Hello friends and family!
This is an unusually long post, but I really hope you read it! I’m excited to share updates about life and ministry in Chicago, and I have some great information and stories to share below:
Urban Village Church: Going Deeper
Ministry in My Neighborhood of Logan Square
For those of you who are new to this email thread, I want you to know why I choose to live in Chicago – despite the sad weather, the horrible politics, and the rampant violent crime. The truth is, God did not call me here. I don’t think God calls anyone to any particular place - apart from an audible voice (which I have not heard!). Rather, I am here because I think that, to obey Jesus’ commission, Chicago is the most strategic place to be. Why?
Last time that I wrote, I mentioned my intention to form a small non-profit organization called “Blue Line Mission” that will provide structure to my passion to see followers of Jesus equipped as servants, theologians, and pilgrims in their respective Chicago neighborhoods. The specifics have changed a bit because of some important news.
I am happy to announce that on July 1, 2013, I will begin a one-year internship with Urban Village Church in Wicker Park! This internship will afford me the opportunity to begin the work of Blue Line Mission with an energetic church body and an experienced pastoral staff. My work with Docent Research Group will end soon, and I will begin devoting 10-15 hours a week to Urban Village Church.
My passion for developing leaders who are servants of the church, theologians of the gospel, and pilgrims for the common good has not changed. I still plan to fulfill the goals of my mission; I only add one more:
Support in Prayer and Finances
As I have said before, I am wildly grateful for your love, support, prayers, and encouragement since I moved into the city one year ago. I invite you to support me in prayer and in finances for this new chapter of my life in Chicago. I will receive a monthly $500 stipend for my internship with Urban Village Church, and I must raise the funds from ministry partners like you. I am excited for you to have a direct hand in what God is doing in and through me here in Chicago. Please consider what you would like to give, and fill out a pledge form online by clicking here.
I believe that God is moving in unique ways in Chicago, and I would love for you to join me in getting swept up. Let’s lean into this fresh movement of God’s kingdom!
Praying all the best for each of you,
M. Caleb Murphree
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Last month, I wrote two articles which began with the question, “Is the church relevant in urban places?” You should look back on the first and second posts before reading any further. In those posts, I suggested that the doctrine of the incarnation and the doctrine of the church must be connected to one another. Together these doctrines yield important lessons for the urban church which are otherwise incomplete. I sketched three ways that the church in urban places must learn from the incarnation of Jesus. I concluded by saying that the church in urban places, and increasingly in suburban places as well, must embrace these incarnation-and-church lessons in order to survive. Learn or die. Why do I believe this so strongly? Well, I have at least three reasons for insisting that our changing social-cultural milieu demands a significant shift in the way that we think and act as a church in urban places.
Social Tribes Have Replaced Voluntary Associations
In the United States of America, the absence of state-sponsored churches led to many people perceiving churches as voluntary associations, especially in the post-Civil War union. Americans viewed a church as an civic organization like the Lion’s Club, a political action committee, or a soup kitchen. The individual was the center of meaning-making in society. The church, like other organizations, was merely an association which individuals voluntarily joined. The American church sought to make adjustments to this context - just as the church has done ever since Jesus commissioned his disciples to enter new countries and cultures. Although we can argue about which adjustments were wise and which were compromises with an overly individualistic culture, we must admit that these adjustments resulted in the gospel effectively reaching generations of Americans for well over a hundred years. Today our culture is different. Voluntary associations are no longer the avenue through which individuals congregate. Modern technology has shifted the avenues of congregation to social tribes. Individuals congregate with others who share their common interests, social perspectives, and language for interpreting the world. No longer do the artists of a particular neighborhood congregate voluntarily; instead, artists use technology to connect with other like-minded artists in their city, and they form a distinct “tribe.” Social tribes have replaced voluntary associations as the primary avenue for congregation and individual meaning-making. This has profound effects for how churches form and operate in urban places.
