“Theologizing” the City in Europe
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”?
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-
This article first featured in Issue 11 of Vista.
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