Today, we are pleased to offer a free download of a sampler for Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard’s new book, Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church. Read Timothy Keller’s foreword, the Introduction, and Chapter One of the book in PDF format here. The book is currently available on Amazon for 48% off. Please help us spread the word about this important new resource!
Cities as Centers of Worship
The discussion of the city’s influence becomes further intensified when we consider that cities also function as centers of worship. It was the great urban historian Lewis Mumford who claimed that this religious element of the city preceded even the economic and physical elements. “The first germ of the city . . . is in the ceremonial meeting place . . . because it concentrates . . . certain ‘spiritual’ or supernatural powers, powers . . . of wider cosmic significance than the ordinary processes of life.” The sacred aspect of the city stands “as the very reason for the city’s existence, inseparable from the economic sub- stance that makes it possible.” Cities are built upon the things from which humanity attempts to derive its ultimate significance. Whether centered around a mosque or a financial district, a cathedral or an entertainment sector, all cities are built in honor of and pay homage to some type of a “god.”
Many have bemoaned the advent of the skyscraper and its overshadowing visage over the traditional church steeple as signaling the demise of religion. Yet, while it is true that Western culture has increasingly distanced itself from organized religion, there is a sense in which we remain just as spiritual as ever. As authors like Tim Keller and David Powlison have reminded us, the default, irreversible mode of the human heart is worship. As the late novelist David Foster Wallace put it, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” It’s not if you’re worshiping; it’s what you’re worshiping. In the same way, it’s not a question of whether cities are centers of worship—cities have always been built around the things that their inhabitants see as holding cosmic significance—it’s a question of what a city is worshiping.
World-class cities are the largest religious communities in the world by virtue of their population density alone. And what do they tend to worship? People in cities “turn to false gods, such as power, fame, possessions, privilege, and comfort.” Consider the overarching cosmic narrative of Washington, DC: the pursuit of power. For the majority of the city’s residents, daily life is shaped by power. Whether one is running for political office, holding the keys to history in a renowned museum, lobbying for a legislative shift, or maintaining and measuring military strength at the Pentagon, power is the name of the game. One might say that the order of life—the order of worship, or the urban liturgy—is determined by the “idol” of the city. This is true no matter what the idols of your city are. To adapt Greg Beale’s thesis on idolatry, a city resembles what it reveres, either for ruin or for restoration.
The idea of the city as a center for worship becomes complicated when we consider the overwhelming number of personal narratives that are weaved into a city’s overarching story. Cities are centers of worship because they are filled to the brim with worshipers—people giving their lives away to realities they believe will fulfill them. Add to this the endless numbers of potential options for worship, and you find that city living has a unique way of fostering spiritual openness. “Cities tend to excite spiritual inquiry, both good and bad. The turmoil, the striving, and all that a city becomes seem to turn people into religious seekers.” Cities are centers of worship filled with people who worship, and all of these worshipers are very open to finding new objects to worship.
Some may find this spiritual openness threatening, but Christians ought to find it exciting. It is precisely this kind of urban spiritual seeking that provided the context for the rapid spread of the gospel in the first century. Craig Blomberg cites the following as a major factor in the quick advance of Christianity:
A cosmopolitan spirit grew, particularly in the cities, that transcended national barriers. Old tribal distinctions and identities were breaking down, leaving people ripe for new religions or ideologies to fill the gaps. The gospel would meet many felt needs in this climate. . . . Closely related was the elimination of many cross-cultural barriers to dialogue and the dissemination of new worldviews.
In this way, the global phenomenon of urbanization provides incredible opportunities for the spread and influence of the gospel that the church has not seen since its earliest days. The gospel is the one story that can rewrite all the misdirected stories that our cities are telling. It is the way that worship is rightly reordered and the way in which worship becomes life giving again. At bottom, the God of the gospel is who all worshipers are truly longing to find. Will they locate us, his people, in the city when they start searching for something to worship?
For more, download the foreword, introduction, and first chapter here.