The Urban Turn

Will urban planners or the secular elite start noting the significant impact of religious influence in cities?
Appears in Summer 2014 Issue: The Other Side of the City
June 1st, 2014

Tim Keller is a preaching philosopher, a new urbanist missionary, an intellectual evangelist, a culture-making family man, and much more. As the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, the city is something that has seeped into his vocation and identity. In that sense, he's a bit like Socrates, who saw himself on a mission to the city of Athens—a gadfly to his fellow citizens, to be sure, but only because he loved the city so much. While Keller's hopes are clearly pegged to that City to come, he is deeply invested in the city where he resides.

He has also spent a lot of time thinking about the unique opportunities and challenges for Christians in the city. A one-time student of Harvie Conn, one of the first missiologists to appreciate the uniqueness of urban contexts, Keller has extended that work in books like Center Church. More importantly, Redeemer Presbyterian Church has embodied a holistic way of inhabiting the city. So our editor, Jamie Smith, relished the opportunity to explore these themes with him in more detail. The result was a wide-ranging conversation about the many ways Christians have—and should—be seeking the welfare of the city, and the challenges they can expect in that endeavour.

An awful lots of Christians show up in cities and new city churches, and that's why they're there--because they just like cities.

JS: A lot of people look to you as really a pioneer. As a church planter, you became convinced early on about the significance of the city, and for a lot of evangelical and Reformed folks, that was a new idea.

In some ways, it's a matter of demographics. There are more people living in cities so the church needs to be where they are, but I've also heard you describe this in terms of James Davison Hunter's notion of "faithful presence"—a particular model of Christian engagement. Can you say a bit more about why that model propels Christian engagement with the city?

TK: When I'm talking to people about why Christians should be interested in cities, I usually give them three reasons, and you've already touched on two of them. I think the demographic argument, you might say, is pretty compelling and pretty overwhelming, and I think for the average evangelical, there's really not much in the way of argument. You just have to show that people are moving into cities faster than the church is, around the world and even in our country.

In fact, Al Mohler has issued a few clarion calls to go into cities and he only uses the demographic argument. He says the church is not where the people are. It won't be long before, if we're not willing to move into cities, we're going to be finding that there's nobody around to listen to us preach. That's very simple and hard to argue with.

It's worth saying, and you can marshall some statistics, of course. You can look at China and look at the astonishing growth of the cities in Africa. And just today there's an article in the New York Times by a Columbia University professor, Vishaan Chakrabarti, called "America's Urban Future" [April 16, 2014]. He points out the fact that over two-thirds of Millennials went to live in cities and a generation ago, just a fraction of young adults went to live in cities. So that's the "demographic argument."

I would say the second reason Christians need to turn to the city is what you might call it "the justice argument." There are a tremendous number of needs that are concentrated in cities, especially in our country. It's not just that most of the needy are in cities. That may be true. I don't know if you add up Appalachia versus inner cities, but the fact is that there are probably more neighbourhoods where the schools don't work and where public safety isn't what it should be compared to the rest of the country. There are a lot of needs in cities, and at least in America, it's where a tremendous amount of work needs to be done just to give people safe and good places to live.

Then, third, I think you can make the case that cities are increasingly the place of cultural influence. Maybe they always have been. It's hard to say that they are more so. I don't know where he gets his ideas, but if you read Tom Wolfe's little book, The Painted Word, he says he thinks there are 5,000 people in the world—this was in the '80s, so it's probably obsolete—but he thought there were 5,000 people in the world that pretty much control what we see on our screens and what was considered good art. He says probably half of them live in New York City. Or you could say that the editorial rooms—the rooms that decide what's going to be in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post the next day, which largely determines our cultural conversation, at least to a degree—that two of their editorial rooms are here, and that kind of thing basically makes you say, "If Christians want to have a faithful witness in every part of human society, then you've got to be in cities." That's the "faithful presence argument." So to me, there are three good reasons why Christians ought to seek cities.

