Jeff Haanen

Articles Tagged with

why cities matter


Cities, Burbs, and Metro Regions

A few days ago I received an email from my good friend Dave Strunk. He referred me to an “excoriating” review of Why Cities Matter written by blogger Keith Miller.  Since I recently reviewed the book for Christianity Today, and Mr. Miller and I rather different focal points for our reviews, let me respond to his critique.

Argument: Mr. Miller points out a central weaknesses of Why Cities Matter: the slippery definition of the word “city.” In Keller’s introduction to the book, Miller deduces that Keller uses the word “city” to mean at least three things:

1. “The Top 100 City”—a metro area at least as populous as Wichita, Kansas;

2. “The Not-Rural Farmland City”—everything with a greater density than homestead farming;

3. “The Urban Center City”—places like Manhattan.”

He draws this conclusion from Keller’s use of a Gallup pole and a UN statistic claiming “180,000 people move into cities each day.” Um and Buzzard switch between these slippery definitions throughout the book, at times referring to a major urban center like Los Angeles, and at other times referring implicitly to small towns that are not rural.

Response: Good critique. Miller is right to point out “sloppiness” here. There needs to be a standard way for evangelicals (and others) to talk about “cities.” It may be a pipe dream to think we could agree on such a thing, but the authors should at least lay out their own view and stay consistent.

Argument: Um and Buzzard are extremely liberal with the word “city” in the biblical review. Jesus was born in the “city”, say Um and Buzzard, but Miller points out Bethlehem had a population of 300-1000 at the time Jesus was born. He also critiques their claim that the Garden of Eden “may well have had buildings,” among other exegetically fanciful moves to find “cities” throughout the Bible.

Response: Again, this critique is also fairly well founded. In an earlier draft of my review, I pointed out that Um and Buzzard seem to substitute the word “city” for nearly any kind of human community, from Bethlehem to Babylon to the Church. Comparing the modern city to ancient settlements of nearly all sizes is problematic – to the point of needing correcting. Again, well said.

I would argue, however, that the Bible does have significant things to say about urban centers – particularly large ones. From Babel to Babylon, and Eden to the New Jerusalem, it’s no coincidence that cities take on either heavenly or hellish characteristics in the biblical narrative. Precise definitions are needed, surely. But a gloss of his own over the importance of cities in the Bible does us no favors either. Dense groups of people are uniquely important in the Bible as today.

Argument: One of Miller’s final critiques is that Buzzard defines Silicon Valley as a “city.” He points out that it is actually a suburban sprawl, and that Buzzard’s own church moved from an urban center in downtown San Jose to an area that looks a lot like a suburb in Santa Clara.

 Response: If the critique here is primarily of defining Silicon Valley as a “city” – that is mixed use space and “denseness” and “proximity”, an idea that Um and Buzzard borrow from Keller – then good. Buzzard is perhaps too in love with the idea of “cities” and wants to live in one even if he’s not in one.

But I’m inclined to push back against Mr. Miller. If city can also mean “center of regional influence,” then Silicon Valley certainly qualifies. It’s hard to imagine a more culturally influential suburb than the tech hub of the world (Um and Buzzard are right here).  And perhaps this leads us to a closer definition of what we mean by city.  After all, the plainest definition of “city” is: “a large or important town.” By that standard, which is more of a “city”: San Jose or Silicon Valley?

Final Thoughts: Mr. Miller’s critique of their sloppy use of the word “city” is right on, both as applied to the ancient world and the modern world.  We need to draw the line better.

But, unfortunately, Mr. Miller skipped over nearly all the valuable pieces. First, cities are growing, both in size and clout. As Richard Florida points out, the lines between suburbs and cities may be dissolving, but “mega-regions” are growing, attract a disproportionate number of talented, creative people, and churn out far more economic output than in past generations.

Second, Um and Buzzard have valuable things to say on both how the characteristics of cities as well as how they work; concepts, for example, like “connective diversity” and “clustered diversity” are helpful for non-urbanologists trying to understand urban areas.

Third, their ministry applications are helpful. They counsel readers to try to understand a city’s storyline through five questions. We may squabble over the definition of a city, but “large or important towns” certainly take on unique characters over time. I’m from the Denver area, and its focus on outdoors and adventure is crucial to understand for pastors. Cities have “gods”, and they must be understood if they are to be confronted. It’s hard to say that where I live, Littleton, exerts anywhere near the influence of Denver.

If it makes Mr. Miller feel better, perhaps we can substitute the word “city” for “metro area” and be rid of the whole argument.

But don’t listen to me. I live in a suburb. But then again, Mr. Miller lives in Hillsdale, Michigan: population 8,278.


How to Change Your Company’s Culture


I recently wrote a dual book review for Christianity Today. One book, Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture and the Church, was cogent, clear and helpful; the other, Christ + City: Why the Greatest Need of the City is the Greatest News of All was chatty, poorly argued, and at times misleading. In my review, I argued there was a key difference that separated the two volumes: “one book is merely in the city; the other is engaged with the city.”

