Archive for the ‘Kingdom of God’ category

“Theologizing” the City in Europe

November 7, 2012

The unprecedented phenomenon of urbanization since the European Industrial Revolution has gone global, and shows no sign of letting up. Today, more than half of humanity is in, or within the domain of, a city. European Urbanisation is currently over 75% and is predicted to reach 82%.

The Industrial Revolution produced an entirely new urban reality requiring new paradigms for church and mission. Since the end of the Second World War, a new form of the city, the post-industrial, postmodern, globally-connected megacity or global city, is proliferating worldwide. All indicators suggest that this wave of urban expansion represents more than a mere extension of the Industrial Revolution: the emergence of the megacity portends another fundamental metamorphosis in human sociology with its own set of spiritual perils, missiological challenges and opportunities.

Urban missiology in the developed world is woefully out-of-touch and out-of-sync with today’s city-builders, each out to create his/her own idea of urban paradise. Inadequate theologies of the city and consequent non-theological understandings of modern urbanization have stifled the growth of urban churches and movements in European cities, and contributed to the demise of urban Christianity.

Harvie Conn argued: “Current evangelical discussions, as rich as they are, largely orbit around a missiology of the city more than a theology of the city…. Our missiological vision for the city must also be a theological vision of the city.” These new urban phenomena require fresh theological reflection, missiological creativity, and united action if Christian mission is to address the unprecedented opportunities, as well as potential new levels and forms of hardship and conflict for city dwellers, generated by the emergence of global cities. Urban thinkers and actors must give priority to a re-examination of the biblical data with regard to the theological meanings of the city and their significance for Christian mission.

French city theology pioneer Jacques Ellul, in his groundbreaking The Meaning of the City (1970), demonstrated that the abundant biblical data with regard to cities – human and divine, temporal and eternal, as places of rebellion and of devotion, as objects of judgment and of blessing – are, in fact, evidences of a well-developed theology of the city. For Ellul this theology seems prophetically intended to aid the church in her understanding and practice of mission during this age of global urbanisation. Ellul is probably the first biblical commentator to truly “theologise” the city not as a metaphor of human culture (e.g., in the tradition of Saint Augustine’s The City of God, early fifth century), but as a concrete social reality (e.g., in the line of Lewis Mumford’s The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformation, and Its Prospects, 1961).

Ellul wrote: “We are in the city, and this is one of the most important facts of our generation. It is absolutely indispensable that we realize what that means for us, for our actual life: the undeniable presence and influence of the city are of infinitely greater importance than the urban problem itself…. If the Word of God is clearly marked out for us in our concrete situation, and if at the same time as it takes hold of us (for our condemnation and salvation) it enlightens our understanding of that situation, and if we are truly involved in the city and the Bible shows us what we are in the city for and what the city signifies for us and our relation to her, then all that we have learned should form the proper nucleus for a science of the city.”

It is precisely this spiritual and theological “science of the city,” which is begging to be nourished so that it might mature and bear fruit in the form of a thoroughly biblical and missional theology of the city. Such a theology of the city would be a sufficient foundation on which to build sound urban missiology, allowing for the discovery and development of new paradigms and strategies of mission to Europe’s urban centres.

Such a theology would ensure that the church-in-mission

… comprehend that the essence of the city is not a random collection of sociological phenomena under purely secular powers, but rather a profoundly spiritual entity – the locus of spiritual powers vying for the souls of men.

… rejoice in the knowledge that the Scriptures portray a merciful and loving Creator who progressively takes pains to accommodate man’s insistence on city-building and city-dwelling, sovereignly carving out spaces in cities where his redemptive purposes may operate in the midst of human rebellion and perversion.

… marvel at God’s sovereign election of the human city – the very symbol of man’s rejection of God, – as the epicenter of his salvific act in Christ and his ongoing loving actions in human history, and understand that God’s election has resulted in the localization of the conflict of the ages in the world’s cities.

… be liberated to be intentionally, proactively, and strategically present in the cities, to engage their inhabitants both intelligently and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

… might labour with the assurance that the fruits of mission among redeemed peoples of diverse nations and in their centers of culture, their cities, will have some kind of real continuity in the New Jerusalem, and therefore, have eternal value.

With such a renewed theology, might Christian mission to the global city, as Harvie Conn once conjectured, in fact “provide the contextual instrument for fulfilling David Bosch’s prediction of an emerging paradigm shift in the theology of mission for our day”?

