into secular cities just to build your churches there. I want you to go into the belly of the city, see how broken it is, and get involved. I want you to work there, pray there, and sacrifice to make it a great place, a safe place, a prosperous place, a better place. I want you to build, and love, and serve 'Babylon' better than the 'Babylonians' themselves! And I want you to do it while keeping your identity and values as genuinely spiritual Israelites. I want you to make the host culture better any way you can while living distinctively as My people. That's where My heart is. Don't be assimilated; that is, don't love the city and for get Me. But at the same time, don't separate from the city; that is, don't love Me and hate the city." In short, live in the city as the incarnate Christ lived on this earth among the people.

Christians and the city

Judging by his life and outlook, the prophet Daniel knew about Jeremiah's controversial message to the Israelite exiles. While holding a leading position in the Babylonian government, he mastered the liberal arts of the day as practiced in Babylon. He swam skillfully in the pagan culture, and acted positively while in it. He was integrated, flexible, and proactive, but all the while he uncompromisingly retained his monotheism and was unswervingly loyal to the God of his fathers. He lived a life in which he was neither separate from Babylonian culture nor assimilated into it.

Looking only at the well-known instance of the lions' den (Dan. 6), it is clear that while Daniel obviously respected and honored Babylonian culture and had attained to high office, he still maintained the life of his distinctive Israelite faith, to the point of actually being willing to die for it.

If Daniel did that, why can't we? It's because we choose either assimilation or separation or see-saw between the two. How do you raise successful Christian actors, lawyers, businesspeople, and musicians when you live in Babylon? What roles should the actors choose? What cases should the lawyers take? What does Christian integrity mean in the business world? What music should these musicians play? How does Creation, the Cross, and the Resurrection impact a Christian's daily life in the secular city? And what of the imminent return of Jesus?

The answers don't come easily. The Bible contains no book of rules on how to do it. We have to struggle our way through, helping each other dis cover how to be urban disciples. If we don't struggle with these questions, in one way or another, we've become assimilated. If we're in despair about the lack of rules and shrink back from entering these vocations, we're separating.

We've forgotten that separation from the world is as fatal as assimilation. It's good to live in places where Christians are out of power, where our friends are not Christians. The city is the place where your faith is seriously challenged. You are forced to confront the fact that many of your Christian answers are shallow. The city humbles you. And thus forces you to grow and refine your faith.

After living in the city, you realize there are many smart, virtuous, non- Christian people there. You meet wonderful Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists. If your faith is disturbed by this, and you start to question the rea sons why you're a Christian, it means you never really understood the essence of the gospel in the first place. If you can't find joy in the goodness of nonbelievers, it shows you've always thought you were saved through your own goodness.

The city does need us to come in and mend its brokenness, but we also need the city. The city challenges our understanding of the gospel and deepens our Christian experience.

Equipped to challenge the culture

Metropolitan cultures are like Borg spaceships from the science fiction series Star Trek. Borg is a civilization traveling through the universe in large black cubes assimilating other civilizations. They project the mes sage: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." Borg offers only two options: run away from Borg or become Borg.

But Christians must neither run away from such a culture, nor melt into it. We must be the people that enter Borg and set its people free. We were meant to be a counterculture to be "communities of resistance" as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted.

The apostle Peter reminded first-century Christians that when they received grace, they became "aliens and strangers" in the world (1 Peter 2:11, NIV). The world will be both attracted to and repelled by Christians at the same time. Jesus was that kind of enigma. He was very attractive, but even His family had a hard time believing Him. They didn't quite know how to relate to Him and treated Him with disrespect.

To the degree that we're like Jesus, we'll be an enigma too. People should scratch their heads about us. We can't be anything else but an enigma if we believe stuff like "serving is better than being served" and "dying is better than killing," or if we pray for the well-being of our enemies, or if we fight the battle of life with the weapons of forgiveness, humility, and sacrifice, then in the average urban culture, we are indeed strange. So let's get on with it!

