I Heart Fill-in-the-Blank

It is cause for concern whenever the appeal is to cultural trends as to why the church should do anything, as in we should be pro-urban “because the culture is becoming more pro-urban, because the trend for the next fifty years is going to be pro-urban.”

But even more curious, at least to me, is how being pro-any place finally coincides with any notion of cultural transformationism. Doesn’t transforming a place (urban or rural) sort of assume there is something fundamentally wrong with it such that it needs to go from this to that? Pro-urbanism may think the problem with the rural is that it isn’t urban and vice versa, and those Hatfield-McCoy kinds of squabbles can be part of what makes America interesting. But transformationism seems to go in another direction and cast doubt on the essential very goodness of whatever place. I know that if Redeemer Traverse City broadcast a vision statement to change my rural northern lower Michigan hometown it would be very unsettling. I likeTraverse City the way it is. I wouldn’t change a thing. It seems to me that anyone who counts Manhattan as his beloved hometown might think the same thing.

Ironically, I can’t help but think the original and abiding mission of something like RNYC (“To build a great city for all people through a gospel movement that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, to the world”) carried with it the very naive Americanism borne of a few too many novels and movies Keller evidently now wants to deconstruct: the City is mean and dirty and we the church are going to change all that. If so, that’s laudable. Whatever else it signals, it might be evidence of moving in the direction of an affirmation of place and away from a mentality that sees any place as a target for re-packaging. Still, I do wonder how easy it will be to move from the mindset of transformation to cultivation. If cultural trends are indeed driving us, as the good pastor suggests, then to the extent that the American trend is to transform and improve instead of cultivate and maintain this may be easier said than done.

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6 Responses to I Heart Fill-in-the-Blank

  1. Patrick says:

    Don’t you think the church should try to reach people in whatever sort of situation they live? If people are moving to urban areas, but the church remains concentrated in the suburbs, then many people will not hear the Gospel.

    “Doesn’t transforming a place (urban or rural) sort of assume there is something fundamentally wrong with it such that it needs to go from this to that?”
    No, transforming a place can also assume that places change all the time, and you can’t control it, but you can try to harness it to make the place better. When Keller talks about NYC, he talks about it in context of its constant, rapid change. If we have any normative values about places at all (and perhaps you don’t), then we can see that some changes make it better and some change make it worse. So trying to direct change for the better, by preaching the Gospel, should not be offensive to you.

    Maybe this is a fundamental distinction between urban and rural: rural places change rarely, and hope to be preserved, but urban places change constantly, and hope to be improved.

  2. Patrick says:

    notify

  3. Patrick says:

    (sorry, just trying to add notification for new comments)

  4. Zrim says:

    Patrick, I’m not sure I understand your point about harnessing change in order to transform a place. Maybe you could elaborate. But even if your fundamental distinction is accurate then I have to wonder about the priorities of the urban place: it may hope to be transformed but preservation is a superior task.

  5. Patrick says:

    My point is just that cities change constantly, whether their citizens like it or not. That is, they are always transforming on their own. So there is no contempt in trying to transform an urban place for the Gospel. And since the culture, people, and form of cities is not constant, people like Keller use these changes as opportunities to speak the Gospel.

    For example, NYC in the 1980s was a different, more dangerous place. But in the 90s and 2000s, crime has declined, and it’s become very popular with hipsters and yuppies and the like. Keller’s church ministers to these people, because he is taking advantage of change happening anyway, and trying to harness that change to minister to the city, and tranform (pardon my french) it into a more Gospel-centered place. Note that this transformation is not contemptuous of the place itself – the place itself isn’t constant and doesn’t want to be.

    I don’t want to reopen old arguments. We clearly disagree on the potential for the Gospel to make changes in the real world, and that seems to me to be a legitimate theological dispute (which you are far more capable than me of arguing). But I don’t think it’s fair to say that the transformationalists are contemptuous of places because they want to change them for the better. Cities are going to change anyway; there’s no contempt in trying to nudge that change toward a more Gospel-centered direction.

  6. Zrim says:

    Patrick, if RNYC’s mission statement is any measure (“To build a great city for all people through a gospel movement that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, to the world”), and I think it is fair and charitable to say that it is since that is the point of any mission statement, then here is where I stumble: it sounds pretty active. What you seem to be proposing is that transformation is actually pretty passive, as in it responds to something already happening. So I guess I wonder how well your theory represents what RNYC is really trying to do.

    But you make a fair point when you say it isn’t fair to portray transformationalists as contemptuous of places because they want to change them for the better. I tend to think that what they mean is that they want to be good citizens of their place. But I also think that the language used to convey that is misguided and ends up conveying something very different. Try a thought experiment at a more personal level: is it better to pursue a friendship with someone in order to transform him into an image I contemplate or in order to cultivate a meaningful relationship for its own sake? Personally, I’d be very skeptical of someone who thought of me more as a project to be fixed than a human being to be engaged. I think what is at play in social transformationalism is also at play in certain notions of personal evangelism and witness. I’m not sure the result is all that noble.

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