JS: In your experience, can people put together all three, or do some traditions or denominations or streams of Christianity tend to emphasize one more than the others?

TK: Very rarely are they put together, even two of the three. In fact, there's a fourth reason why Christians go to cities, and it's not on the list, which is a kind of cultural turn: young people like cities. They find them cool, they like the diversity, they don't like driving a car—just a zillion reasons why, for some reason, Millennials like cities.

JS: A "hip factor," perhaps?

TK: It's probably a little too reductionistic to call it the "hip" factor. For example, Millennials are the first generation whose carbuying and driving is not going up, it's going down. They would rather walk. See, that's not hip. That's just a shift.

JS: I have a 20-year-old, and he still doesn't have his driver's license.

TK: See, it's cultural change, and it's got more to do with preferences. Cities have more things that Millennials like culturally; that's all I can say.

JS: And this is neither good nor bad, right?

TK: Exactly, and it's not bad at all, actually. But it does mean an awful lot of Christians show up in cities and show up in the new city churches, and that's why they're there—because they just like cities. None of those first three reasons are part of their motivation.

But back to your question: I'd say yes, some denominations only do the first reason because they're old-fashioned missionary people and they just want to win souls, and I also do think that there are community development/ justice people that go to the city for that reason, and they despise the more hip young evangelical churches in the nice parts of the city, which they shouldn't, I don't think, because you've got to have churches everywhere.

Then, of course, there are plenty of the hipster churches that really seem to ignore questions of infrastructure and where the rest of the city is, not just whether you help the poor or the homeless, but whether or not public safety works, schools work, infrastructure works. They don't care about that, but they should.

JS: What do you think it takes for congregations to be, let's say, "ecosystems" that both have the evangelistic impulse, the justice impulse, and the culture-making impulse?

TK: Actually, I think part of that is that there are already probably churches in different parts of the city that are not working together because they don't know each other. You have storefront churches amongst the poor; you've got mono-ethnic immigrant churches that are probably not worshipping in English; you've got middle-class black churches that probably don't reflect their actual neighbourhood. There are some bilingual Hispanic and Asian churches where you have an Englishspeaking younger congregation and a non-English-speaking older congregation. You've got some mainline churches that are pretty justice-oriented, they're multi-ethnic. Then you've got some new downtown centre stage churches that are filled with culturemaker types.

If those churches really knew each other, if the pastors prayed together, if they met together and they learned to talk with each other, they would get a picture that none of them probably have because they're locked in their part of the urban world a little too much, and they actually tend to despise the other parts of that.

Very often the ethnic, for example, the new ethnic people don't like black people, or the blacks resent some of the newcomers, or the inner city justice- oriented churches despise the downtown churches where everybody's pretty well off, or the centre city church is really completely oblivious. They know there are needs out there but they really, like you suggest in your questions, they don't think about infrastructure or they don't think about whether it's a healthy city outside of their pretty, their gentrified areas.

The best way to do that would be for the churches to work together or to be together, which means going out past both ethnic and denominational borders.

JS: Then it strikes me that right now, one of the best things we could do is have a healthier sense of how big the church is in the city, in that no one congregation could probably ever hope to pull off all three of these fronts of concern, but when you start thinking about the church not just as "my denomination" or "my network" or "my congregation" but this wider sense of the Body of Christ, then maybe there's also room to appreciate the different "apostolates" that different traditions have. Would that be fair?

TK: I think so. It does get you, I do believe, into theological boundaries. It's a fraught issue, because you start to wonder, "Who do I cooperate with and who do I not?" But by and large, at least you can start with prayer.

In other words, if you've got somebody who believes the Apostles' Creed, I can pray with you because you're praying to the Triune God, and you can start there. But I have to admit, as you start thinking about other ways of doing things, sometimes you need more theological commonality in order to do something together, but that doesn't mean you can't know each other and learn from each other.

