Monday, December 29, 2008

Urban Complexity 

Years ago I took a seminar class entitled, “Urban Missions and Ministry” in which the professor, Roger Greenway, claimed that throughout its history the protestant church has very few successful models of mission and ministry in large cities. Today it struck me that the increased complexity and decreased autonomy of city life might be at the root of that.

At the risk of falling into caricature, I think it is fair to say that on the whole people who live in the countryside are more independent, more self-reliant than the city dwellers. For example, think just about transportation: someone in the country is directly responsible for their personal and their work vehicles. If a given farmer or rancher can’t fix their truck or tractor, they probably have a friend, neighbor or hired hand who keeps thing running. On the other hand, living as I do in a city of thirteen million people, I don’t even own a car. I get around town in trains, busses and taxis that whole services of people maintain and coordinate. I have more options than the farmer, ranging from more expensive and personalized (taxi) to less expensive and less flexible (public transportation), of which I frequently choose to have less autonomy but I also have much less responsibility. My transportation needs are met within a complex system of superhighways, bridges, tunnels, tracks, etc. that might work much better, or much worse, than the simple system of a farmer driving his truck down a two lane dirt road.

Even if I chose to have more autonomy and responsibility by owning a car here, I couldn’t escape the implications of the complex system in which I live; every pedestrian, cross street, bus and train crossing, impinges on my self-rule.

While someone in the country might go days without seeing another person if they chose, every aspect of city life is affected by the strangers around me. Growing up on three acres of untilled Kansas prairie, I could do just about whatever I wanted inside the house without affecting the next-door neighbors, whereas now I share an elevator, hallways, and light wells with twenty one other units in a space of 100 ft by 35 ft by 70 ft, so colicky babies, social habits, and music choices affect us all.

In part, the Protestant Reformation reacted to the all pervasive system of the Roman church and engendered a style of Christianity which highlights personal responsibility to God and to our neighbors. History has shown that Protestantism fosters individualism and self-reliance. Whether you see these as positive or destructive, probably says more about you, your culture and life experiences than it does about them, nevertheless Scripture paints the picture of the progress of redemption as a move from a garden, with a very simple form of relating to other humans and to God, to a city, whose complexity of imagery boggles our imagination. Neither this knowledge nor the numbers of people who live in large cities around the world has done much to push the protestant church to learn to function well in cities.

I used to live next to one of the largest cities in the world so I thought I knew something about city life. But now that I live in a forest of apartment buildings, I realize that I my former way of life was really suburban, which seems to be a sort of happy medium between isolation and complexity. That life looks very attractive when my upstairs neighbor is still hosting a party at 4 A.M. or I can’t find an empty taxi because it’s raining. But God has drawn us to this city and it is teaching me about interdependence and complexity.

I don’t yet know how it all translates into Christian community, but I’m guessing it will necessitate some changes in my way of thinking and living that will strike at my personal boundaries that protect my independence and self-determination and the as well as the boundaries that delineate the community of faith from the community at large, as we see in God’s instructions to the exiles through Jeremiah: “Also, seek the peace 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" (29:7).

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