Highlights

Discipling the city

Jun 2018    

In a recent report on urbanisation trends, the World Health Organization predicted that by 2030, six out of every 10 people in the world would be city dwellers. This means that virtually every global growth over the next 30 to 40 years will take place in urban areas.

Sociologists have coined two new terms to capture the phenomenon of the modern city. The term ‘urbanisation’ refers to the magnetic quality of cities – their ability to attract people from rural areas.

‘Urbanism’ points to the profound relationship between the city and culture(s). Most modern cities are multicultural, a diverse mix of people of different ethnicities and religions. This has led Josef Ramoneda to assert, perhaps hyperbolically, that “[t]he identity of the city is a non-identity. This is because its only identity is diversity.”

It is therefore not off the mark to describe the modern city as a microcosm of the world, tucked in a confined space.

But ‘urbanism’ stresses the point that cities are not merely receptacles of cultures, but transform, transmit, and magnify them. So complex is that concrete instantiation of human sociality called the city, that an extraordinary amount of sociology is needed to interpret it.

Cities are never spiritually neutral. They can be surprising epiphanies of the nobility of the human spirit. But they can also be wildernesses of depravity and inhumanity.

The Church in the modern city that seeks to fulfil our Lord’s commission (Matthew 28:16-20) must first and foremost be firmly grounded in the gospel we have been called to proclaim.

This assertion seems too obvious. But the city, it must be remembered, presents temptations and seductions from which the Church is not immune. The Church must be shaped by the Word and energised by the Spirit, or else the gospel we preach will willy-nilly be defaced by the acids of relativism, pluralism, secularism, and political correctness.

The Church that seeks to ‘disciple the city’ must never offer an anaemic ‘gospel’ that panders to the therapeutic culture of modernity. David Wells, that indefatigable prophet of modern evangelicalism, warns of the corrupting influence of such a culture in his provocative book, No Place for Truth.

“As the nostrums of the therapeutic age supplants confession, and as preaching is psychologised,” writes Wells, “the meaning of the Christian faith is privatised. At a single stroke, confession is eviscerated and reflection reduced mainly to thought about self.”

The Church in the modern city must also be wary of the influence of pragmatism, which pervades modern culture, and the temptation to take short cuts. Sadly, evangelicalism is especially vulnerable to this.

As Mark Noll has rightly pointed out in his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “The evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”

The Church that truly seeks to obey our Lord’s command must roundly reject pragmatism and populism in all their clever guises – ‘easy believism’, the demand for quick, tangible results, and the obsession with mere numerical growth – because they cheapen God’s grace.

We must not portray salvation in naïve ‘decisionist’ terms (the idea that the person is saved when he raises his hand at a gospel meeting or says the sinner’s prayer). We must not separate conversion from discipleship, regeneration from sanctification, or salvation from holiness.

The Church must embrace the holistic conception of salvation proposed by John Wesley, the (reluctant) founder and theologian par excellence of the Methodist movement. For Wesley, salvation is “not barely … deliverance from hell, or going to heaven”.

Salvation can never be bracketed away from holiness. “If by salvation we mean a present salvation from sin,” wrote John Wesley in A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (Part 1), “we cannot say, holiness is a condition of it; for it is the thing itself. Salvation, in this sense, and holiness, are synonymous terms.”

Finally, the Church that seeks to ‘disciple the city’ cannot promote an irresponsible triumphalism that simply sweeps the existential angst of city dwellers under the proverbial carpet. We must confront the ubiquitous problems of city life – crime, poverty, congestion, pollution, racial tensions, etc.

In addition, we must take seriously what scholars have described as ‘urban anguish’ – the mental suffering, emotional insecurity, and loneliness of city people. The Church in the city must stand in solidarity with these urbanites, and in so doing become an efficacious sacrament of God’s grace and mercy.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, and Theological and Research Advisor for the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).

Picture by World Image/Bigstock.com

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