How can the church best disciple her people for faithful service in the city?
With all that has been written and debated on this topic, I find myself gravitating toward the complementary doctrines of common grace and antithesis. (Tim Keller’s forthcoming book Center Church, in particular chapters 15-18, presents an excellent background and overview to this topic of cultural engagement.) Common grace affirms that God is indeed at work in the world outside of the elect, and antithesis highlights the real tension that exists between sin and grace in every aspect of our world. By drawing upon these two doctrines, I hope to avoid the pitfalls of undiscerning syncretism and uncharitable separatism—two pressing concerns regarding the mission of the church. My reflections here arise from my work equipping New York City professionals theologically, spiritually, and relationally.
The unmistakable Manhattan skyline, crowded by mega-structures launching into the sky, elicits the sense that great things happen here. It is this human-made grandeur crammed into a tiny island that electrifies many who come to the city. For those who become intoxicated with this vision there is a persistent drive to bring out the creative potential latent in this world. Yet, amidst all this grandeur and enchantment are the unrelenting effects of the fall—perverting and distorting all this wonder into pain, frustration, greed, pride, and enslavement.
One quickly discovers that there are, in the geographic space of this one city, two realities representing two very different loves—eloquently stated by Augustine as the “City of God” and the “City of Man.” There is common grace and antithesis in New York City, and it is critical for the church in fulfilling the great commission to prepare her people to engage this fearfully and wonderfully made city. Discipleship, rooted and flowing out of the gospel of Jesus Christ, must find its mature expression in the engagement of our world, taking seriously the sin and grace that pervades every inch of our world. For the remainder of this article, I want to focus on two discrete but connected expressions of common grace, highlighting aspects of the antithesis between sin and grace. My first point is that the common grace experienced in New York City provides a powerful vision of a unified humanity, and my second is that this unified humanity works toward the building of the institutions of a society that is flourishing.
It is utterly impressive what people can do when motivated by a common vision; nowhere is this more evident than in cities. The ubiquitous reminders of human-made greatness continually inspire people to work hard together—the kind of work that would inspire even Nietzche’s vision of the übermensch. Whether it’s the immigrant waking up at 5 a.m. to push his fruit cart to the corner of 38th and 5th or the Wall Street managing director appeasing his international clients into the early hours of the next day, the superhuman is alive and well in cities. These are people of every class and race dissatisfied with the status quo, driven by a vision of a new humanity. They have evolved beyond the antiquated need for God, triumphantly moving forward to create a great society built upon hard work and values decoupled from the outdated concepts of fearing and loving God.
This ethos permeates New York City, and this vision of a unified humanity working toward greatness can easily inspire the Christian and non-Christian alike; however, there is an important antithesis to discern. Nietzche rightly criticized a Christianity that would take people away from caring for and embracing this world because of other-worldly promises; yet, what he failed to adequately address is what we often overlook in our lives—the depth and breadth of brokenness in our hearts and in the world.
The failure to take into account the profound impact of sin leads to a critical misdiagnoses of our problem and sets us on a misguided course. Without the awareness of sin and its impact, we instinctively strive to become the übermensch, putting on “superhuman” qualities without addressing underlying motives that corrupt our behaviour. The übermensch begins with the incorrect assumption that we are essentially okay, and all we really need to do is to work harder, look better, become smarter, and have the right job to achieve that utopic existence. Despite repeated attempts to create this ideal life, the emptiness in our hearts and the drudgery of our work seems overwhelmingly resilient and persistent. A unified humanity built upon this übermensch mindset can only lead to a ceaseless struggle for power and dominance because it never addresses the fear and pride that motivates this vision. It should come as no surprise to know that Nietzche’s übermensch would become the philosophical precursor to Hitler’s Nazism.
In contrast, the gospel presents to us a very different vision of a unified humanity stemming from a vastly different diagnosis. The problem is not that we’re essentially neutral people striving to become better, but rather that we’re hopelessly selfish sub-humans in need of becoming truly and fully human. Jesus, as the new “son of man” uniquely addresses this fundamental problem by becoming the head of a new humanity, putting to death our old nature and bringing to life a very different spirit. Even though He was in very nature God, He took on the form of a servant, and taught his disciples that those who want to follow Him must deny themselves and die in order to live. His approach to a new humanity was filled with paradox and habits alien to our sinful nature. To become great, we must become the greatest servant. Those who are last will be first.
The life and teaching of Christ exemplified the seemingly foolish wisdom of God, which is critical for effective witness in and renewal of the city. The unfathomable potential of a unified humanity can only be rightly released when we die to ourselves and adopt the posture of a servant. Herein lies the great antithesis—this grand vision of a unified humanity will be propelled by either arrogant pride or humble servanthood, leading to two very different societies. Whenever human beings gather together, they amplify what is most present—either a love of self, driven by misguided self-mastery, or a love for God expressed in a self-mortifying, faithful dependence.
The salting work of the Christian in the city is to live out the reality of this new humanity—a humanity defined not by mere accomplishments and accolades but by how we respect and treat one another in the midst of great feats. In Christ and the gospel, we have not only the model of this kind of humanity, but also the grace to empower it. As Christians, we are called to unity to do great things; however, what must distinguish the work of God’s grace in this world is the manner in which we work toward these goals. How we do things is as important as what we accomplish, for when we choose to serve others, we inevitably must place ourselves upon a cross to point to Christ’s incomparable resurrection power. The church needs to recognize the power of a unified humanity tangibly present in the world, and use her witness to testify to a grace that builds this unity upon a head-turning, gospel-empowered servanthood.
