Andy Crouch: Celebrate the city

Across the U.S., churches today are called to embrace the city and to teach their people why cities matter, says the journalist and author.

Editor’s note: Andy Crouch was a featured lecturer at “Form/Reform: Cultivating Christian Leaders,” Duke Divinity School’s 2012 Convocation & Pastors’ School.

For generations, American Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has been built on suburbanization, with the church at best ignoring -- and at worst pathologizing -- the city, Andy Crouch said.

But that is changing as cities have become attractive places to live and a new generation -- valuing location over occupation, place over job -- is flocking to live there, Crouch said.

The author of “Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling,” Crouch is the executive producer of “This Is Our City,” a multiyear effort by Christianity Today to examine how Christians are seeking the flourishing of cities.

“We wanted to ask, ‘What does it mean for Christians to be fully involved in the life of thriving cities?’” Crouch said of the project.

Crouch spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about the church, cities, culture making and power. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Tell us about “This Is Our City,” the project you’re heading for Christianity Today. What’s that about?

At a conference a few years ago, I heard Richard Florida, a well-known student of cities and urban life, say that when baby boomers meet each other, the first question we often ask is, “What do you do? What’s your job?”

But the first question younger people ask is, “Where do you live?” I think he’s right. The cocktail party question has changed, and that resonated with me.

There is a shift happening in American life in how people identify themselves. The roots of identity are shifting from occupation to location, from job to place.

There are a number of dimensions to this. One is that Americans are moving less than they have in at least 40 years. The high-water mark of mobility in America was the 1960s, when roughly one in five families moved in a given year.

That was the era of suburbanization, when people were leaving central cities -- and rural areas, too -- and moving to this in-between, bucolic place where you could have a place of your own and be relatively disconnected from other people. Maybe you commuted into a city, but your identity was in what you did, which is why people could move so readily.

Now, for a couple of decades, mobility has been declining, and in the 2008-2009 financial crisis it fell off a cliff. But at a deeper level, what’s going on is that we are questioning the suburban narrative.

And by that I don’t mean that we’re questioning suburbs, which are still attractive places to live for many people. What’s being questioned is the narrative of being cut off from the cities that ultimately sustain the suburbs.

What’s being questioned is this vision that where you live doesn’t matter; it’s what you do. There’s a new generation that’s not so sure that’s the best life.

If you ask younger Americans where they want to be, they want to be in cities.

That’s because of a couple of things. One is that many cities have addressed the reasons people did not want to live there. It used to be that cities were just a place to work and emptied out at night. Crime was a huge issue.

Well, crime has diminished dramatically. The city has become the place where people want to live and work and play. There’s art and restaurants, and it’s so different from 20 or 30 years ago.

Q: What’s Christianity Today’s interest in this?

American Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, was built on suburbanization. Evangelical Christianity thrived through very entrepreneurial moves to embrace suburbanization, although in many ways the mainline churches, especially in the first wave of urbanization, were there as well.

It felt like we needed to look at how Christians are re-engaging with cities -- not just providing services out on the edges or in suburban neighborhoods. We wanted to ask, “What does it mean for Christians to be fully involved in the life of thriving cities?”

But rather than stay at an abstract level, we picked geographically and historically diverse cities. Our first two were Portland, Ore., and Richmond, Va.

I don’t know if you could pick two more different cities. Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, founded in 1737, a city of churches, a legacy of Christian presence -- but also a legacy of implication in some of the most tortured parts of American history, site of the second-largest slave market in the United States.

Portland, on the other hand, is a relatively young city in the Northwest, not a city of churches -- never been churched. When we started, we thought Portland would be an example of post-Christian culture, but we got there and we realized it’s not post-Christian; it never was Christianized. It was never part of Christendom. It never had that dominant Protestant establishment that Eastern cities have.

We also have a “seventh city,” which is wherever you live. We’re encouraging people to alert us to stories of Christians in other cities that are interesting places where people are doing really good work.

Q: What are you finding? Do you have any lessons to share yet?

Yeah, I think so.

We are especially interested in stories that go beyond the walls of churches. Churches in every city are doing incredible things to serve their neighbors. But we were looking for something different, and that was models of Christian public participation that are connected to other institutions.

In Richmond, for example, we found out that the director of the city’s Department of Public Health and one of his key lieutenants are both people whose Christian faith has shaped the way they see their vocation and the city’s public health problems.

They work in a secular context, but they bring their faith into their work in a very explicit way, and they’re partnering with churches in that work.

For example, they have identified “fatherlessness” as a core public health issue in Richmond. They felt like many traditional public health issues are symptoms of the absence of fathers in families.

That’s an empirical judgment they made, backed up by data, but it also was shaped by Christian conviction. Then they’ve worked hard to get the faith community involved in addressing fatherlessness.

That’s the kind of story we have found not just in places like Richmond, a city of churches, but also in Portland. There, a movement of churches and Christian organizations partners with city leaders to volunteer. They’re doing it in coordination with the public schools and with neighborhood associations.

There’s this close interaction between Christian individuals and institutions and the citywide institutions.

