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Thinking Out Loud

Faith in the City

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 29, 2011

Although I spent some of my happiest years as a minister in rural and small town settings, much of my life has been lived in cities like Dallas and Austin, Texas; Aberdeen, Scotland; and Louisville, Kentucky. And I have long been struck by the fact that so much of the New Testament is – for lack of a better word – cosmopolitan in outlook. The faith that was born in Jerusalem grew to maturity in places like Corinth and Rome. So I was intrigued by two recent essays in The Economist, both touting distinctively urban virtues.

The first essay (“The Capital’s Creed”) describes what the magazine calls “Londonism,” a new urban “creed” specific to London, England, which has found adherents among leading British leftists as well as right-leaning political sorts, including London’s former mayor, “Red” Ken Livingston (a well-known and notably left wing Labour politician) and its current mayor, Boris Johnson (an equally famed Conservative party politician). The philosophy behind both mayors is focused on London’s global leadership. It is characterized as “pragmatic about capitalism,” approving of “private development,” committed to state spending for improved infrastructure, and open to immigration. At the core of this urban creed, which anyone familiar with London will recognize in a heartbeat, is this belief: “The more open and multifarious the city becomes, the more it attracts people who want it to stay that way.” “Essentially,” writes The Economist, “it is a commitment to relentless growth and openness.”[1]

The second essay is an extensive book review of Edward Glaeser’s new study, Triumph of the City (Penguin Press). Glaeser’s book is part love letter to cities, and part critique of which sorts of cities tend to be most resilient to the inevitable ebb and flow of history and economic stress. Glaeser, “a Harvard economist who grew up in Manhattan,” calls cities “our greatest invention.” According to the reviewer, “proximity makes people more inventive, as bright minds feed off one another; more productive, as scale gives rise to finer degrees of specialization; and kinder to the planet, as city-dwellers are more likely to go by foot, bus, or train.” In his critique, Glaeser notes that the cities that function best do so because they attract diverse people and “enable them to collaborate.” Cities, he believes, are always more healthy when their success depends on a diversity of people and enterprises, rather than on a single monolithic industry or the kind of protectionism that excludes immigrant populations because they might compete.[2]

Strangely enough these two essays brought to mind a worship service I attended several months ago at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City where my friend, Scott Black Johnston, serves as senior pastor. It was Pentecost Sunday. Tongues of fire, in the form of red paper, floated down from the church’s high ceiling as members of the congregation from around the world read the story of Pentecost in their own tongues. The laughter of the congregation’s children frolicking among the falling paper flames blended with the voices of global Christianity at the same moment that the annual “Israel Day” parade made its way down Fifth Avenue. The proximity of the diverse peoples, their intelligence, imagination, love, and energy, their innovation and enterprise, all bundled together by the Spirit of God in this one place at this one moment! I can see why the crowd witnessing the first Day of Pentecost was “amazed and astonished” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2). I was pretty amazed and astonished just watching the reenactment in this diverse and crowded city church in the midst of this diverse and crowded city.

The experience left me wondering if there isn’t perhaps a Christian cosmopolitanism that we sometimes neglect, an appreciation for the synergy and spiritual vitality that are possible when diverse populations are drawn together. Cities have been characterized as secular, as pits of vice, and as lonely places where everyone fades into anonymity, depending on the commentator. But there is another side to cities. There is a faithful side to cities. Drawn by the Spirit of God from among all the nations, people also hear and believe and respond to the Good News of the Gospel, and out of their diversity, out of the proximity of bright minds and faithful hearts, out of the appreciation of difference as a good in itself, God can create among them enterprises that feed the hungry, that welcome persons from every shore, that heal the sick and provide an education. I wonder if St. Paul would have been inspired to think of the metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ had he not been acquainted with the great cities of his time, their arteries flowing with immigrants and artisans from every nation, their limbs and eyes and ears and feet as diverse as any gathering of the United Nations, or any Sunday morning worship service at a Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue.

This blog does not intend to slight the remarkable contributions of faith in small towns and villages anywhere in the world. But we have tended to praise these so often – certainly I have. And, perhaps, it is time to notice also what is sometimes lost in the shuffle, and to render a word of appreciation for the vitality of churches, large and small, in cities, varied in their ministries, diverse in the populations they serve, reminding us that difference is not a curse, but a virtue and an enduring blessing – in fact, a virtue that can make us stronger and a blessing that can contribute to endurance.

[1] “The capital’s creed,” The Economist, February 5, 2011, 65-66.

[2] “A tale of many cities,” Book review: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, by Edward Glaeser. The Economist, February 12, 2011, 91-92.


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