God Has (Not) Left Detroit

The US city of Detroit is a warning to the church: Future proof yourself or face disaster.

 Let me explain what I mean.

Detroit in its heyday was the fourth largest city in the US but the future caught up with it – and fast.  Detroit was cut down to size when protectionist tariffs were no longer public policy and American-made gas guzzlers no longer public desire.  Detroit had not counted on overseas cheap manufacturing, nor the shift from the Industrial Age to the Technological Age. Detroit was not ready for the future, simply assuming it would be like the present, only more so.

The result? Detroit has spawned a ghoulish art movement called “ruin porn” – photos of once-grand buildings, beautiful houses, and public amenities; tottering structures that any self-respecting zombie would give his right arm to occupy.

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The church in the West is facing its Detroit moment. The future has caught up with us. And it has done so at a speed which has taken many by surprise. There is shock at how quickly the Christian framework has fallen away.  There is panic about what it will mean to be a minority with no preferenced seat at the table.  There is dismay at how the once-assumed ethical common assumptions have vanished like mist before the rising sun of sexual identity politics.

With this shock comes frantic talk about how to stem the floe; how to regain our ground. If we give up any ground it’s gone for good, right?  Maybe a plebiscite or a lobby group or a new conservatism will save us from the coming Babylon.

But back to Detroit. What did Detroit officials do in the face of their decline that the church could learn from? And in asking that question I confess that I am in the first throes myself of figuring out the answers.

Admit The Problem: Detroit could keep hanging on and wait for the past to come back, but it would still be waiting.  The future caught up with it and the first step towards rebuilding was admitting it had a problem  No use getting angry.  No use denying it.

Likewise we need admit we have a problem. We have lost traction. We have lost influence. What is going on is not going to swing back our way any time soon.  We are in for a protracted, and growing, disenfranchisement from the culture as hard secularism takes hold. We need to admit it.

Take Drastic Measures: Detroit’s officials were facing financial meltdown and a collapsed tax base as the city emptied out.  At the same time they were providing services they could no longer afford. They could continue sending garbage trucks down lonesomes streets with one occupied house in the vain hope that the very act would change things.

They didn’t. Instead they stopped the services and then, more radically, allowed nature to reclaim vast tracts of the abandoned city (Check out these pictures on Googlemaps of nature reclaiming the streets). And not because they were fatalists, but because the city’s long-term survival depended on short-term painful decisions.

Likewise the church has to decide where its reach will be best employed to future-proof itself.  Personally I have problems with lobby groups that feed increasingly thinner resources into increasingly hostile settings. They seem to be a case of the law of diminishing returns: churches themselves have lost their clout, hence we need para-church organisations to do the heavy lifting for us?  Not sure that’s a winning strategy.

When the Marxists kicked out the Western missionaries from China and clamped down on the church, the indigenous leaders decided that the way forward was to “delete everything that was not necessary.”  What fat might the church need to trim?  What streets are we servicing that need to be abandoned in order for the centre to survive?

Withdraw to Return: Detroit’s officials admitted they could not hold on to what they had, but after a period of time there was a return, albeit in a different form.  Many once derelict streets have been reshaped into parks and gardens.  The city returned, but differently.

That’s the  Benedict Option right there.  The church must not so much pull up the drawbridge, as to make a clearer delineation between itself and the culture.  To highlight difference more than sameness. Healthy counter cultural churches will put more store in deep discipleship.  To revel in the oddness of being a traditional Christian.

Such churches will educate their children more closely, gather refugees from crumbling main-lines and hopelessly compromised post-evangelicals. They will build strong walls, not to keep people in (that’d be a cult), not to keep people out (that’d be a sect), but to ensure that when the time for return does come, something worthwhile and robust is left to return!  And like Detroit’s suburbs-turned-parks, it might look different to how it once was.

Cut Their New Sail According To Their New Cloth: Fresh shoots have appeared in a humbler, more chastened Detroit. The city  is starting to see a way forward.  Not a way back. That way no longer exists. The world that made Detroit once great is long gone.  

The new Detroit is determined to live within its means. It aims to reflect the reality that while it is no longer the fourth largest city in America, it can be a vital, healthy, creative and happy place to live. It now runs a tight ship, so to speak.

For the church the new landscape will require a more conservative cut to the cloth.  That will require a reframing of how we see our place in the world.  Compare the small evangelical church minority in France to the mega-mall churches of the USA. French evangelicalism, a minority group in a hard secular state,  has a robust clarity about its place in the culture.  Very few, if any, French evangelicals get upset at their marginalisation, in fact they revel in it.  After all they’ve had 200 years – and more – to get used to it.

Contrast this to the response of many US churches (also in the UK and here in Oz), who, in mistakingly thinking the Christian narrative had a tight cultural grip, have oscillated between anger and despair as the realisation dawns on them that width is no substitute for depth.

To use another metaphor, we will be better placed as a well-managed, successful Second Division club, replete with a tidy stadium and good quality pies, than an overblown, in-debt Premier League cellar dweller, constantly struggling with relegation, poor attendances and a sense of entitlement that it has a right to mix it with the big boys.

Two points to close.  First, don’t hear me saying we won’t lose something as the culture continues to jettison the Christian framework apace.  We definitely will.  For the moment many secularists are simply “squatting” in the house that Christianity built, living in the beautiful landscape, but neglect the house long enough and the foundations will eventually fall in.  The “ruin-porn” pics of the post-Christian culture will be more ghoulish than that of the church.  And that’s a frightful thought.

But secondly, we won’t lose!  The church is future-proofed in a manner way beyond our immediate or even long term future in this declining culture. Babylon the Great will fall and the world will wail. But not the church.  The church will rejoice because Babylon’s fall will coincide with the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.

And this will be the true city of the future, a city that God will never leave.

3 Comments

  1. This makes me ponder. I wonder if there is simmering distrust in church as an institution, yet a shift to seeking trust from Christian individuals. To build trust is now to be radical, to create a real community when we are flocking to online tribes, yet to create these communities differently to how ‘institutional’ churches have done in the past. Correct, depth is always better than width; just as real engagement is better than likes. Time to let the real Jesus step forward (brand Jesus ;-)) as the true brand ambassador…

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