That is new, especially for evangelicals. Evangelicals have a history of not being closely involved in the institutional life of their cities. But this is changing dramatically.

Q: In an essay about the project, you wrote, “When we say, ‘This is our city,’ we’re staking a claim to a certain kind of Christian responsibility.” What do you mean?

The church has tended to have two postures toward the city.

One has been indifference, a kind of pragmatic separatism that happens when we don’t acknowledge either the problems or the gifts of our cities.

One way we can go wrong is to narrate our lives without respect to where we live. We tell stories about what happens in our families or workplace, but we don’t touch on what it means to be part of this particular community.

The other posture would be a pathologizing of the city, in which we talk about it as a place that desperately needs charity or service, which the church then is called to help provide.

That’s a step up from indifference, but it still falls short of what we are trying to get at with the phrase “this is our city.”

We don’t mean “this is our city” as in “This is the Christian city, and the rest of you need to get in line” but in the sense of sharing in something that is worth celebrating.

We have Christian reasons, biblical reasons, to think that cities are worth celebrating. God’s gift to humanity at the end of the story in Revelation 21 is a city. Cities are not just an agglomeration of problems but also an incredible creative fusion of resources.

Q: Cities are places where some of your major interests -- culture making and power -- come together, aren’t they?

That’s right. I’ve been very interested for several years in three topics that all go together: culture, creativity and power, and cities.

Density and diversity are the hallmarks of cities. When we’re in cities, we’re confronted by cultural diversity in a healthy way.

It is because of their density and diversity that cities are engines of creativity. A lot of creativity comes from unlikely partnerships between people who would not have met if they had not been thrown together.

Christians ought to care about culture and creativity, because it’s God’s intention for human beings to cultivate the world, and because we worship a creator God.

And where does creativity and culture come from? Well, it comes from the exercise -- hopefully, the beneficial exercise -- of power in the world, and cities concentrate power for better and for worse.

Power is the gift of acting in the world, of doing something worthwhile with the world that we’ve been given. But it also can very easily be the act of playing God in the world and misrepresenting the true God in the world, and all that comes together in cities in a very keen way.

Q: As you’ve pointed out before, the church has a very mixed record when it comes to the use of power. Speak some to that.

Power in its most basic sense is at the root of activity. You can’t act in the world even in the most mundane way without power. That’s why we eat -- to generate energy that allows us to move and act in the world.

So power is fundamentally a gift, but like every gift ever given to human beings, when it is separated from relationship with the true God and true relationships with one another, it becomes very dangerous and toxic and distorting.

And when you concentrate toxic, dangerous, distorting stuff, it just gets all the more dangerous.

The one thing that people always say when I tell them I’m working on power is Lord Acton’s famous quote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This is why cities are so helpful -- because you can’t ignore the concentration of power in cities. Which raises the question, Is there a way to live with concentrated power and have it bring flourishing rather than distortion?

I think that is in some ways the essential ethical question of our time and every time. Can we live with the power we’ve been given? A lot of us have been given a lot of power.

Q: Tim Keller has written that cities are also places to which people without power flee for safety. He says “dominant majorities often dislike cities, but the weak and powerless need them.” What does that mean for the church?

I think the call to the church, the biblical hope, is three things. They’re obvious, but they’re important.

One is to embrace the gifts of the city and to teach our people theologically and biblically why cities matter.

Most people who find their way to cities -- especially young people, but also immigrants who come from desperate circumstances -- are there for pragmatic reasons. In creative-class cities like New York and Portland, they’re often there for self-centered reasons.

So part of what the church has to do is give her members better reasons for caring about the city than the reasons that brought them there.

The second thing is that we need to be very clear-eyed about the failures that cities concentrate. Cities are places where not just the wealth and abundance of our culture is on display but also the things that have gone wrong.

The church’s job is not to become complacent about those things but to see the city as a laboratory for assessing the health of our society with honesty, being very clear about power and the ways injustice is woven into our institutions.

That can happen if the church doesn’t become simply a chaplain to the city but is also prophetic in the city.

Then the third thing for the church would be to contribute to the flourishing of the city. The church’s call is to find ways to make enough of a difference that, as Tim Keller has said, the city would miss us if we weren’t there.

Q: What should seminaries be doing to prepare people for the kind of ministry you’re describing?

The challenge with all culture is that we tend to take it for granted precisely at the moments when we should be paying attention and being intentional about how we interact with it.

Culture always fades into the background, whether you’re in a city, a suburb or a small town. We stop paying attention and we take it for granted, but leaders are people who don’t take things -- or the way things are -- for granted.

I don’t mean just in the sense that they’re constantly trying to change things, though that’s part of it. Leaders are also people who preserve what’s good in a place or in an institution, and to do that you have to be discerning and attentive to that place.

So I think that seminaries could do a better job helping us pay attention to the places where we are and to the ways they’re changing and also the continuities that are there.

If we don’t do that, we are going to form churches that have very thin connections to the world that God has placed us in and sent us into. I don’t want to say that we’ll fail in our mission, because the mission is ultimately God’s and not ours. But our participation in that mission will be much thinner than it could be if we don’t learn to really pay attention to where we are.