When I told a Church in the City class of Tyndale seminary students that I was given the challenge to write about Toronto for The Soul of the City, one of the Greater Toronto Area students became quite animated: “That’s impossible! The city is too big and diverse!” He was right. When I had sat down to write my chapter for the book, I had that same thought.
I had the advantage of having taken some time to pray and reflect on urban diversity and change. When my wife and I first sensed God asking us to invest more in my education, my prayer for the PhD program was twofold: “Lord, please do not allow me to become the world’s leading expert in something no one else cares about…” and, “Lord, please direct me to a topic that I will still be interested in by the end of the PhD.” Discerning a focus on how to understand gateway neighbourhoods, which have rich flows of migration from a variety of global regions, was essentially receiving a mandate to study diversity and change. One of my conclusions was that, while it is helpful to learn certain facts to operate in complex urban environments, we really need some kind of process which works for us to continually learn from our community(ies). Maintaining a curiosity about the people around us and constantly having ways to “check in” with how our neighbourhood is changing allows us to get a sense of the city in motion. Being able to track (if not anticipate) changes and their social, cultural and spiritual implications becomes central to being an ambassador of Christ in Canadian cities.
I really enjoyed reading the different chapters of The Soul of the City because of the different interpretive frameworks provided by the authors. I have visited people ministering on the frontlines of urban life in most of those cities, and the very different ways of reflecting on the spiritual nature of the city was remarkable. Those of us in the church who are called to exegete our communities need to keep stretching to prayerfully reflect on what is going on all around us. One thing I would highlight from my reflections on the chapters is that while there is data available to us from history books and online demographics, the learning with the greatest impact is often interpersonal.
We sing, talk and pray about “loving the city” – how does that actually happen? Well, it starts with prayerful love for the people who are there; Jesus’ prayer for Jerusalem stands as a dramatic example (Matthew 23 and Luke 13). It can then branch out to how we relate to the people we connect with through our day. Our connections inform our perspective and enable us to relate to the city. Many of my heroes of the faith are church planters in Canadian cities, and if I track back through the stories they have told me about how Christian faith communities form, it often starts with a greeting and an openness to conversation.
May God richly bless your conversations.