A New Kind of Urban Ministry
Exodus, Exile, and Expectation
The best news about Christians and the city? The church never left, even when the city was at its worst. Famously, in many struggling urban neighborhoods the only functioning institutions are churches and liquor stores. To be sure, a certain number of churches left with their members to the suburbs two generations ago, and no one seized the suburban opportunity more vigorously than evangelicals.
But most black churches stayed put in their old neighborhoods even when many of their members had left. International arrivals started their own churches in neighborhoods (and buildings) other Christians had vacated. A whole generation of community development-oriented pioneers, inspired by Dr. John Perkins, planted roots in the toughest urban locations through the darkest days of the 1980s and 1990s. In May 1992, I arrived at Penn Station in Manhattan on a Thursday afternoon just as (overwhelmingly white) commuters were fleeing based on unfounded rumors that the riots in the wake of the Rodney King beating verdict were coming to New York. I spent that weekend at prayer meetings in every borough, and at every one the churches were packed with lifelong New Yorkers and new arrivals. They were all there long before New York was so cool—committed to prayer, mission, and the flourishing of the city.
What gave Christians this kind of staying power? Some were sustained by the story of the Exodus, which has given strength to generations of Christians who find themselves under the thumb of one Pharaoh or another. The words of the Negro spiritual, "Free at last!" ring true wherever people are tempted to despair over intractable social conditions.
More recently, though, many urban Christians have recognized that the model of Exodus, with its emphasis on escape, can sometimes justify disdain for the places and people we find ourselves among. Surely a move to the suburbs has seemed like liberation for many urbanites, but the Exodus paradigm is limited when it justifies washing our hands of responsibility for Egypt. There is another equally significant model in the pages of the Old Testament—the stories of Exile. While the exilic prophets never gave up promising a return to the Promised Land, they also exhorted the exiles that exile was an opportunity for faithfulness and mission. Jeremiah's injunction to seek the peace of the city where God had sent his people (Jer. 29) has become a touchstone for a generation of urban Christians.
The Old Testament models of Exodus and Exile are valuable in reminding us that "we have here no lasting city." It is especially helpful to embrace the lessons of Exile, with its radical suggestion that even when God's people sojourn among neighbors who want nothing to do with God, they should actively seek their neighbors' flourishing.
Yet Exile takes us only so far as a model for Christian faithfulness today. There is one overwhelmingly obvious difference between the Hebrew exiles and Christ-followers in 21st-century cities: the Hebrew exiles were captives. Churches in every American city, on the other hand, are full of proud citizens and hardworking visitors, not captives. Most of us are not hapless exiles; we are purposeful arrivals.
In such a situation, the metaphor of Exile is quite misleading. Exiles have little responsibility for the powers that be. Even the Daniels and Esthers who rise to the heights of power are always marked as outsiders. But what if God's people were among the insiders—as, in a liberal democracy, every citizen is to some extent? What if the God-fearer is not just deputy assistant to the mayor, but the mayor himself or the one to whom the mayor is legitimately accountable? At that point, the language of Exile starts to ring hollow.