We Live with Urbanized Minds
Another significant aspect to our social-cultural milieu is what sociologist Peter Berger long ago called the “urbanized mind.” Because of technology, the world has shrunk to such a degree that global ideas affect our neighborhoods and our neighborhoods affect the globe. Our “globalized” society forces individuals into contact with ideas and individuals who are very different and contradictory to their own ideas and identities. Pervasive contact with “the other” creates increasing doubt regarding one’s sense of self and one’s interpretation of the world. Individuals must reckon with the possibility of having chosen a “wrong” or “less fulfilling” identity or worldview. This phenomenon Berger calls urbanization, and its effect is the “urbanized mind.” Whether we have actual physical contact with religious and philosophical “others” or not doesn’t matter. Thanks to mass media, our consciousness is bombarded by the uncertainty that global diversity creates.
Many things result from an urbanized mind. The most obvious effect is that individuals feel perpetually rootless. Berger joined with other sociologists to write The Homeless Mind about forty years ago. They predicted that Western society would begin producing generations which were paralyzed by rootlessness and indecision. I think their predictions were right. From my anecdotal experience, young adults today struggle to find a sense of “home.” They feel incapable of putting down roots because there seem to be so many possibilities which may be more fulfilling. What if I sign a lease or take a job or begin a relationship and something better comes along? Leaving your options open is supposed to make you feel free. But instead, you create an environment in which you are afraid to form committed friendships and relationships and in which you refuse to set long-term life goals. You feel rootless, aimless, homeless.
If the Church Doesn’t Incarnate in Social Tribes, She Will Die
The challenge the church faces is whether she will adjust to these new realities or not. If we are on mission in the manner of Jesus, we must make adjustments to our context which are wise and loving. In my previous post on this topic, I wrote that the manner of our sentness is one of humility (Philippians 2), one of Spirit-empowerment (Luke 4:14, Acts 1:1-9), and one of contextual love (John 1). Contextual love means that we seek to love our neighbors with words and deeds which are understood from within their frame of reference. Our culture’s frame of reference has changed, and the church must adjust with both wisdom and holiness. If we don’t learn from these cultural changes, we will continue to practice church life for a society that is rapidly disappearing. We should not be surprised, then, if our churches disappear along with it.
What should we do differently? In my final post of this series, I will suggest some tangible ideas. In brief, the church in urban places must begin to ask what “incarnational ministry” looks like in this new social-cultural milieu. What would it look like if committed followers of Jesus entered the social tribes of urbanized individuals and lived as counter-cultural communities? What would it look like if the church in urban places lived with missional intentionality - that is, with a vision and a strategy which purposefully carries on the mission of Jesus in the manner of Jesus? Merely creating a church version of Match.com - often called small group ministries - will not do. The church in urban places must prioritize the creation of Christian friendships within social tribes which already exist. From that place of incarnational community, our “tribes within tribes” can join God in what he is already doing. And perhaps, by the grace of God, the gospel might begin to advance in these ever-challenging, ever-changing urban places.
I live along the Blue Line corridor in Chicago, one of the two largest subway lines in the city (what Chicagoans call the ‘L’) as well as one of the oldest subway lines in the country. About every other day I hop on the train toward downtown, and often I spend the brief trip observing the cityscape as we speed along the elevated tracks first built in 1895. At one point, the Blue Line rises to the height of four stories as it was required in 1914 to accommodate another train line that was being elevated beneath it. The result of the four-story elevation is a view of the city that, from my experience, is unmatched anywhere else on the ‘L’. As I stand staring out the window, I see an overwhelming sweep of the downtown skyline, I see the long string of high rises stretching alone the north side lakeshore, and I see hundred-year-old church steeples peppering the miles and miles of shoulder-to-shoulder apartments. Every trip, without fail, I am overcome by the view. I am not merely astounded by the beautiful vista; I am stunned that I am looking face-to-face at millions of people who are each living a unique story filled with laughter, tragedy, joy, suffering, and, for the vast majority, the absence of any conscious experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ. It is a beautiful, sobering view.
