The difference Christianity could make in the city
At Redeemer we often speak of serving, strengthening, and “renewing” New York City. When we talk like this, we must be careful not to deny “common grace.” We believe God gives all people — not just Christian believers — talent and insight to preserve and cultivate human life. But what if the Body of Christ in center city New York were, for example, to triple over the next decade or so? What difference might it make? I’ve been talking with the elders and lead pastors about our vision for what our church could look like in the coming decades. We might see:
1. An explosion of radical philanthropy. Most people don’t go into “philanthropic mode” and give away large sums of money until they are very rich indeed. However, studies show that Christians adopt a philanthropic mindset far sooner, before significant wealth is amassed. There will be a willingness to limit their lifestyle and consumption in order to give away startling amounts. I think Christian givers could learn to be more non-paternalistic and involved with communities of need, and better partners with those who lead the various charities and ministries.
2. An increase in civility and true pluralism. Even in democratic western cultures, the groups who have held the reins of cultural power have always excluded and silenced unpopular voices and minority viewpoints not simply as mistaken but as despicable and beyond the pale. There has never been a genuinely pluralistic society — one in which every viewpoint has the right to be heard without marginalization and defamation. Christians humbled by the gospel could work with others toward the creation of a culture in which people of deeply different beliefs would finally be free to express who they are and practice what they believe — and if they treat others with respect would themselves be treated with that same respect.
3. The cultural recapture of “vocation.” Robert Bellah, in Habits of the Heart argued that what he called the “sacredness of the individual”— of individual choice and happiness — has not been offset in our culture (as it was in the past) by the sacredness of anything else. Our culture has nothing more important than individual freedom binding us together. As a result the social fabric is unraveling. However, he thinks there is something that could help renew culture, “the re-appropriation of the idea of vocation or calling.” That is, “work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.” (Bellah, Habits of the Heart, pp.287-288.) If Christians in New York City could demonstrate what that looks like, it could begin to spread across the country. Among other things, it would entail more integrity in our work, and more humane workplaces and work weeks.
4. Hope and community in the arts. Contemporary art is dominated either by critical theory or by commercialism. Much art is aimed at transgressing and debunking all social norms in order to liberate the individual. Or it is designed to provoke in such a way that attracts eyeballs and income. It is possible that gospel-changed Christians in the arts would bring far more hope and less nihilism, and could express visions of community and shared values.
If there were hundreds of thousands more Christians working in the financial sector, government, the media, the art world, and in the foundations and non-government organizations of New York City, it could have an impact far greater than we can imagine and of benefit to all. Would it be too much to hope that the “salt” that Christians could bring to our culture might lead to a curiosity about the “light” that motivates us?
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