Late last year Sean Benesh published “Metrospiritual: The Geography of Church Planting.” Seeding the Gospel always occurs in a particular soil – a context. Sensitivity to the local conditions will determine the viability of the plant, to a large degree. That is a very different assumption than the one most denominations and churches made just thirty years ago.
The contexts in North America are largely urban. This is Sean’s focus, and he has done some significant research. Sean has been strongly influenced by Canadian researcher, urban development guru Glenn Smith. This makes the thinking and the theology behind Sean’s writing richer in application to the Canadian context. Moreover, at the time Sean was planting a church in metro Vancouver.
Coming out of his dissertation, Sean has a lot more to share with us. His second book is “View from the Urban Loft.” I have really enjoyed working my way through the book. It’s reasonably short at 185 pages, and it is a tremendous introduction to a theology of the city. The marketing blurb reads like this:
“As the world hurtles toward urbanization at an ever-increasing pace, there arises the need for further theological reflection on the city. Globalization, international immigration, and densification in cities are having a transformative impact on the urban landscape. Urban mission is at the forefront of many denominations, church planting networks, ministries, and mission organizations yearning for citywide transformation.
“How are we to think biblically and theologically about the city? View from the Urban Loft will take readers through the development of cities throughout history, act as a guie to navigating the current forces shaping urban environments, and seek to uncover a theology of the city that gives Christians a rationale and a biblical understanding of the meaning and purposes of the city and then how to live in it for the glory of God.”
Sean opens the book with some integrating thoughts. He quotes Rob Linthicum in City of God, City of Satan to make this point: the Bible is an urban book! The world of Moses, David and Daniel, and even more so the world of Paul, was an urban world. From this thought rises a fundamental question: “What is God doing? Is he behind global urbanization?” (6) A bit later he asks, “What would happen if we viewed the city as a gift of common grace from God to people?” Then in chapter 3 Sean takes on a question that seems way too simple, but proves to be a bit hard: “What is a city?”
In chapter 5 Sean arrives at a negotiation point. He quotes from Jacques Ellul, a French sociologist and theologian whose writing has influenced many of us. In his book The Meaning of the City Ellul interprets the story of Cain and Abel as a backdrop for the rise of cities. Cain was a murdered. God promises to protect him, and then Cain builds a city. Was the first city a response of faith, or an ongoing attempt to escape from God? Ellul interprets the first city as an attempt to shore up a flagging sense of security, an attempt to take control into his own hands. But it is not at all clear from the narrative that this is what is occurring. Ellul sums up that “The city [is] opposed to Eden.” (56)
Yet as others have pointed out, the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. Surely we need not have such a negative theological grid for the city? More recent authors like Conn and Ortiz (Urban Ministry), Bakke (A Theology as Big as the City), and Swanson and Williams (To Transform a City) take a much more positive view. God is at work in the city — where else, that’s where the people are! And cities can be places of light and of grace as readily as they can be places of darkness. From here we move naturally to Jeremiah 29 and the admonition of the Lord to the exiles to “seek the shalom of the city.”
I’m about two thirds of the way through the book this morning. Later chapters include “Theology of the Built Environment” (13) and “Authentic Neighbourhoods and a Transformed City” (16). Sean is now a resident of Portland, Oregon so it will be interesting to see how his own theological reflection is impacted by the new location, so similar to Vancouver — and yet, so different!
View from the Urban Loft
Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications, 2011
Sean blogs HERE
Related, the Global TV documentary, Hip 2B Holy