Christ and Culture – in the City

In 1951 the Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote Christ and Culture, which to this day remains a watershed book examining the relationship between church and culture. Though Niebuhr’s work is genius, the average Christian probably won’t want to invest the time and effort to navigate it (due to its philosophical and academic rigor). Thankfully, urban ministry pioneers Harvie Conn and Tim Keller have recast Niebuhr’s insights in the language of city-centered church planting. I came across their material in my study for our church planting series and thought it might be helpful to share it.

Five models for how the church relates to the city:

  1. Christ against the City. The city environment is partially to blame for the troubles of society. Small-town life is humanizing; the city is de-humanizing. Churches that buy into this model exist as fortresses that gather Christians together for warmth in the spiritually cold urban space.
  2. Christ of the City. Salvation = liberation for the oppressed. The church does not exist to build a distinct identity as the people of God, but simply to join the flow of history toward liberation and freedom. Churches that buy into this model have lost touch with the need for conversion of heart and life; they become little more than community centers, concert halls, and political action groups. They are mirrors celebrating and cheering the more liberal aspects of the city’s culture.
  3. Christ above the City. Cities are good places for Christians to live and grow… in a privatized, individualized way. Christians end up “using” the city for their own self-improvement, but give little back to it. They don’t seek to heal social brokenness or transform culture through their vocations. Churches that buy into this model end up with members who are very behaviorally “pure” but very worldly in the way they use their time and resources.
  4. Christ and the City in Paradox (i.e. the Pilgrim model). Recognizes both the brokenness of the city and the power of God for change, but sees these forces in a sort of dualistic tension with each other. Churches that buy into this model tend to be a “spiritual MASH unit” to heal people broken by the sinfulness of the city. They are very active in ministry but tend to have a short-term vision. They see their role as pilgrims… “this world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” Therefore they do not tend to be serious about seeking long-term structural and systemic change that would actually make the city better for all residents.
  5. Christ Transforming the City. Churches that buy into this model take seriously the kingdom promise of a renewed material world – the “new heavens and new earth” are not a completely new creation (ex nihilo), but rather God’s redemption of this fallen creation. Therefore they see their role in the city as working toward this end. Harvie Conn paints a beautiful linguistic picture:

Perhaps the best analogy to describe all this is that of a model home. We are God’s demonstration community of the rule of Christ in the city. On a tract of earth’s land, purchased with the blood of Christ, Jesus the kingdom developer has begun building new housing. As a sample of what will be, he has erected a model home of what will eventually fill the urban neighborhood. He now invites the urban world into that model home to take a look at what will be. The church is the occupant of that model home, inviting neighbors into its open door to Christ… As citizens of, not survivalists in, this new city within the old city, we see our ownership as the gift of Jesus the Builder (Luke 17:20-21).  As residents, not pilgrims, we await the kingdom coming when the Lord returns from his distant country (Luke 19:12).  The land is already his…in this model home we live out our new lifestyle as citizens of the heavenly city that one day will come.  We do not abandon our jobs or desert the city that is….We are to seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which God called us in exile (Jeremiah 29:7).  And our agenda of concerns in that seeking becomes as large as the cities where our divine development tracts are found.

Adapted from the Redeemer Church Planting Manual, c. 2002, Redeemer Presbyterian Church

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