Through the mouth of Jeremiah, God urges exiles to plant gardens, build homes, and pray for the prosperity of the cities to which they’ve been dispersed. A brief review of church history reveals that we foreigners in the many strange lands on earth have prioritized that command but often in unhealthy ways. What might this command mean for the church today? How do we “pray for the prosperity of our land” without conforming to the models and definitions of prosperity exemplified by people in the land? (After all, Hosea warns us not to consecrate ourselves to idols, for we will “become detestable like the things we loved,” Hos. 9:10.) The church, suggests Rowan Williams, needs to offer the world “a radically different imaginative landscape, in which people can discover possibilities of change — and perhaps of ‘conversion’ in the most importance sense, a ‘turning around’ of values and priorities that grows from trust in God” (p. 73).
Williams’s book, Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today,* is a collection of thought-provoking essays (even if certain essays seem better fitted for a different volume). Drawing from the deep wells of Christian tradition (from early church writers to contemporary theologians, preachers to professors), each essay reflects upon Christian disciplines in contemporary Christianity. The chapter “Urban Spirituality” helps respond to the questions I’ve raised above.
Williams criticizes the modern city’s organizational structures which “are not mapped or shaped with human beings in mind” (p. 72). Cities in the West, Williams explains, are dominated by “purchasing power” or “entrepreneurial energy” or “mobility.” They’re not dominated by considerations of community flourishing or deep attachments. So while cities may provide space for minority voices to rally together for change, cities are “destructive of much that is humanly significant” (p. 72).
In light of this criticism, Williams suggests three areas in which the church might offer citizens in an urban setting a different imaginative landscape: time, character, and anonymity.
Time. Cities erase time, at least the important markers of time that give people a meaningful sense of where, what, and who they are. Williams provocatively observes that a city “that has moved away from [agricultural] rhythms either becomes obsessed with using time ‘profitably’ — or it sets out to rediscover rhythms of celebration that can survive the urban environment, the relative distance from the change of the seasons that is inevitable in city life” (p. 75). In either case, time becomes an alienator of history and culture, rather than a keeper of it. Time needs punctuation marks, Williams says, but cities never sleep.
Character. Williams’ call for churches to give cities character is along the same lines as his call to help cities punctuate time. He tells the story of a widow who welcomed strangers into her home for silence. This spatial pause in a city is essential for a community to practice self-reflection, and so nurtures a specific kind of character. In a striking way, the woman’s use of her space challenges the ideas of privacy and busyness that have so long characterized—or plagued the character of—Western cultures. A city needs people and places that nurture a different kind of character than that which is forged through constant noise and busyness.
Anonymity. The final area which the church might challenge an urban area to imagine differently is the area of anonymity. Cities are, often, mobile. People come and go. The street to the west of my church’s building is now populated mostly by renters rather than homeowners. But there is a deeper, systemic issue that propagates anonymity: “anonymous exchange.” Think of a trip to the grocery store. Do you know any farmer who raised the food on the shelves? Did you interact with anyone else during your visit? Did you catch the name of the cashier, or did you use self-checkout? Anonymity is built in—or being built in—to nearly every part of city life, especially the parts related to purchasing.
In unique and manifold ways, the church is equipped to reimagine each of these areas of urban life. Williams quotes Sam Wells to observe that the church’s primary practices—baptism, communion, Bible reading, and prayer—provide profound alternatives to the urban imagination in these three areas. Reading the story of Scripture and forming our calendar around major events in salvation history helps us break up time differently; prayer is the dominant practice through which Christians are formed into people of character; and baptism and communion resist any temptation toward anonymity by binding ourselves to the searching work of the Spirit and the gift of community in the church.
Beyond these practices, Williams makes suggestions that are insightful and wise. I’ll let the reader take and read rather than repeating them here. Instead, I’d like to share a bit about a unique way of thinking about discipleship: watershed discipleship.**
I learned about watershed discipleship while hanging out with some Mennonites about a year ago. Like Williams, who exhorts Christians to reimagine time, character, and anonymity, the proponents of watershed discipleship invite Christians to become “disciples” who emphasize and attend to specific “bioregions,” that is, watersheds. The term “watershed” simply designates the reality that every region is attached to complex, interconnected sources of water, which shape the surrounding region. Watershed discipleship is taking seriously the unique context (cultural, biological, etc.) in which discipleship takes place. Taking the lead from a close look at your watershed will organically invite a minister to reimagine time, character, and anonymity. What does the particular community surrounding your watershed think about time? What seasons or events are significant to that particular region? What kind of people must we be to care well for our watershed? And what kind of spaces are appropriate to our watershed (i.e. do we really need another parking lot or do we need a green space populated with beneficial plant life?)? Finally, how does being a people who all depend upon the same source of water resist and finally unravel the idea of anonymity?
So then, what does reimagining time, character, and anonymity in your church look like? I know I’ve started rethinking these things in my own ministry. And I’m beginning to pay more attention to the Little River, which runs only a few hundred yards to the north of my church’s sanctuary. Perhaps we will find our own unique way to be disciples in our watershed, disciples who take seriously the call to grow our roots deep into the soil of the city to which we’ve been called.
*Purchase: Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today (Bloomsbury, 2017), Rowan Williams. Thank you to Bloomsbury for sending a copy for review! Also, see Kent’s interaction with the first chapter here.
**I learned about watershed discipleship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s conference “Rooted and Grounded” in the spring of 2016. You can learn more about watershed discipleship here. This year’s conference is September 26-28 in Elkhart, IN, featuring Randy Woodley. Register here.