Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Loving the City

Thomas Guthrie, the famous Edinburgh minister and philanthropist, preached a series of sermons that were eventually published under the heading of 'The City, its Sins and Sorrows'.  The edition I have was published in 1857 and it says that the discourses were delivered to gather support for a 'Territorial Church in one of the dark and destitute districts of Edinburgh.'   The book is four sermons from Luke 19 v 41 'And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.' 
Guthrie was not really an expositor but rather a graphic preacher who used great sweeping pictures in his sermons to rail against the evils of poverty, drunkenness and ignorance.  He waged a long campaign for temperance and often spoke of the evils of drink.  In the third sermon he says; "I pray you do not hate the drunkard; he hates himself.  Do not despise him; he cannot sink so low in your opinion as he is sunk in his own.  Your hatred and contempt may rivet, but will never rend his chains.  Lend a kind hand to pluck him from the mire.  With a strong hand shatter the bowl - remove the temptations which, while he hates, he cannot resist.  Hate, abhor, tremble at his sin.  And for pity's sake, for God's sake, for Christ's sake, for humanity's sake, rouse yourselves to the question, What can be done?"  (The City its Sins and Sorrows, Guthrie, 1857, p 74).  
What is so interesting about The City its Sins and Sorrows is to read of Guthrie commending cities and encouraging the Christian Church to engage and embrace in city life rather than shunning it for the country. In the first sermon Guthrie rises to his usual heights of flowery language; "Cities have been as lamps of light along the pathway of humanity and religion. Within them science has given birth to her noblest discoveries. Behind their walls freedom has fought her noblest battles. They have stood on the surface of the earth like great breakwaters, rolling back or turning aside the swelling tide of oppression. Cities, indeed, have been the cradles of human liberty. They have been the radiating, active centres of almost all church and state reformation. Having therefore no sympathy with those who regard our cities as corresponding to the excrescences of a tree or the tumours of disease, and would raze them to the ground, I bless God for cities" (The City its Sins and Sorrows, Guthrie 1857, p 8-9).  Guthrie goes on to talk of the many advantages of cities;
  • The highest humanity is developed in cities 
  • The highest piety is developed in cities
  • The highest happiness of saints is found in city life
This theology needs to be re-emphasised in every age as some Christians again seek to withdraw from our cities to the 'safer' suburbs and rural areas. There are large areas of our cities, particularly some of the more deprived areas that have little or no gospel witness.  James Montgomery Boice puts it much better than I can; "Some Christians are opposed to the city for reasons based on the very points I am making. They regard the city as godless. They think of urban cultures as being mans invention and therefore alien to God, who placed the first man and woman in a garden, not a city. That is true, but it is not the whole story. The city is godless. But the problem with the "godless city" is not the city but the "godless," and people living in the country without Christ are godless too. Again the problem of "civilisation without God" is not civilisation itself but rather its godless characteristics. And so far as the garden goes, while it is true that the Bible begins with a garden, it is also true that it ends with a city, the new Jerusalem. Our task is not to abandon earthly kingdoms but to build God's kingdom in the midst of the godless ones and in so doing look forward and show the way "to the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11 v 10) (Two Cities, Two Loves, Montgomery Boice, 1996, p 74).
Guthrie, was not the first great preacher to write about cities.  Augustine famously wrote The City of God which was probably the most influential book of the Middle Ages.  There are few greater theologians than Augustine and if you want to know more about him RC Sproul's address here is well worth listening to.  Written over 13 years, The City of God was the first serious attempt to write a Christian philosophy of history and to explain the two clashing kingdoms or worldviews that have dominated history. 

