Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Focus on the city

I was struck by this report of Tim Keller's address to last week's Lausanne Congress in Cape Town.

Keller, to me, is the most compelling of the US mega-pastors. He is an intelligent leader in a constituency where that is not universal (notice the report's rather daft reference to his "deep thinking"; so do certain evangelicals characterise someone who has an original thought in his head). He also has a deep commitment to social justice, which is a factor in his church's commitment to the urban community. It was on the subject of "the city" that Keller addressed the congress:

Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan told attendees of Lausanne III that if Christians want human life to be shaped by Jesus Christ then churches need to go into cities.

Cities are where churches can reach the next generation (young adults want to live in the city); reach more unreachable people (people are far more open to the Gospel in the cosmopolitan city than in their hometown); reach people who have a big impact on the world (filmmakers, authors and businessmen); and reach the poor (about one-third of city dwellers live in shanty towns).
It's difficult to argue when he puts it like that. But what are the implications of this for an established denomination like the Church of England? Should we be abandoning the countryside and stampeding for the cities? If we did, we'd only be doing what most other Christian denominations have already done in this country.
I don't really think that we should go all the way down that route. One of the attractive things about the Church of England is the commitment to be there for every soul in the land, rather than just concentrating on the exciting places. The Parish Church of St Martin-in-the-Sticks shows that every single person is important in God's eyes, even if they have lived in the same place for the last seventy years and aren't very interested in new ways of doing church.
But where I think Tim Keller's argument ought to impact on the Church of England is in our distribution of resources. In a time of financial difficulty and staff shortages, most Dioceses are still working with a model which involves spreading a decreasing amount of butter more and more thinly over the same amount of bread. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of rural incumbents who are asked to take on increasingly silly numbers of parishes as time goes by. In many cases these parishes, with tiny populations and congregations, could run themselves much more effectively than can the poor vicar, who is expected to manage nine other PCCs simultaneously.
The Church of England should not abandon the countryside. But if we are serious about church growth, fresh expressions, and mission-shaped church, we should take a leaf out of Keller's book. Resources should be focussed where they will be best used - in the towns and cities, where the majority of people are, rather than spread so thinly in the country that they have no discernable effect.

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