As my eyes scan the view, I often ask myself, “What is needed for God’s kingdom to go forward here? How many more churches? How many more people who know, love, and follow Jesus?” I want to know what would it look like if movements of people who are living as instruments of God’s kingdom were unleashed across the city of Chicago. What would be different if there were ever-multiplying communities of people living in step with the gospel as they love God and love their neighbor? Chicago needs kingdom movements unleashed in order to renew, reproduce, and restore our broken communities. I think of at least two things that these kingdom movements would do.
Kingdom Movements Promote Flourishing for ALL
I am a Christian, and I love Jesus, and I long to see more people experience the love of God in Jesus Christ. One of the marks of following Jesus is a radical self-giving to all people, regardless of their beliefs or background. When God’s people were captured and carried away to an ancient pagan city, God sent the prophet Jeremiah to remind his people that their duty was not to look to their own interests but to settle down, to build homes, and to "seek the peace and prosperity of the city." Similar to the ancient Israelites, God’s people today are pilgrims in this world. And although we are waiting for Jesus to return and to set the world right, we are to participate now in the work of God’s kingdom for the good of all people. We are to love our neighbors as much as ourselves, looking to others’ interests in the same way that Jesus looked to ours. Kingdom movements promote the flourishing of ALL people, not because we water down our Christian theology but precisely because we dig deep into our theology - a theology which is centered on a God who entered humanity and gave his life for the good of those who did not love him. Communities of God’s kingdom dig deep into their faith and promote the flourishing of all people in their cities.
Kingdom Movements Proclaim Witness for Jesus
Communities which live in step with the gospel as instruments of God’s kingdom are not ashamed or afraid to explain the reason for their tireless love and service. The work of justice and restoration is motivated by a gratitude and a hope rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Kingdom movements proclaim witness for Jesus, and by this I mean that movements of God’s kingdom direct attention again and again to Jesus. Even more, compelling communities of the kingdom provide a kaleidescope of witnesses. Standing on a street corner with a bullhorn is a valid though sorely ineffective form of witness. Many more options exist, and kingdom movements make use of them all. Kingdom movements proclaim witness through their service to the poor, through their advocacy of the oppressed, through their remarkably close-knit friendships with one another, through their serious-minded theology, through their joyous parties, through their integration of faith and work, and ultimately through their articulation of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. All of the activities of kingdom movements center around Jesus, and consequently all of their activities proclaim witness, no matter how indirect, for Jesus’ redemptive, transformative power.
My heart and passion is to be a servant for unleashing kingdom movements in Chicago. My personal “tagline” across my social networks always begins with “servant,” and that is very intentional phrasing. I am a servant far before I am a theologian and a pilgrim. All that I do is caught up in the story of God as he brings his kingdom through Jesus Christ into this world, and my primarily role in that story is as a supporting cast member, standing outside of the spotlight as a servant to the main actor, Jesus Christ. I am studying as a theologian and journeying as a pilgrim with the hopeful confidence that my small acts of service will in some way be used by the Spirit of God to unleash kingdom movements here in Chicago. God knows we need a movement of the Spirit. The city is broken, not merely because of bureaucracy or politics or poverty or indifference, but ultimately because all of us choose lives of self-determination rather than lives dependent on the one true God. But thanks be to God that through Jesus our offenses are forgiven, our lives renewed, and our hope restored. Now we have a hand in what God is doing. He is doing amazing things in Chicago. I invite you to join God in his work here, at the very least by praying for the city, but even more boldly by moving to Chicago to join in unleashing kingdom movements for the flourishing of all people to the glory of our God. I assure you, from looking out the windows of the ‘L’ every week, that plenty of kingdom work is waiting for you. Together, let’s make this city better for the sake of the kingdom.