Aaron Renn, a leading American urban affairs writer, recently challenged those thinking about cities to have a “broader urban vision.” Urbanism, he said, needs to be about more than funky “third space” cafés, creative classes, transit, and high-density living. Renn suggests that other networks and institutions, especially churches, need to be given a more prominent role in addressing the challenges facing modern cities.
. . . [U]rbanists should take religion much more seriously than they often do. That’s because it plays a much bigger role in the city and civic health than currently believed, and because many urban congregations have mastered the art of outreach and conversion in a way that transit and density advocates can only dream out.
Both sides have rethinking to do. Given that Christianity started as an urban religion (look up the economic and political prominence of the various cities which Paul visited and sent letters to), it is surprising that contemporary western Christianity occasionally evokes thought of retreat from the cities. Doesn’t our modern ethos often place “rural values” closer to what’s religious than “big city values”? Before critiquing urbanists for ignoring religion, then, there is good reason to remind the religious that perhaps they have not taken cities as seriously as they should, especially in an increasingly urban society. (Eighty-one per cent of the Canadian population lives in cities, and the rate is increasing by more than one per cent per year.)
That doesn’t, however, let the urbanist movement off the hook. Renn rightly points out that it is sometimes the failed marketers of the most prominent urban solutions of the day who demonstrate the narrow-mindedness and intolerance that religious folk are often accused of.
I find that often their ability to sell [solutions] to people who are skeptical or come from a different worldview is poor. When people don’t sign on to the latest carbon reduction scheme, rather than blaming a bad sales job, the blame is almost always put on the people rejecting it, such as by calling them idiots, intellectually dishonest, shills for corporations, or “deniers.” I’m sure there are some of these types out there, but I believe the vast bulk of people don’t fall into these categories.
In a generation that self-identifies with tolerance, listening, and sophistication, our generation as much as any other risks engaging only in self-referential conversations. Urban and rural, conservative and socialist, people of religious faith and those who live by a non-religious faith—it is easy to identify various continuums and think of our neighbours only by comparison to ourselves. In part, that is normal human behaviour and necessary to make sense of life. But it doesn’t much help us to constructively engage those different from us. Renn cites Redeemer Presbyterian Church and the various networks associated with them as a positive, concrete example of religionists engaging an urban culture, including those who don’t exactly fit into their mold, in an effective manner. “If you really are trying to save souls, then it isn’t enough just to be right, you have to also be effective,” notes Renn.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of our day is to measure our success and impact not by how we communicate with those who agree with us, but rather by engaging those who disagree.