JS: Exactly, and you don't want to just end up with some lowest common denominator moralism as your point of collaboration, and yet, as you say, some of it, maybe the first thing that can happen is just raising our sense of awareness of what other congregations are doing in the city on these fronts. That in itself might be a wake-up call.

TK: Yup.

JS: I'd be intrigued to know, do you think "the city," so to speak, as in municipal leaders, do you think they tend to underestimate the extent to which Christian churches contribute to the common good in the city?

TK: Oh yeah. It's actually a bit of a scandal— that urban planners and sociologists and civic leaders by and large are almost completely ignorant of, first of all, how religious the city is. They do not have any idea what's out there. And then secondly, they're not making any plans for how religion can be part of the common good of the city.

I was recently reading a book called, The Fundamentalist City? It's a collection of scholars trying to come to grips with what the secular cities have missed: that cities are filled with mosques and churches of all sorts everywhere, and they just shouldn't be ignoring them. But I would say a small percentage of your civic leaders and your urban planners and people like that see it as a problem, but most of them are just indifferent to it. It's just not part of their plans, and I think it's really got to be.

JS: You've just nailed the agenda of Cardus's Social Cities initiative, undertaken very concretely in cities like Calgary and now expanding to other cities. A big part of that is just doing an audit of social capital to help city leaders and urban planners to recognize all of the good that congregations contribute to the city that just don't show up on their radar. Or even here in Grand Rapids, we had what was called the Kent County Congregation Study, which assessed all of the social services that congregations provide in Kent County. When you tabulate it, it's like millions of dollars' worth of social contributions to the common good. And once you make that case, then municipal leaders have to, and should want to, take that into account in their planning, right?

TK: I agree with you, I think that's a real agenda without it being us getting our due or something. It's more like saying, "Listen, we want to be present to the city and we are contributing to the city, and there's room for collaboration here." You do have to be very careful. I know they can smell an agenda.

JS: . . . and we need to be careful about that.

So, it might be a stereotype to say a lot of evangelicals were concerned with the city just demographically— just as mission fields. But if there's some truth to that, then I guess I'm trying to get them to be invested in the city really as an ecosystem for flourishing (or not!). My hope is that we could expand why we're interested in cities.

One of the books we're reviewing in this issue is called, If Mayors Ruled the World, by Benjamin Barber. It's an intriguing thesis because he's suggesting that, in some ways, we need a bit of a return of the city-state. When so many people live in cities, the significance that municipal and mayoral power has for good—or for ill—is something we really have to take seriously, in which case it would be puzzling why Christians would still remain so invested in federal and presidential electoral politics, but at least in my experience, have not had much energy at all for municipal politics and policy-making.

Does it look different from where you sit? Do you see Christians active in that? Should we be, if we're not?

TK: I think Christians outside of the centre city, where you still have a lot of professionals and all that, are actually more involved in local politics. But here in New York, the centre city Christians aren't, as much, and I think that's a mistake, yes.

For example, we have things called community boards that make decisions about zoning and big projects and things like that. The joke is that the community board can't do anything, it can just say "no" to things.

In the Bronx, you might hear the community boards open and close in prayer because most of the civic leaders are black and Hispanic Pentecostal pastors; and in Brooklyn, many of the local leaders are rabbis; and in Queens, so many of the local leaders are Asian Christians. Only Manhattan feels secular when you go to the community boards.

JS: Is there any downside we should be aware of or worried about with renewed Christian concern for an investment in cities? Is there a shadow side to this new conversation and fascination that you've seen or that you worry about?

TK: Well, if you get ahold of that book, The Fundamentalist City?, there's an article by a Queens College professor, Omri Elisha, who did a study of white megachurches in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area and their renewed concern for helping the inner city of Knoxville and helping the poor of Knoxville. This included people who moved into the city in order to live amongst the poor and help them. Despite all their good intentions, he found that white evangelicals in particular simply don't take the racism of the past seriously enough.