One book brought Bible stories “into” an urban context (the author was from Chicago), yet showed very little understanding of  the city nor engagement with its culture. The other book, Why Cities Matter, combined social analysis and ministry application to produce a useful tool that helps ministry leaders not just move into the city, but to winsomely engage its culture.

“In” a city versus “engaged with” a city is a helpful distinction that can shed tremendous light on the faith and work conversation. Many Christians are simply “in” a company or organization, and even are very “Christian” there (personal evangelism, ethical decision-making), but are not in any meaningful way influencing their organizational culture or the culture of their industry. I would venture to say that the majority of faith and work ministries unknowingly encourage versions of this kind of isolation by promoting a “protect and defend” mentality. Christians gather, circle around the Bible, and defend their personal morality against the pressures of cut-throat competition, secular humanism, or unsavory influences.

Of course, other Christians are not just “in” an organization, but are actively engaged with its culture, and do so winsomely. Some strands of faith and work ministries do this extremely effectively, and though the means for influence is indeed work, the outcome is actually cultural influence. So how do you move from simply being a Christian “in” an organization to actually engaging its culture with the gospel?

Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard offer five clear questions for determining the “storyline” (culture) of a city, which also works well for a company or organization. There are five key questions to determining your organization’s culture.

1.       What is your organization’s history? When was it founded and by whom? Where did it start and when? What was the original mission statement and how has it changed over time? Answering these questions is foundational to understanding your organization’s unique culture.

2.      What are your organization’s values? Entrepreneurship, faithfulness, long hours, creativity, success at any cost, the bottom line? What does your organization reward at the end of the year? 

3.      What are your organization’s dreams? Global influence, millions of dollars, brilliant scholars, Broadway? Perhaps a better way to ask the question: if your organization found $10 million in a treasure chest, what would be done with it?

4.      What are your organization’s fears? Past non-existence, what is the worst case scenario? Generally, flip its dreams upside down, and you get its fears. 

5.      What are your organization’s ethos? An organization’s ethos is shaped by its unique geography, history and climate. It’s no accident that REI thrives in Colorado, and even that the tech executives of sunny Silicon Valley wear t-shirts and sandals. The climate affects their casual culture.

If you can find time to hammer out these questions with your co-workers, you can begin to define your organizationally culture. When Um and Buzzard applied this framework to cities, they labeled (accurately, I believe) key urban centers with their corresponding idols: Boston: Knowledge; Paris: Romance; London: Influence; Boulder: Adventure; San Diego: Health; Singapore: Order; Oklahoma City: Family. If you can understand your organization’s culture, which is always ruled by a god, you can begin to engage it’s culture with the gospel. 

Engagement is twofold: (1) Challenge your organization’s storyline, and (2) Re-tell it with the hope of the gospel. The Scriptures frequently command direct confrontation of idols. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal, Josiah crushed the Asherah poles, and Paul’s “spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city [Athens] was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Taking the step to say your firm, school, or guild’s focus of ultimate significance is not ultimate is no easy task. In my personal experience, one of two things will happen: (1) People will think you’re crazy and say there are no such gods in this place, or (2) Try to drive you out (he’s really not our kind of person after all). Nonetheless, challenging the idols is a necessary part of ministry within your industry.

Second, and perhaps this is the way to not get fired, retell your organization’s storyline with a renewed hope inspired by the gospel. A friends of mine works at a public relations firm in Denver. In the world of PR, there’s a tendency to “bend” the truth for your clients, as there is across the world of marketing. The Christian story points to a person who is himself the way, the truth, and the life, and calls his children to live in the truth. The gospel also points to the day when light will expose all darkness, and the truth of Jesus’ kingly authority will be made known to all.

Truth, as it turns out, is good for marketing and PR. In a culture of “noise”, people are skeptical about advertising and marketing campaigns, expecting to be bamboozled, if even subtly. Seth Godin recently advised marketers to lead with the unattractive parts about your product or service. This kind of “leading with truth” can actually surprise people enough to cut through the noise and potentially win more clients. Perhaps not. But the reward of telling the truth is reward enough for the Christian who values integrity over pandering for more business.

This is just one example. Other industries will have other idols to confront, and Christians will have other (better) stories to tell. But I believe this is where cultural influence begins, first on the micro level and then at the macro level.

(1)   Understand your organization’s culture.

(2)  Challenge your organization’s storyline.

(3)  Re-tell your organization’s story with the hope of the gospel.

Of course, all this talking by itself is insufficient to change the culture of your company. Ideas must be incarnated; they must put on flesh. Re-telling must culminate in creation, in new kinds of work. We must take a better hope and make new processes, policies, programs, or products. Here is where we can plant the seeds of renewing the face of the earth – and the office.

Photo: Denver Panorama

Discussion Questions: What is your organization’s culture? What are its idols? And how would you re-tell your organization’s (or even your industry’s) story with the hope of the gospel?

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