Augustine argued that from the first rebellion of the fallen angels against God "two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self".  Augustine represented the church as the City of God and the earthly city as the earthly society being characterised by Babylon and Rome which had fallen to the Visigoth king Aleric 3 years before Augustine had started writing The City of God.  A large part of the book is given over to arguing against the prevailing  view that the barbarians had conquered Rome because the ancient gods had been forsaken for Christianity.  As Montgomery Boice writes Augustine showed  "on the contrary, that the city [Rome] had been punished for its sins.  In its early centuries Rome had been a nation of stoics.  It had strong families and honest governors.  It had almost created civil law and had given order and peace to the world.  But the seeds of decay lay within its debased religions, which encouraged rather restrained the corrupt sexual nature of human beings" (Two Cities, Two Loves, Montgomery Boice, 1996, p 20). 
Augustine's City of God and Guthrie's The City, its Sins and Sorrows remind us that we need a theology for our cities. When the Christian church gets this wrong it leads to a lack of engagement with our cities and a flight to the suburbs and country. It also leads to ghetto churches in our cities where we have a 'Highland church' or an 'African church'.  Some of these churches have evolved to make the attenders feel comfortable but often have no serious engagement with the community they have been placed in. 

Men like Tim Keller have pioneered urban church planting in New York with Redeemer Presbyterian and has helpfully written a book called Church Centre on much of what he has learned.  It is great to see some pioneering work going on in some of the neediest areas of Scotland through 20Schemes and Niddrie Community Church.  There are some great organisations that are helping to bring about urban community transformation such as Glasgow City Mission, Bethany Christian Trust and The Trussell Trust.

There are some great examples of engagement with deprived schemes here in Aberdeen such as The Lighthouse Project in Tillydrone and in Seaton with Seaton Community Church.  The work in Seaton is being supported by Bethany Christian Trust and a foodbank will be launched at some point in the future.  Barry Douglas took a step of faith less than a year ago and established a church in an area short on gospel witness.   It is great to see how the work has grown and to see his vision for the marginalised and also to see a growing youth work.  We need more of these pioneers in Scotland today.

The longstanding work of Deeside Christian Fellowship is seeing some real fruit as they continue to work with some of the most marginalised men and women in The Lighthouse Project, Tillydrone.  A number of men from The Lighthouse recently helped to paint the little thrift shop called the First Port of Call which Bethany runs.  It was a complete privilege to work alongside some of these men who had been notorious in their community for all the wrong reasons.  The Outreach Pastor, John Merson, has been a personal inspiration to me as he has quietly worked away with these men over many years.  While many church planters seek the limelight John is a very humble man working away in quietness and humility to build the kingdom. 
We, as the church, need to support these pioneers, church planters and organisations working in our inner cities with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in Scotland.  We need old truths presented with a new and fresh reality.  Guthrie said "I have no hope of accomplishing this object if the churches are to be laced up by their old rules, and people are to leave everything to ministers and missionaries."  We need to end the one man ministries that have been so detrimental particularly in Presbyterian circles.  As Keller says we need to realise that church planting in inner city areas is relational, low key and very long term.  As the church we need to be in this for the long term if we are going to see any long term results. 

Just as Guthrie and Chalmers had a Biblical vision for our cities in the 19th century we need to have a similar vision today.  I'll leave the last (quaint) word to the great man himself; "Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work.  Let us embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours.  Let our only rivalry be the holy one of who shall do most and succeed best in converting the wilderness into an Eden, and causing the deserts to blossom as the rose" (The City its Sins and Sorrows, Guthrie, 1857, p 111).  




  1. This post gives me many things to mull over for a bit...and on the other hand, is so practical that I could get up and do something right now!AND gives me a great reading list on the subject!
    My husband, Gregg, and I have been talking about just this sort of thing......
    Thanks, Andy!

  2. Thanks Keri. Its hard to get Guthrie's books today but I am hoping I might be able to change that! James Montgomery Boice was a wonderful writer and I would recommend you start with him. Its so encouraging to get comments - thank you so much. The Lord bless you in your work.

  3. Thanks! I'll look him up...Boice's name is actually rather familiar to me, even though I don't think I've read him.....yet!