They throw their money around. They think that all the problems of the poor are problems of lack of personal responsibility. They seldom really think about structural changes to the city itself or the tax structure or the way in which capitalists deploy capital to their advantage. They just don't think like that. He found that they bring in a fairly atomistic, and politically conservative, understanding of how culture changes, which then limits their long-term impact.

JS: That's insightful. There's intent and new energy and concern, but it really comes with, well, theologically you might say, an inadequate appreciation for the systemic features of sin and its structural expressions and repercussions. That's an important caution.

In closing, what do you see as opportunities and challenges on the horizon for Christians who have really a quite intentional focus on Christian witness in and to and for the city, particularly in North American contexts? Where do you see the opportunities and challenges?

TK: When I'm thinking about the challenges here, I guess one of them is inclusion in the political process. It's hard to get new immigrants included in the political process and they can be alienated. But it's also true that Christians don't know how to just play a role in the political process.

I guess I'm thinking about the last chapter in George Marsden's new book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, where he says he believes that whereas the Christian Right just didn't understand pluralism, the Left today doesn't have any good concept of really including religious people in a pluralistic society. So he was hoping for more inclusive pluralism.

I think it's crucial for the cities right now to figure that out, and I do think it's pretty tough because just as I said, in a place like New York, the burroughs are very often relatively religious, and yet downtown, right in the centre, at least, you might say the elites have no concept of how—not to "let the religious people have their place at the table," but just how to include them in the process. They just don't have any idea how to do that.

And Christians, by and large, are fine with that, I think, at least Protestant evangelicals. They have a privatized view of faith and they're here to make money and enjoy the city and win people to Christ. And so then everybody's happy, but that doesn't mean it's ideal.

JS: Right, exactly, because you've basically bifurcated everything and we're almost functionally happy to live marginalized: "Just let us go to work."

TK: And these "secular" powers don't have any better way of understanding that either. But the result is actually a less inclusive, diminished society. It seems to me if we're going to do pluralism, and it looks like we're going to have to do pluralism, it ought to be as rich and as civil and as inclusive as possible, and cities would be good places for that.

JS: It's really interesting to end on this note, because is there any place more pluralist than our cities? They're just such intense conglomerations of worldviews and lifestyles and so on. Now those same "elites" you describe tend to applaud pluralism—but with limits. And the limit increasingly seems to be religious voices.

Could you imagine a scenario in which that limitation plays itself out and people start realizing that not hearing religious voices diminishes the richness of the city? In other words, could the secular elite itself get to a point where it realizes it's getting diminishing returns on the echo chamber that it's created for itself?

TK: I guess I can imagine it, Jamie. I'm only imagining, by the way. I'm not predicting, but the first reason I can imagine it is because it's almost hypocritical, since the talk about diversity and pluralism is their narrative. That's their moral good: diversity and pluralism and learning from each other. And so if somehow you could point out that they're not letting that happen, then in a sense they don't believe their own story.

I'll give you an example, which is actually a positive example, as fleeting as this is. The Columbia Teachers College has an annual academic festival. It's just an alumni and student festival and they have seminars and stuff in it. You know how you academics are. You love seminars. (laughter)

I was asked to come in. There's a rabbi from Newtown, Connecticut, the Hindu chaplain at NYU, and me, and we were all asked, "What does your faith tradition, what does your religious tradition contribute to social activism toward the common good?"

The person who asked us to do this was the director of Clinical Psychology for Teachers College, Lisa Miller, and she chaired it. I don't know what her motivations are, but what we were able to do, which was fun, was we were not only able to all show how our faith gave us resources for this, we were even able to push back a bit when one man said, "Well, I'm Jewish and I've got a son, and I'm just taking him to Yale (or something like that), and I suggested he go to Hillel, and he says, 'I don't need religion to be an ethical person.'"

