April 1, 2011 @ 1:47 pm by sean
This was rather frustrating to write, because of the nature of the issue, that, the issue is by its nature multifaceted and hidden. But the thoughts kept compounding and I had to document them. This comes from observations from growing up and living in the Detroit area; some education and interest in new urbanism; reaction to the established Christian church I was raised in both in its misguided, trifling efforts and political associations; ever growing interest in socialism, communism, anarchism, Amishism, intentional Christian community, environmentalism, social activism, and disgust with capitalism and thought exercises on scripture speaks against it; Deitrich Boenhoffer’s The Cost of Discipleship; and most importantly revelation from God and how all those things relate to scripture, His living Word. But inevitably, it will contain many generalities that would take a book to qualify, and has taken many books and conversations to realize. And so the common identifier here is used as an easy catch-all for much of the issue I currently take with society, particularly christians in society. It’s also one big thought in progress. My thoughts specifically, borne of my experiences in the world and of no particular authority, regardless of my self-manufactured certainty. And plenty of repetition, working out more similar examples to get at a greater notion. This is not meant to be comprehensively worked out, just a purge of thoughts.
When Jon went to Mongolia to supply kids with the Gospel and school text books that the government stopped supplying, I thought, “Well that’s easy, there is an obvious need there. What about the great need right here in Detroit.” We so often look away from our esteemed homeland to less economically developed countries, Muslim dominated countries, and countries in the 10-40 window, as places desperate for the Gospel. But what about our very own cities? There is such a great need there, often equal to the need elsewhere in the world, both spiritual and physical. So I moved to Hamtramck. To “surround myself with those who Jesus surrounded himself by, the lowly and downtrodden.” To “be a light in a dark place.” To “do the work of the Church to those who were abandoned by the church.” Or whatever. But the longer I’m here, the more that breaks down. The more lowly I realize I am. The more downtrodden I become aware that I am. The greater need that I have. I’ve heard excellent ministers condemn those in the suburbs for abandoning the great need of Detroit. I’ve seen some of the most spiritually strong people dedicate their lives to a life of service to those in need. I’ve heard problems attached to urban youth that ultimately have more to do with their youth and nothing to do with their urban-ness. I’ve seen college kids come to the city on spring break mission trips. I’ve seen hearts of urban ministers broken by brokenness of the people around them. But we’re all broken. It’s just more obvious around here. Are the suburbs really more spiritually fulfilled? Just because they have money and resources, is the Good News of Kingdom of God more prevalent and present? When the churches gave up on the cities when the suburbs sprawled, did an authentic love to Christ and response to the love of Christ flourish there? The suburbs are just as dark as the city, and just as desperate for a light. But it’s hidden, like everything else that’s wrong with the suburbs.
There is currently all this controversy over Rob Bell’s questioning of whether all people really go to hell if they don’t want to, don’t believe in Jesus as their savior. While the emergent church isn’t always or quite universal, the connection between Jesus and heaven is certainly diminished. There is more emphasis on love and bringing heaven to Earth and addressing social problems. And by this, many are lead astray. Their critics from the established church cry heresy, Jesus says He is the way, and there is no other way to God than Him. But their critics, those predominantly white evangelicals in suburban churches, also preach a gospel that focuses so much on salvation and church life, that it cheapens grace. So we have the practically-universalists on one side, but the other side merely preaches Just say the prayer of salvation, show up at church every Sunday and Wednesday evening, read your Bible, and vehemently oppose abortion and gay marriage, and that’s all you need. And that leads just as many people astray. So many people are convinced that just because they said the prayer of salvation and show up to church but otherwise make no change to their life they are saved. That because they are a nicer person that they act in the will of God. That because they go on one week “mission trips” to Central America they are missionaries spreading the Gospel. That because they buy consumables that support good causes they are using the blessings of God to help others. That because they buy devotionals by popular megachurch leaders and read their Bibles somewhat regularly they have an authentic relationship with God.
And yet, they are dead.
Suburban ministry is hard.
Trying to show people who live in houses valued at one hundred, two, three, four hundred-plus thousand dollars; with reliable and even luxurious transportation for each driver in the family; healthy 401ks; a house full of entertainment; closets and cupboards stocked to far more than adequately fill their needs; steady income; surrounded by all the manicured lawns, shopping malls, metro-parks and chain restaurants; quality schools; that more than any of that they have a profound need for a relationship with God and it’s all for naught if they deny Jesus as their Lord strikes me as nearly impossible.
As is trying to show the people who have grown up with their parents religion, went to church growing up, vacation Bible school in the summer, youth group, etc., that their faith is dead without works (James 2:14-26), that people are hungry and thirsty and Jesus says do something about it(Matt 25:35-45); that we are to care for widows, orphans (James 1:27), those who can’t care for themselves; that we are to fight against injustice; that we are not to make class distinctions(James 2:1-9); that most of the reaction of the wealthy in the Bible to hearing the Gospel was to sell their possessions and give to the poor (Luke 19:1-10)(or turn themselves away from Jesus instead [Matt 19:16-22, Luke 12:13-21]); that we are to lend freely and not expect anything back in return(Ex 22:25, Lev 25:37, Luke 6:35); that what we posses is not our own, but everything is a gift from God and to whom much is given much is expected; and that giving our money to some organization is not the answer; that praying for someone’s needs and without actually doing anything accomplishes nothing (James 2:15-16); that Jesus expects direct action for the benefit of our neighbor in humble servitude and everyone is our neighbor (Matthew – John, etc.).
