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The Urban Church: Symbol and Reality

by John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 12-19, 1984, p.828. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There is a powerful political dimension to the present reality of our cities. The demise of so many of them has not been the result of an accident or of some inexorable force of history, but has come about because of consciously made political decisions. Cities first grew up around ports or industries, or at the crossroads of important trade or transportation routes. As the population expanded around those centers, political processes incorporated the suburbs into separate towns whose residents could pretend not to be dependent on the city and whose political concerns did not stretch beyond their own boundaries.

Super highways built with public money allowed suburban commuters to put larger and larger distances between themselves and the stresses of city life. As a result, the core cities were slowly reduced to near-bankruptcy, becoming communities of the poor, of the elderly and of ethnic minorities at the bottom of the socioeconomic system. They became dwelling places for those requiring the greatest number of social services, just as the necessary tax base to pay for those services eroded -- the taxpayers having fled to suburbia, where they could pretend that the pain of the city was neither their pain nor their fault.

During times of economic expansion and industrial growth, old city plants were often not modernized. Rather, new factories were built, usually on the outskirts of small towns in heretofore rural America, where the mechanization of farms made available a pool of cheap, plentiful labor. American industry became decentralized. During economic downturns, businesses tried to curb expansion and cut expenses by shutting down the older, more heavily taxed and less efficient central city plants. This raised urban unemployment to higher and higher levels, creating an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair and breeding the familiar problems of crime, drug addiction and alcoholism.

Our cities have been in a relentless depression -- a depression, not a recession -- for the past 25 years. As technological advances have continued and our national economy has evolved into an international one, and as we have shifted from an industrial into a computerized informational society, the old industrial cities have once again paid the primary price. The clean industries of the informational society have added to the wealth of the South and the West, drawing in the educated and the affluent, while leaving behind the less adaptable industrial workers.

Economically, our world is divided not so much between the capitalist West and the communist East as between the economically developed Northern Hemisphere and the underdeveloped Southern. But cities are often pockets of poverty in the Northern Hemisphere, sharing many of the problems found in the underdeveloped nations. Indeed. American cities are now largely inhabited by those with a Third World ethnic background.

Urban ministry in today’s America must be carried on in places where the church does not have the power to control or change the realities it confronts. That is not, however, a prescription for inertia. Those in power need to be made more sensitive to the effects that national political decisions have had on our cities. We need to be called to the awareness that American society will not be stable, just and secure until the issues of unemployment, welfare benefits, adequate housing, proper education and humane social services are addressed from national, rather than local, perspectives. If the problems of our cities are the results of political decisions consciously made in the past, then it is possible that political decisions consciously made in the future can re-create those cities into what the are capable of being: cosmopolitan examples of the rich an variegated life of an increasingly small and interdependent planet, where humanity in all its diversity of race, sex, national origin and religious creed can be celebrated with a joy that borders on worship.

While the work toward such a national political consciousness goes on, however, churches must still struggle to live and bear witness in the city. Church structures are still visible, congregations still meet for worship, and life is still lived in our cities. That life may be broken, distorted, angry or even hopeless, but it goes on. No matter how hidden or how dim, the Kingdom of God is still present. Some people tend to denigrate urban church activity, calling it a Band-Aid ministry. I do not share their point of view. I recognize that many of the things we do deal with are symptoms rather than causes of the urban plight, but I also believe that when people are hurt and bleeding, Band-Aids are better than nothing; that some hope is better than no hope; that a dim sign of God’s presence in the city is better than no sign. I rejoice that the urban church is a place where people still gather to share victories and defeats, little successes and quiet achievements. Patching one another’s wounds is no small accomplishment.

I am privileged to be the bishop of an urban diocese. I am pleased that I have the opportunity to support urban churches -- many of which are not economically viable -- and to nurture urban clergy, many of whom are not successful by the traditional measures of success. I rejoice that the church continues to raise up its sons and daughters to seek priestly vocations in our cities, and I am dedicated to maintaining the presence of our ecclesiastical structures and our worshiping communities in the depressed areas of urban America, no matter what the cost.