And we pushed back, we all pushed back and said, "Look, it's not just that religion is a motivator, but also if you don't believe in a God or the good or something, if you really believe that we just evolved and if you're a complete materialist, and it was a little difficult, you can have moral feelings, they're there because they evolved, you know, but it's impossible pretty much to have a case for moral obligation, to say that this is just, that is not just, and you need to stop doing your unjust actions."

We pushed back and everybody got quiet, and at one point somebody asked this question—this is answering your question, honestly, this is not just rambling (laughter)—somebody asked the question, "When bad things happen to good people, what do you answer?"

The Hindu, I'm so glad he gave the answer because it was the right answer for him. He said, "Well, we don't believe there's such a thing because if you are suffering something bad, it's because you did something bad in a former life, and therefore there is no such thing as unjust suffering."

Everybody was surprised. Now here's what I did. I could have said, "Well, for Christianity, Jesus Christ dies and He suffers with us by the love and mercy of God," etc. But I decided not to make points there. Here's what I decided to do, which ended up being more effective. I said, "Could I respond to that?" Everybody, "Yes, of course."

I said, "I would like to not give the Christian answer. Instead, I would like to just point out to our audience this: of all three of us, Christian, Jew, and Hindu, that is the tightest, that's the most air-tight argument that anybody can give to the problem of unjust suffering." I said, "I can't give it, because I don't believe it. I don't believe in reincarnation, but I must say, I've often envied the Hindu who can say, 'There's no problem.'"

"Now," I said, "having said that, I don't believe it because I don't believe in reincarnation," but I said, "Now can't you see how wrong it is to say that 'all religions are alike?' Do you not see that by flattening us, by saying, 'Well, I don't have to be religious because all religions basically say be a good person and I'm a good person,' don't you see that the different religions bring very different goods to the table?"

We all have different things to say, all so different. We do not say the same thing, and when it comes to dealing with suffering, these are different answers, and I said, "I don't want you to be lazy. I do not want you to do the lazy thing and say, 'We don't need religion and all religion is the same.' They are very, very different. You need to make up your mind and do the hard work."

Everybody got so quiet. Evidently, the whole seminar was over-the-top positive. The people that were there just said, "We've got to keep doing this."

Lisa wrote me at length and said, "You know, I'm afraid at a place like Columbia, we just never do something like that."

JS: That is a rich expression of, and probably experience of, pluralism that you ended up fostering, and you even got them to appreciate the pluralism of religious viewpoints.

TK: Right. And instead of trying to win that argument—I think I could have actually said something that would have been more attractive; I could have said, "You know, Christianity does believe there's such a thing as unjust suffering, and we do not feel like we can explain it away." I could have done that—but in many ways, I think that it was better to strike a blow against the secular idea that religion is really not important, and basically all religions say the same thing.

JS: Yes, amen. And then to get such a positive response to fostering that kind of a conversation is a sign that actually people might want something that they don't even know.

TK: I hope so; I don't know. It's quite another thing to get Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio to think that it's a good idea. At this point, I see signs of it. The city is so overwhelmingly religious between growing Islam and Pentecostalism and new evangelical churches downtown and ethnic churches. Mark Gornik believes there's been at least 100 to 150 churches started by Africans—Africans, not African-Americans— in New York City in the last decade. When that happens, at a certain point will the powers that be start to perhaps notice? We might force their hand.

JS: Absolutely. Thanks so much for thinking out loud with us. I really appreciate it, Tim.

TK: I'm glad to be part of what you're doing, Jamie.


Dr. Timothy J. Keller was raised in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania and is a graduate of Bucknell University (B.A., 1972), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1975), and Westminster Theological Seminary, where he received his D.Min in 1981. He became a Christian while at Bucknell University, due in large part to the ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, with which he later served as a staff member. He was ordained by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and served as a pastor in Virginia for nine years, while also serving Mid-Atlantic Presbytery's director of church planting for the PCA. He was an associate professor of preaching on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from 1984-1989 while also serving as the Director of the Doctor of Ministry program.


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