For about four years now I’ve had a recurring dream.
It’s a dream where I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair. The lights are bright; I can’t see very much. But I can see the mirror that the dentist is holding up in front of me. And in that mirror I see the reflection of what was a bright smile of sparkling white teeth now pocked with huge gaps.
I keep having dreams where my teeth are falling out.
Dream analysis would say this indicates that I’m involved in some great changes. That would be correct, I think.
After all, I’m the pastor of an inner-city parish. This summer alone we’ve lost around forty members to the suburbs or other cities around the country. Great changes are our specialty.
Ours is a transitory space. We work hard at hospitality. We also work hard at sending people well. But this work is exhausting; there’s no two-ways about it.
I sometimes joke that we should put a revolving door at the front of our church, a visual to mark our transient community.
In and out. Constant change. Like teeth continuing to be replaced. Like a concrete jungle begging for re-till.
People move to the city for different reasons. They’re escaping their suburban or rural upbringing. They’re sticking around after college to try their hand at city life. They want to experience the nightlife of Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park and the South Loop. The cold steel warms their restless hearts as lights shine brightly all through the night allowing the party of urban life to continue.
People all seem to leave for roughly the same reasons: their children become school-age, their urban careers take them to other urban areas, or they’re just tired. They’re tired of the never-ending daylight. The cold steel that once warmed their hearts now aches their heads as the never-ending sound of engines, breaking bottles, and 4 a.m. bar evacuations bounce off of the concrete trees.
And then there is our community. Our sanctuary’s tall concrete tree-pillars stand as arms upraised to God as we gather on a Sunday morning. There’s some small sound…people talking toward the back…but by and large we’re more quiet than noisy at 8:55 a.m. We have 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services because, it seems, city people enjoy their sleep.
Plus, most of them walk to church; it takes a minute or two and they may have to stop at the park. We have tons of concrete but not a lot of parking; hence you usually walk. You learn this about the concrete jungle the longer you live here. You swing from “El” line to bus line on vines made of Redeyes and the Trib (and the Sun-Times if you’re a southsider).
That is exhausting, too.
The meditation bowl doesn’t mark time for us. It marks space; space that we greatly need in the crowded city.
And so our hope on a Sunday morning is that worship is more rest than anything. True eighth day. I find many churches in the city use meditation bowls or bells to call people to silence in worship. This isn’t kitsch, and it isn’t syncretism.
We have tons of church bells in the city. They mark the hours, the events, national celebrations and tragedies.
But the meditation bowl doesn’t mark time for us. It marks space; space that we greatly need in the crowded city.
And so we spend time together, marking space together, listening to ancient texts and eating an ancient meal that connects us backward through time and forward through space to the God who envelops it all and the Christ who redeems it all.
And then, all of a sudden, we’re ripped apart.
They can’t take it anymore in the city. The noise, the flailing schools, the lateral career moves that just aren’t cutting it…and we’re ripped apart with a Farewell and Godspeed.
After a Farewell and Godspeed at Sunday worship, sometimes I look at our concrete pillars in the sanctuary. They’re modeled after the trees, I think, that in ancient cosmology were thought to hold up the skies. They mimic nature, and even in a city of parks like Chicago, they are our nature in many ways.
Or they become our nature.
See, I think one of the reasons people leave the city is because we can easily let the city become our nature. Cold steel toward those things around us that might soften us. We become echo chambers for the engines and breaking bottles and 4 a.m. bar evacuations, letting these things bounce off of us so that they don’t infect us.
But then we lose ourselves in the concrete jungle, becoming just one of the concrete trees with feet.
And I say all of this with a deep affection for the city, by the way.
And I say all of this knowing full well that suburbia has its own trappings. Instead of becoming steely toward life, I find suburbia can make us deaf toward the cries that we don’t hear regularly…and don’t want to hear. Instead of becoming an echo chamber for the noise of the city, I find suburbia can make us vacuous; we echo nothing because we don’t hear enough to have anything to say.
Churches, I think, can remedy this bipolar nature of city/suburban life. Churches, I think, can mark space in a way that allows us to hear the voice of our being, the God who speaks through the Christ.
But one of the sad truths I’m finding is that many of the people who leave my congregation will stop going to church altogether, despite the fact that we try to mold them here to be blessings to other communities (and offer them communities to try!). They find churches that fail to mark space and just become a less-able YMCA of activity, churches that don’t provide a counter-life for the pitfalls of an environment that constantly wants to mold you into being part of its surrounding nature. They find that the things that had drawn them into Christian community in the city are gone.
Here in the concrete jungle, it’s clear that God’s still, small voice needs a space to be heard.
Before your ire rises, let me be clear that the same can be true for a church in any place. But it’s interesting for me to see that the space for questions, the space for being, the space for connecting with the Jesus who also takes the “El” isn’t being found, by and large, in the suburbs by the folks we send there.
And I’m not saying one is doing it “right” and the other “wrong.” I just want to ask: what are we doing?
Here in the concrete jungle, it’s clear that God’s still, small voice needs a space to be heard. Our electric guitars and large organ speak those godly words, and our temperamental mic system and ancient texts speak those words, but only when they’re surrounded by the silence, the space, for something to counteract our growing steely nature and echo chamber.
We hand-wring over millennials evacuating our churches. I hand-wring over our large population of millennials evacuating the city and not finding a space to hear God’s voice in their new places.
I think that we can as a whole church provide that space, of course, and I think that Christ is calling us into that space.
But I wonder if we are deaf, or too steely, to hear this call. We hear a lot of worry that church programming can’t match the YMCA or the big-box church down the street (it can’t…and shouldn’t, I think). We hear a lot of worry that sermon series topics and multi-media keep up with the times to stay relevant (whatever that means).
But in all this worry we’re hearing, and even in my own worry over the revolving door of the city church (it is taxing to invest in people’s lives and intertwine our stories in this way around God’s gifts knowing that they’ll tear apart again soon), I am now brought to acknowledge my own steeliness.
I can steel myself toward the person coming in the door, presupposing that they’ll be here until they can’t take it anymore in the concrete jungle. And I can steel myself toward their move to suburbia…and presuppose what they’ll find there.
Or I can hear the call of the bell and open myself up to the space of God where we are called back to attention: attending to the feet of the stranger, attending to the voice of the Spirit, and attending to the call of the Redeemer who can make all things new.
Might we all take a moment, raise our hands to mimic the concrete trees of the city and the oak trees of the suburbs and refocus our ministries on making sacred space instead of mirrored noise at the sound of the bell?
After all, I have young parishioners longing for a home coming out your way, and you suburban churches have children who will move to the city in a few years. Let’s make that the revolving door, yes?
Join the Conversation
How might the voice of God that needs to be heard in the suburbs be different from the voice of God that needs to be heard in the city?
How might we deliberately create spaces for God’s voice to be heard?