Kaid Benfield Archive


Understanding urbanism, from a Christian theologian

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 29, 2011 at 1:30PM

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This post is eventually going to be about the Reverend Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and author of the best-selling book The Reason for God.  Keller, it turns out, has important things to say about cities. 

But first I must get personal:  I have an elusive relationship with religion.  That’s probably not very unusual, given the inherent unknowability of it all.  But I suspect those of us who carry around an uncertainty regarding things spiritual may experience it in very distinct ways.

In my case, I grew up a Protestant Christian, smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.  I went to revivals as a kid; there’s a Billy Graham training center in my hometown.  Probably nine-tenths of my social life revolved around the Methodist church, one way or another.  Kaid's home town church, Asheville's Central Methodist (by: US National Park Service)And, while I no longer observe religion in the same way as then – at this point, I would probably be some mixture of Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist if I practiced at all, which I don’t, generally – my religious upbringing had everything to do with my values of peace, justice, and stewardship.

I am who I am today because of who I was then.

And, despite the rather prominent voices of right-wing politics and intolerance we hear and see all around us in the name of religious fundamentalism, for me spiritual values remain essentially liberal ones:  being ethical means understanding and caring for others and showing decency and respect, not condescension.  I know:  easy to say, not always easy to do.

As a result, when I run across people of faith who are also leaders in the world of environment and urbanism, I pay attention.  They are, in a sense, speaking in a language that is deeply embedded in my consciousness.  There are few blog posts that I have enjoyed writing as much as my two-part interview with Christian environmentalist and urban planner Michael Abbaté a while back.  I have to admit that, when I hear of impressive faith-based initiatives for urban revitalization, such as those by Bethel New Life in Chicago, I’m rooting for them a bit harder than I might otherwise.

So, I was especially glad to run across an excellent essay on religion and the city by Aaron Renn, my colleague in the Sustainable Cities Collective and writer of the Urbanophile blog.  Aaron writes:

“Urbanists should take religion much more seriously than they often do.  That’s because it plays a much bigger role in the city and civic health than currently believed, and because many urban congregations have mastered the art of outreach and conversion in a way that transit and density advocates can only dream about.

St. Ignatius High School, Chicago (by: Eric Allix Rogers, creative commons license)“Churches have always been important institutions in cities.  Even today, the only reason many families with children are confident enough to stay in the city is because they can enroll their kids in Catholic or other religious schools.  I can only imagine what a place like Chicago would look like if its religious school network wasn’t there.  Religious institutions are also heavily involved in poor relief and other social service activities that help reduce the tax burden.”

Aaron cites examples of religious institutions doing great urban work in Indianapolis, where he lives.

It was Aaron’s essay that led me to Reverend Keller, who is a true believer in both Christianity and cities.  Keller delivered a plenary speech at an international conference on the future of Christianity last year in Cape Town, and prepared a paper beforehand.  It was all about what makes cities tick:

“Today, a city is defined almost exclusively in terms of population size.  Larger population centers are called ‘cities,’ smaller ones ‘towns,’ and the smallest are ‘villages.’  We must not impose our current usage on the biblical term, however.  The main Hebrew word for city, ‘iyr, means any human settlement surrounded by some fortification or wall.  Most ancient cities numbered only about 1,000–3,000 in population.  ‘City’ in the Bible meant not so much population size as density.  Psalm 122:3 refers to this density:  ‘Jerusalem, built as a city should be, closely compact.’  The word translated ‘compact’ meant to be closely intertwined and joined.  In a fortified city, the people lived close to one another in tightly compacted houses and streets.  In fact, most ancient cities were estimated to be five to ten acres, with 240 residents per acre.  By comparison, contemporary Manhattan in New York City houses only 105 residents per acre.

“In ancient times, then, a city was what would today be called a ‘mixed use’ walkable human settlement.  Because of the population’s density, there were places to live and work, to buy and sell, to pursue and enjoy art, to worship and to seek justice—all within an easy walk.  In ancient times, rural areas and villages could not provide all these elements, and in our modern time, the ‘suburb’ deliberately avoids this settlement pattern.  Jerusalem's Old City (by: acroll/Alistair, creative commons license)Suburbs are definitively dedicated to single-use zones—so places to live, work, play, and learn are separated from one another and are reachable only by car, usually through pedestrian-hostile zones.

“What makes a city a city is proximity.  It brings people—and therefore residences, workplaces, and cultural institutions—together.  It creates street life and marketplaces, bringing about more person-to-person interactions and exchanges in a day than are possible anywhere else.  This is what the Biblical writers meant when they talked about a ‘city.’”

Wow.  And that’s only three paragraphs of an eight-page essay.  

Aaron also includes a video talk by Keller, which you may access here, and which I found fascinating.  Now, a lot of what Keller has to say is about evangelism, or winning additional converts to his religion.  That’s not my favorite part of it, I must say.  But he evinces an important understanding of what is special about urban life, including the following:

  • Many cultural differences among people, requiring sensitivity;
  • A heightened importance of work and career;
  • An increased number of “edgy” people, who seek change;
  • Artists, who have their own way of experiencing life;
  • The importance of helping the poor, and what he calls “justice and mercy” initiatives.

Because he wants the church to succeed, Keller urges people of faith not to seek to change city dwellers but to embrace the diversity and energy of city life and what makes urbanites different from their rural counterparts.  if you’re interested, do read the essay and/or watch the video below.

Me, I may need more time with all this to thoroughly understand it and how I feel about it.  There are aspects of the whole religious gestalt that are, as I said at the beginning, elusive.  But my sense is that even those of us who are secular can benefit from Keller’s message of diversity, tolerance and, ultimately, urbanism. 

For a start, how are we going to improve our communities if we do not seek to understand each other?   That seems at the heart of Keller’s message, and I say amen to that.

I leave you with a somewhat lengthy video (17 minutes) of Keller’s speech in Cape Town.  if you have the time, you’ll learn from it.


  What is God’s Global Urban Mission? from Redeemer City to City on Vimeo.

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