And here is the heart of the bias against Christians in the secular city. Secular people see something they don't understand. When you say, "I know God!" you think of His grace extended to you. But to them, it sounds extremely arrogant. "You know God? Why would God come to you? You must be thinking you have a better moral record, or a better character than the rest of us."

What is for us a statement of the greatest humility, sounds like a statement of arrogance. The world has a hard time accepting grace and thus feels that all that Christian stuff is some kind of scam. And it is! It is a heavenly scandal, the scandal of grace. God schemed for our salvation so we could have life abundant.

Christianity is absent from the life webs of the cities. After decades of work, one of the greatest urban missiologists, Ray Bakke, reported on what he has learned: "I thought the barriers to mission were the big, bad cities. But 90 percent of the barriers to reaching cities are not in the city at all." The barriers are in our theology, structures, and attitudes.3 So here are three ways our church can equip urban congregations to live the biblical blueprint and get back into the downtowns of our nations.

Living the blueprint: three ways

1. Radicalize our theology. Over the decades our theology has been growing like a tax code. It is detailed, massive, and convoluted. If we are going to challenge the culture we live in, we must forge a theology that is not simply an argument with a left or a right. We must abandon our conservationist posture and see the "third way" of genuine Christian, Adventist spirituality emerge.

This theology must be germinated in the urban mission field itself, and offer a guidance to real life in the secular world. It must redirect its focus and energies away from both preserving the cultural markers of Christianity and Adventism on one hand, and on the other, from the burden to adjust our thinking to the thought and values of surrounding culture.

Formulating such theology will inspire us not to be less radical, but to be far more radical than what we see today in our conservative or liberal churches.

2. Recognize the beauty of the city. Can we learn to see the grace and beauty of God on the city streets? We must be converted from our cynicism about the city and follow Jeremiah's counsel and bless the city.

When the New Jerusalem descends, we will all be urbanites. Our hearts may dance when we see a mountain, waterfall, or tree. But our hearts must learn also to dance when we see an overcrowded subway car, because it is full of people the sight that moves God's heart to dance. Cities have much evil, suffering, and injustice, but God is attracted to sinners, because where sin abounds grace can abound even more (Rom. 5:20).

3. Restructure the institution. Local urban churches desperately need resources to enter and challenge the culture, affect the neighborhoods, and build the congregations as places of respite in the cities. In order to deserve a hearing among secular people, we must embody Christian servanthood in our denominational structures themselves.

Generally speaking, educated urban dwellers simply refuse to join or support a church structure that takes away the resources from local churches and neighborhoods. Except for some notable exceptions4 this issue is still a taboo.

Organizational change is the most difficult act for any long-established organization. But it is not impossible if the church listens to its edges, and has strong visionary leaders who can navigate the church through the "coming crisis of the tree that realizes it is dying from its roots."5

If we put mission and ministry ahead of maintenance and self-preservation, we will surely incur some short-term losses. But God would greatly reward our sacrifice. With our own eyes we would witness the most dynamic and effective evangelistic action one can imagine: "authentic local communities of believers empowered to worship and serve in the presence of the world." Our churches would finally become those "'[cities] on a hill"'(Matt. 5:14, NIV) that Jesus wanted the world to see.

1 For many ideas in this article I am indebted to Daniel Augsburger, Ryan Bel], George Knight, and Jon Paulien (from SDA Theological Seminary), Tim Keller in New York, and writings of Leslie Newbigin.

2 George Knight, "Another Look at City Mission," Adventist Review, December 2001.

3 Ray Bakke, "Loving an Urbanized World," Regeneration Web site.

4 See George Knight, The Fat Lady and the Kingdom (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1995); Robert K. Mclver, "Strategic Use of Tithe," Ministry, October 2001; and Greg Taylor, "Stop Strangling the Goose," Adventist Today, May/June 2001. For an extensive discussion from the historical perspective, see: George Knight, Organizing to Beat the Devil (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,2001).

5 Statement made by John McVay, Dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, at the Church of the Advent Hope, February 2002.

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Samir Selmanovic, Ph.D., is a teaching pastor at the CrossWalk Seventh-day Adventist Church in High/and, California.

July 2002

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