The new urban Christians
Religion & Liberty Online

The new urban Christians

“Should I not be concerned about that great city?” asks God of the prophet Jonah about Nineveh, which “has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.”

God is rebuking the recalcitrant prophet, who only carried out his assigned proclamation in Nineveh after a rather harrowing adventure on the high seas. After Jonah delivered his message, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” the Bible tells us that “Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.”

If Jonah embodies the spirit of withdrawal and the desire for God’s wrathful judgment on sinful human society, think of Tim Keller as the anti-Jonah. As he’s introduced in a piece he wrote for a recent issue of Christianity Today, “For 17 years, he has been preaching at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, distilling biblical teaching into arrestingly simple phrases that convey the radical surprise and gracious truth of Christian faith.”

Keller’s ministry is vital and engaged: “Keller’s vision of a church keenly committed to the welfare of its city attracts 5,000 worshipers each week to Redeemer’s four rented locations, sends them out into many forms of charitable service through the church’s ministry Hope for New York, and fuels a church-planting effort that embraces Baptists and Pentecostals as well as Presbyterians, immigrant neighborhoods as well as Manhattan.”

Keller writes in the piece, “A New Kind of Urban Christian,” that for the Christian church to properly and effectively engage culture, “We need Christian tradition, Christians in politics, and effective evangelism.” But these alone or combined are not enough. Keller believes that “as the city goes, so goes the culture. Cultural trends tend to be generated in the city and flow outward to the rest of society.” Large cities tend to attract young and vibrant people, who influence the course of the broader culture.

The sad fact is that the Jonah phenomenon has had an impact on evangelical Christianity in America. “Do I mean that all Christians must live in cities? No. We need Christians and churches everywhere there are people! But I have taken up the call of the late James Montgomery Boice, an urban pastor (at Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church) who knew that evangelical Christians have been particularly unwilling to live in cities,” he says.

With respect to the particular social and cultural issues faced in today’s large cities, Keller exercises an impressive sense of spiritual discernment. He argues that “we must neither just denounce the culture nor adopt it. We must sacrificially serve the common good, expecting to be constantly misunderstood and sometimes attacked.” Every city culture is going to have some points of moral commendability, which must be appreciated and built upon.

In New York City, for example, “the Christian teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation is welcome, but our sexual ethics seem horribly regressive. Every non-Christian culture has enough common grace to recognize some of the work of God in the world and to be attracted to it, even while Christianity in other ways will offend the prevailing culture.”

Keller concludes by discussing the concept of the Christian vocation, or the calling to work, as an expression of faith. The failure of the broader evangelical world to adequately address this concept is in part a result of the Jonah phenomenon. “We do not know very well how to persuade people of Christianity’s answers by showing them the faith-based, worldview roots of everyone’s work. We do not know how to equip our people to think out the implications of the gospel for art, business, government, journalism, entertainment, and scholarship,” writes Keller.

Regaining the spiritual depth of vocation is a key part of Keller’s mission: “Developing humane, creative, and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel can be part of this work. The embodiment of joy, hope, and truth in the arts is also part of this work.”

A part of Keller’s plan, as alluded to above, is the planting of churches throughout New York City. Stephen Wolma, former editor of Acton’s Religion & Liberty, recently graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary and was one of the few candidates accepted as a fellow into Keller’s church planting program. Wolma says, “Four years ago, God began laying the people of this great city on our hearts. My wife and I prayed that if we were to minister there, God would open the doors to make it possible.”

Wolma plans to move to New York with his wife Dana and two children to complete the Redeemer fellows program, in the hopes of planting a Christian Reformed Church congregation in the city. In an informational letter about this ministry opportunity, Wolma writes, “Highly motivated, educated professionals are the key movers and shakers in these global city centers. Less than .05 percent of them know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. What a difference they could make for the peace and prosperity of these global city centers and the world if they embraced the life-changing power of the Gospel!”

The financial costs for such a move are enormous, as one might imagine. “The cost of living in New York City is almost double that of Grand Rapids, and we’ll need $8,400 a month to cover the cost of ministry and living expenses for the first year. Please pray about and consider financially supporting this work,” writes Wolma. You can find out more information, including ways to assist the Wolmas, by contacting them by mail at: 7734 Eastern Avenue, Grand Rapids, MI 49508 or calling 616.698.7884.

The Acton Institute shares the commitment to the spiritual and material health and vitality of today’s cities. The Institute’s first “Toward a Free and Virtuous City” conference is being planned for September 14-16, 2006 in Chicago. The conference will apply “traditional truths to complex problems facing the modern city, such as the regulatory policy and the role of independent charities and non-profits in combating poverty.”

Speakers include the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute; Anthony B. Bradley, an Acton research fellow and professor at Covenant Theological Seminary; Rudy Carrasco, executive director of the Harambee Christian Family Center; and the Rev. John Nunes, professor at Concordia University, River Forest. Carrasco also wrote a feature article for Christianity Today earlier this year worth checking out, “Habits of Highly Effective Justice Workers.”

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.