Throughout history, when humans gather together they build—creating both tangible artifacts as well as intangible social networks. Together these creations produce institutions that embody the values and needs of a society. In the city, references to “Broadway,” “Wall Street,” or “5th Avenue” are iconic representations of far more than locations; they symbolize entire institutions that are deeply embedded into the fabric of our national life. These institutions are expressions of God’s common grace, allowing humanity to steward the resources of our world for greater flourishing. For example, financial institutions that grant loans to college students and entrepreneurs allow humanity to explore and materialize the inherent potential around us. Art institutions promote human flourishing as they catalyze further creativity and imagination.
Yet, we know too well that these institutions are not immune from the corrupting effects of the fall. When institutions, led by those driven by fear and pride, begin to operate primarily for their own gain and not for the sake of greater societal flourishing, they can wreak significant havoc. Brokenness manifests in institutions when they lose sight of the interconnectedness and interdependence with other institutions, failing to understand the impact of their activity on the life of other institutions. The financial collapse of 2008 and its lingering aftermath upon numerous societal sectors like the arts, family, education, and business is a painful example how the brokenness manifested in one institution can create a chain reaction of disastrous consequences.
As part of this web of societal institutions, the church can help her people recognize and promote the importance of institutions in our society, as they are necessary for the prosperity of the nation and our world. Too often, Christians are unaware of the significance of societal institutions and their integral connection to God’s sovereign providential care. This lack of awareness creates a significant disconnect between the world we inhabit and the faith we claim to profess, provincializing faith to mere personal and relational categories.
From a Christian perspective, institutions are instrumental expressions of God’s grandeur and glory. For example, when political institutions act decisively to correct injustices in our world, there is a tangible experience of God’s character of justice. When the institution of the family promotes a deepening care and nurture of its members, people concretely understand the love of God through the experience of parental devotion. A child growing up in a society with robust and healthy societal institutions concretely experiences the vibrant nature and character of God, making manifest in the invisible qualities of God in our created world. For this reason, the church has an important stake in promoting the health and flourishing of societal institutions. To help us understand how the church ought to interact with surrounding institutions, I turn to the Old Testament to highlight two different periods in Israel’s history—Israel in Jerusalem and Israel in Exile.
During the golden age of Jerusalem, nations would come to Solomon to marvel at Israel’s riches and splendour. Israel was a thriving Kingdom whose wealth and wisdom were actively sought by world leaders like the Queen of Sheba (as in 1 Kings 10). In stark contrast, when Israel was exiled, they lived as aliens in a foreign empire that threatened their very existence. Yet, it was into this exilic context that God commanded the Israelites to seek the good of Babylon, building houses and planting vineyards (see Jeremiah 29). This command would have horrified the Israelites—to remain in this foreign land and seek the prosperity of a city that represented cruel brutality.
Today, the church needs to wrestle with the significance and implications of this redemptive-historical context to inform how we engage the world around us. Often churches assume that they are in Jerusalem with all the comforts and security that it affords, when in fact, we are, in the words of the New Testament authors, “exiles” (1 Peter 1:1, 17) and “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11) in this world—citizens of a heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20) and a heavenly city (Hebrews 13:14). As volunteer exiles in a new era, the mandate remains the same as that of the Old Testament exiles, but how are we are to seek the prosperity of this city we inhabit in our modern context?
One application of this exilic paradigm would be to resist the institutional temptation to build our own “Jerusalem” churches, neglecting the importance of other societal institutions. Too often churches pull people out of the world for the sake of developing its own programs. In his book, The Living Church, the late John Stott expounded on the “double-identity” of the church, saying, “The church is a people who have been both called out of the world to worship God and are sent back into the world to witness and serve.” Stott argues that the church often becomes in-grown and, what may come as a surprise to many, suggests that perhaps it would behoove the church to meet only on Sundays and scatter for the rest of the week, “com[ing] to Christ for worship and go[ing] for Christ in mission.”
There is a definite need for the church to nurture and disciple God’s people; however, our exilic context ought to frame and shape what this discipleship looks like and what expectations we ought to have concerning life in the world. Life in exile is difficult, requiring sacrifice, contentment, and perseverance, and this becomes very evident in cities. We are not at home, but we are to live in this world promoting the good of institutions that advance societal flourishing.
Today, many Christians around the world feel torn between their calling to be faithful in the “world” and their calling to be faithful in the “church.” Unfortunately, these options are mistakenly presented as mutually exclusive categories. There is often pressure to leave our workplaces and our involvement in our local “secular” communities in order to serve the church. Yet, our calling is to be faithful to Christ who is Lord over all, world and church inclusive. The church needs to give her people a vision for why God would care about the world, providing theological rationale as well as practical instruction and encouragement. In this way, the church can model in our society what institutional grace and maturity looks like by seeking and promoting the good of the whole society and not provincially looking only toward her own expansion.
In conclusion, the role of the church in the city is not all that different from the role of the church in any other part of the world. We make disciples of Jesus Christ, praying that they mature in their spiritual discernment to distinguish between sin and grace, so that they can affirm and correctly name those things that are of God and those things that are of sin both inside and outside of the church. We move confidently forward by being filled with an increasing measure of God’s Spirit, relying upon the sufficient grace of the gospel that abounds in all times and all places.