Ben Beckner

Harvie Conn, 1993, “A Contextual Theology of Mission for the City,” in The Good News of the Kingdom: Mission Theology for the Third Millennium, eds. Charles van Engen, Dean S. Gilliland, Paul Pierson, Maryknoll, N, Orbis Books, p. 101.

Ellul, 1970, The Meaning of the City, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p. 147-148.

Harvie M. Conn, 1994. “Introduction” in God So Loves the City: Seeking a Theology for Urban Mission, Charles Van Engen, Jude Tiersma, eds., Monrovia, California, MARC, p. v.

Benjamin Beckner, former urban church planter in several European cities and based in Lyon, France,
serves as professor of missiology, missions consultant, trainer and mobiliser for the church in French-
speaking Europe.

This article first featured in Issue 11 of Vista.
You can download the full pdf and previous issues here

My 4th July symphony for the kingdom

July 3, 2010

[This post is more of a personal reflection whilst on holiday in the USA. I hope regular readers will forgive the indulgent nature of the post, the slightly ‘high-brow’ style, and recognise its missional nature and intent.]

Patriotism is a particularly potent shaper of national identity myths. It’s difficult to escape this conclusion at the end of tonight’s 4th July concert here in small town Kentucky. The setting is spectacular; a balmy summer evening sitting around the county hall square with several thousand concert-goers listening to the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. The music is stirring; a programme designed to inspire and quicken the patriotic pulse by Copeland, Sousa, Harris, and Foster. The finale is truly moving, the promised ‘final bang’ is delivered with flawless timing. As I promptly get to my feet to join the standing ovation at the concert’s conclusion I am genuinely engaged by the power of the music to evoke emotion and fervour.

The music, the military symbolisms, the flags, the anthems. Each of them, aptly summed up in the words of the Orchestra’s conductor, an expression of, and testimony to, the freedoms enjoyed by the concert-goers. For this was America, the ‘land of the free’. My memories take me immediately to another land, far away, that is equally convinced of its own national destiny. I can remember shivering outdoors in the icy depths of winter as proud Russians were as fervently convinced by their own mythologies of the ‘motherland’. As a British citizen, in the face of two powerful and competing alternative patriotisms, I am at a loss to know how to respond. As a European citizen I am scarcely able to summon anything that might pass for patriotism; all such symbolism was stripped from the draft Constitution long before it got to the starting line. However, as a citizen of God’s transforming reign, I am both profoundly encouraged and profoundly disappointed.

The reasons for this are reasonably obvious to me, although I suspect there is a much greater subtlety to the issues than I am immediately able to summon for a blog like this one. I am disappointed by my suspicion that all such national identity myths are derivative of our created identity as ‘icons’ of God and of the Christian notion of a redeemed identity re-created in the likeness of Christ. Despite this, I am encouraged by a longer term eschatological perspective that describes the way that the Christian story of our origin and destiny will trump all alternatives that are limited in their scope to any particular nation, tribe, or tongue. I am encouraged that true freedom is no stranger to the prison cell, the torture block, the gallows, or even the cross. I am encouraged by the essential Christian vision of disciples who are pilgrims in lands that feed, clothe, and sustain them. Yet, each of these lands will one day have to relinquish their claims to the loyalty of their citizens and will have to cast their golden crowns, flags, and patriotic symbols before the throne of the Lamb.

Perhaps, at a very human level, I am also encouraged that deep down there is another factor at work. Our concert ended with a very un-American rendition of Pytor Illiyich Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’ overture, accompanied by the artillery of the Kentucky State Guard. Aaron Copeland and Tchaikovsky are fine examples of composers of patriotic music. If the tapping feet, the humming, and the many people surreptitiously accompanying the conductor’s baton indicated anything, it suggests that the best music retains a capacity to transcend its patriotic origins. Quite simply, the ‘1812’ overture and Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common man belong to the world, they belong to everybody. If great music is able to subvert its patriotic intentions, we can have greater confidence that the good news of Christ is not only for the Jew and the Gentile in all their cultural, ethnic, and national uniqueness, but that it is ultimately good news for the Jew and the Gentile beyond all cultural, ethnic, and national mythologies.

Two of the pieces that made tonight’s audience smile were those that offered variations of excerpts from more than one popular American tunes; Arthur Harris’s ‘Americana’ and Morton Gould’s ‘American Salute’. They got me looking forward to sitting down to listen to a performance at some point in eternity that is titled ‘Symphony for the kingdom’. I wonder which great musical works such a symphony would quote from?