The very presence of the church in the inner city is its most effective message. The church’s power may lie not so much in what its members say or do as in who they are. The gospel is proclaimed not through rational words or well-planned programs alone, but through effective symbols.

The city reflects the wide variety of human experience -- a variety in race, national background and lifestyle. Building a cohesive community out of that diversity is a primary urban need which the church, simply by being there, helps to meet. The church defines itself in the universal terms of the gospel, announcing that this Christian community is for all people. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, bond nor free. As St. Paul stated, “In Christ shall all be made alive.” Because the city, unlike most suburbs, is not monochromatic, the church’s universality comes most dramatically into focus there.

Who are the people of the city? Some are the alienated, the victims of racism, of neglect, of age. The city is frequently the home of the devalued and the twisted. Its hungry and homeless wanderers often are mentally ill people who have been prematurely released from state-run mental institutions -- not dangerous enough to be locked away, but not well enough to live without the emotional and physical support which few people seem capable of offering them. The urban homeless are the kind of people most suburbanites would never meet.

Clusters of ethnic people migrating or fleeing from other parts of the world also come to the city, bringing with them their unique languages and cultural values -- all of which affect the city’s customs and tastes. The fastest growing Episcopal congregation in northern New Jersey is Korean. I confirmed 42 adults there on my last visitation. In this relatively small geographical area, the diocese of Newark, the Holy Eucharist is celebrated each Sunday in English, Spanish, French, Korean, Japanese and Malayalam.

Still other groups that make the city their home are the avant-garde: those who experiment with alternate lifestyles, those who participate in new trends long before the rest of society does, and those who have escaped or seek to escape their provincial and tribal identities and prejudices.

When the church embraces this rich mix, when those who celebrate the future and those who have been victimized by the past gather in an urban coalition, a vision of the Kingdom of God appears. That Kingdom, the gospel proclaims, is made up of people who come from the four corners of the earth, from the North, South, East and West, as well as of those who are the least of our brothers and sisters. In the city the church’s presence as a universal community proclaims the Kingdom of God. The urban parish is an inclusive fellowship in which the universal claim of the gospel is lived out for the sake of the church everywhere.

In the city, where finding adequate and safe housing is a constant concern, it is as a house -- a house of God -- that the church makes its witness. It needs to be present as all of the things that housing means to people: a sanctuary, a shelter, a haven, a refuge, a protected womb, an ark to carry us through the storm. Although the church has neither the power nor the resources to solve urban housing problems, it can be a welcoming home to the homeless, a house to those who have been burned out, a haven to those who are cold. It can be the house of last appeal when other housing structures fail, the house of God to those who seek an adequate home.

Another major issue in urban America is arson. Burned-out buildings dot the landscape, for landlords have learned how to collect insurance payments and then flee to safer investments outside the city. But standing in that environment where fire’s destructive power is widely known is a church seeking to claim even flames as a symbol of redemption. We begin our worship by putting lighted candles on our altars; we speak of the Holy Spirit as a tongue of fire; we refer to God as heat and light; we sing of the fire of God that consumes our dross and refines our gold. The church transforms this symbol of urban destruction into a sign of redemption and hope. Fire becomes a symbol of the purging presence of the Holy God, pointing us to the ultimate hope for which the church stands.

Hunger, whether as the absence of sufficient food or the lack of good nutrition, is still another reality for the urban poor. But the central rite of Christian worship is the sacrament of communion: people gather to be fed at the table of the Lord. Sunday after Sunday Christians break bread and drink wine together, symbolically proclaiming that the church is a community where food, heavenly and earthly, is available. A community that calls its Lord the bread of life creates a symbolic meal, the Eucharist, which quite naturally overflows into other feeding ministries, such as soup kitchens and food pantrys. Activities to feed the hungry grow out of our Eucharist; they can never replace it or be a substitute for it.