As is trying to show the people who have grown up in the false perfection of the suburbs that their subdivisions are not real community; that big box stores, processed foods, strip malls, subdivisions, and sprawl are sucking the life out of people and God’s creation; that their neighbors are spiritually dead and white collar crime is more of a drain on the economy and the system than urban crime; that their money and what they’ve accomplished is meaningless if it has no benefit to the God’s Kingdom; that the suburban lifestyle is a sinful obliteration of the worlds resources and should be condemned not fought for or continued depletion to meet our greedy wants; that it was a gift of God that they woke up, had clothes to put on, a car to drive, money for their bills, needs, and wants and not because of their “hard work” and bank account balance; that just because they were born into the privileged of society doesn’t automatically correlate to favor with God; that Jesus doesn’t ask us to legislate the world to Christianity through laws against abortion and gay marriage (after all, Jesus fulfilled the Law already) but that they are compelled by the love of Christ to lift each other up in love to care for the spiritual and corporeal needs of all people.
As is trying to show people in the suburbs that their flight from the city along with the businesses their jobs provide and the concentrated tax base it supplied is a major cause for the state our cities are in; that “their poverty and crime is their problem” and “they’re ruining the city” and “we don’t want them coming into our school system” (read: black people) is racist; that their corporate greed and consumption comes at the cost of oppression to those less privileged and under-resourced (Pr 14:31, 16:19); that the Kingdom of God isn’t dependent on their financial contributions and that making as much money as possible by whatever means possible to “give some of it back to help others” is putting the power of money in front of the power of God, but they are to seek the Kingdom of God first and have no concern for the accumulation of goods, or what they will even wear or eat.
And so I’ve come to the disappointing realization that I live in the city because it’s easy. Because I can stay and condemningly point from a distance at the disgusting use of resources that is suburban sprawl and the christians there who revel in it. Because I am surrounded by those whose need is plain and accessible and consequently simpler to address (though certainly with no more guarantee of success). Because I have real community with those who’ve committed their life to be a servant. Because I have real community with those who I can openly share and address our hurts and rejoice in our victories. Because in the city I have more culture, entertainment, serving opportunities, community involvement opportunities, Gospel sharing opportunities, intellect, innovation, freedom, inspiration, and fellowship than I know what to do with. I’m free from the burden of pursuing the “American Dream.” Because I can’t imagine how in such a fragmented world as the suburbs one can even start identifying who is in need and what their need is in any meaningful manner. Because trying to convince those in the suburbs that they aren’t the blessed saviors of society just because they were born into privilege and can make financial contributions to organizations or volunteer in the city one Saturday a month is extremely difficult. Because it’s exceedingly hard to show those in the suburbs that focusing on church life while ignoring the great need around the world is ignoring Jesus. Because convincing suburban christians that their worldview is shaped more by a political party that champions self-preservation, corporations, and war (Rom 12:18) as a social good than by the grace of God who calls us to love our neighbor is beyond my imagination. Because the suburbs are just as fallen, dark, and broken as the city, and the need in the city isn’t any more great, it’s just different, but the need of the suburbs is hidden, masked, denied, veiled, obfuscated, and misunderstood to the effect that it is seen by them as an asset, as progress, as a blessing. I am not saying those in the city are any more inclined to the Good News of salvation and the Kingdom of God on Earth than those in the suburbs, but the need is so real and plain that it’s easy in the city.
So why do we have “urban studies” programs at all our christian colleges? Because we assume the suburbs are taken care of; because students at christian colleges are privileged white kids from the suburbs who don’t recognize the substantial need that surrounds their home communities so they need to go to college and pay tens of thousands of dollars to learn to minister to those whose need is plain. Urban studies? Read the Bible, move the city, get personally involved in peoples lives, do what the Bible says. Done. Where are the “suburban studies” programs that teach students how to comprehend the obfuscated brokenness that fills their communities? That teach how to enter the corporate workplace as a foreigner in a foreign land, one not determined to fight their way to the top and not work tirelessly at all costs to increase the corporate profit portfolio but instead will joyously serve God and minister wherever God has them be. That teach how to expose the oppression and greed that is touted as a good work ethic and ambition. Where are the “rural studies” programs that teach how to demonstrate love to God’s creation through proper husbandry of the land and minister to those whose communities have been broken apart by corporate farms?
Urban ministry is the definition of the harvest being plentiful, and the workers being few. Urban ministry is the clear demonstration of the work of God because it couldn’t happen any other way. Urban ministry is emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining, because it actually happens. And because many of the unseen and ignored problems in the suburbs perpetuate that which creates problems in the city and that which makes ministry in the city such a continuous and seemingly insurmountable task.
But the need outside of the city is clearly hidden, and the hidden need is clearly great. And that’s…..something far greater than I can even begin to comprehend how to address.