Exegesis of a City

When we discuss the task of the Church in a city, immediately we are struck by the necessity to address both macro and micro issues. In choosing to “address” the city, we need to remember two foundational issues that are often overlooked by God’s people living in metropolitan areas.

Ministering in a city-region involves significant
wisdom and discernment.

First, it is obvious that we need to place each individual city in its own context yet understand its place in the larger urban system. Because of globalisation, no metropolitan area exists in isolation from others. When someone asks you where you live, the answer depends not only on where you are but also on who you are talking to. For example, you would tell a neighbour which street you live on, a person from your region which community you live in, from your country, you would say which province or state you live in, or you would probably name the metropolitan center closest to your place of residence. Each “address” tells something about you: the living environment, the languages you use on a day-to-day basis, your lifestyle and perhaps your social status. Whether one approaches this subject from a perspective of what is happening globally, in city/regions across the world and then more locally, to one’s own municipality, or work in the reverse order, is not all that important. What is important is to see the interrelationships among the different addresses in which we live, from local to national to global. It is also important to adjust these “addresses” for the audience in question.

Second, when the Church addresses the city, we must direct our attention to urban realities. We also need to understand our own assumptions and framework. As we have seen, we will always want to keep our focus on a biblical perspective on cities.

Cities, Towns and City/Regions
Richard Sennett defines a city as a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet. The United Nations Population Fund documents the diversity of definitions for an urban category in its 1996 State of the World Population report. British urbanologist David Clark (1996) has clarified many of these issues in his most recent book. He calls a population of fifty thousand people or less a town or a village. On the other hand, cities are human agglomerations that have up to 200,000 residents. A metropolitan area or city/region has more than two million people, but a megalopolis is an urban region over five million. These distinctions are helpful because a country like Norway considers any human settlement of two hundred people as urban while Bénin, for example, only uses “urban” for places of ten thousand people or more.

Beyond definitions and the demographic function of cities known as “urban growth,” one may ask, “What is happening in our city/regions?” What were the conditions inherited from the past which have been transformed in these last thirty years that help us understand its present state? This is a fundamental question we need to explore if we are to understand the cultural context in which the Church finds itself. Our concern points in a further direction with a second question: “How will the Church reflect biblically and pursue relevant urban mission in the years ahead?”

Beyond definitions and demographic function of cities known as “urban growth,” one may ask, “What is happening in our city/regions?”

To answer these two questions, an attentive practitioner can use an ethnographic analysis of the culture in order to understand how social structures and human behaviour interact and influence a city. An ethnographic method is an excellent tool for the Christian practitioner who desires to study the knowledge and practices of people and the ways they use their freedom to dominate, transform, organize, arrange and master space for their personal pursuits. All people do these things so as to live, protect themselves, survive, produce and reproduce. To be successful one must master dominant tendencies so as to grasp where we have come from and where we are going as a society and what the mission of God in this culture will look like (see Lingenfelter in Greenway 1992; Bakke, Pownall and Smith 1996).

The description for cultural analysis that we use allows a practitioner to take seriously the fact that social activity is culturally and historically specific. Urban hermeneutics allows us to decode the contrasts between social structure and human agency, which is constantly at work in a metropolitan area. Social institutions—the basic building blocks of a city because of their far-reaching impact—are used by human agents to create urban systems and metropolitan structures. Human activities are constrained by these structures but are also enabled by them. In attempting to understand a city, neither activities nor institutions have primacy. This distinction becomes critical as we examine the biblical categories of principalities and powers in God’s project for human history.

City-region exegesis takes an investment of time and effort.

By grasping this geography of urban functions, we are looking at issues (the social dynamics, problems, needs, aspirations and worldviews) that are culturally and historically specific. Like the city itself, these issues reflect the prevailing values, ideology and structure of the prevailing social formation. A useful analytical, social and theological purpose is served by the empirical recognition that urban issues are manifest in geographical space. This implies that the resulting description will detail issues “in” the city as well as issues “of” the city. For example, an issue in urban space would include the consequences of population density in a census district that has 11,536 people per square kilometre versus the norm of 847. An issue of urban space includes attention to the socio-economic factors that go hand in hand with such population concentration.

To pursue this analysis, the practitioner will need to bring a high sensitivity:

  1. to micro details in the local context,
  2. with a concern for the larger worldview influences (understood as the macro issues),
  3. beyond a simple homogenisation of the data and
  4. to a true understanding of the differences so that we can appreciate the specifics of the area and the mission of the Church in the situation.

City/Region Exegesis
F.B. Meyer once wrote, “Christian missionaries should be strategists, expending their strength where populations teem and rivers of worldwide influence have their rise.” In this context, it is little wonder that we must rethink our urban strategies.

There are few experts in this field. Humility and teachableness are absolutely essential. Referring to the urban masses, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, asked his volunteers, “Can we weep for them? If you can't weep, we cannot use you.” There is no “magic formula” for a congregation to participate in the transformation of a city/region. In the following suggestions, we are attempting to facilitate how a person implements strategies to launch ministries in cities, not just to plant churches. Requirements to begin:

  • Large map
  • History book
  • Good shoes
  • A team within the congregation to study a city/region. This will make sure the vision and the results of the inquiry are more effective.
  • It would be important for an urban ministry practitioner to learn how to do “community development methodology.” The writings of Robert Lithicum and Judith Lingenfelter (Greenway 1992) are a good place to start (see bibliography).

For more information on the Twenty Steps of a City/Region Exegesis, refer to pages 44-46 of Lausanne Occasional Paper Number 37, Towards the Transformation of Our Cities/Regions.

(This article was written in collaboration with Rev. Klaus Keid of Germany, Rev. Robyn Pebbles of Australia and Dr. David Koop of Canada.)

Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.