Urban America is characterized by poor educational facilities. A major deterrent to the reformation of the city’s economic base is the unwillingness of those who can afford to do otherwise to subject their children to the inadequacy of urban schools. Yet in the midst of the city stands a church that is the descendant of the Jewish synagogue, which was primarily a teaching center. The church trains its people and brings to life the Christian tradition, enabling our heritage to become a force in our present. Here the moral issues of life can be explored and human civility can be encouraged. In the church the ethnic values of diverse peoples can be celebrated, their different languages and cultures enriching each other.

It is vital for the urban church to take seriously its teaching function as a self-conscious Christian community. Bible classes, effective sermons, study groups, weekend conferences, even retreats need to be a part of the growing God-consciousness of city congregations. The God who opposed the ghettoization of the Israelite slaves in Egypt is the same God who is worshiped in city churches. The God who spoke through the prophets to end human oppression is still the God of the whole church. The biblical story continues in the existential lives of city dwellers.

Our political powers have consciously and unconsciously denigrated city residents by allowing inadequate school systems to become the norm. The church should respond by affirming the worth of urban people through challenging their hearts and minds with effective educational opportunities. City people do not want to discuss only urban problems. They want to hear the story of their faith, confront the saving word and know themselves as a part of an ongoing tradition.

Urban life is not beautiful. Garbage collection is generally poor. Trash litters the streets. Many homes are in poor repair, and some are abandoned bits of delapidation. Many city people are so depressed that they deliberately fill their lives with ugliness, as an unconscious commentary on the way they feel valued by others. Consequently, it is especially important that city churches be places of beauty. Their liturgies ought to be sensitive and magnificent. Money spent to beautify urban houses of worship is not wasted, for beauty is a gift that the poor covet. Their churches need to bear witness to the power of beauty, and to the sense of caring communicated by clean, sparkling sanctuaries, naves and exteriors. A broken-down church filled with the musty odor of dry rot, made inconvenient by a leaking roof, and defaced by torn, moldy or faded altar hangings cannot bear adequate witness to the God of the resurrection. Great churches of the past, with expensive maintenance needs, are the legacy we have bequeathed to urban dwellers. When we fill these churches with poorly prepared liturgies and shallow, inane preaching, we add to the urban poor’s sense of being surrounded by a noncaring, nonvaluing world. Urban church structures need to shine as centers of beauty, as symbols of hope, as signs of the Kingdom. They need to be living parables of God’s caring.

The city increasingly has become a place of violence. Crimes against persons and property make fear the daily companion of the urbanite. Life narrows when people must seek safety above fulfillment. But in the midst of the city stands a church -- a church which is itself sometimes the victim of violence and whose central symbol is a cross. On that cross violence is both real and destructive. But as the story of that cross unfolds, one meets a divine love that overwhelms hatred, and a living Lord who transforms death. Only in the church does the city resident see the symbol of violence redeemed, the despair of death defeated.

For all of these reasons, the symbolic presence of the city church is necessary to the cause of Christ -- and, since necessary, worthy of the support and the investment of time, talent and treasure of all the people of God.

We are the church of the incarnate Lord who so loved the world that he was born into our human life, his presence turning a common stable into a majestic shrine. His life transformed a cross of execution into a symbol of resurrection. Because we serve this Lord, the Christian church is a symbolic presence that can turn the despair of the city into hope, the ugliness of the city into beauty, the destructive power of the city into redemption and the fearful fire of the city into cleansing truth. In the church the homeless do find shelter, those of diverse backgrounds do discover community and the hungry do gather around the altar to be fed with the bread and the wine of the Eucharist.

The Christian church must stay in the city not because it can solve all the problems that city life raises, though it dare not ignore those problems. We must stay in the city not because we can bring about all of the political, economic and social changes needed, though we must never cease to labor toward those goals. But our primary vocation in the city is simply to be the church, a community of self-conscious Christians. The church is a presence, an outpost of the Kingdom of God, a light in the darkness which the darkness can never extinguish or overwhelm. Our vocation is to be ourselves. Someday the Christians of the suburbs, the towns and the hamlets will recognize that this witness is deeply important to them. Then perhaps the whole church will place its resources where the need is, not because we are generous but because our integrity as the people of God requires it.


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