Cayuga Street.sq

Pilgrims and Place: Reflections on Geography and Theology

This article is an excerpt from the book by the author, View From the Urban Loft: Developing a Theological Framework for Understanding the City (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2012)

Tom lived in the neighborhood where we were planting a church. He was a brilliant man with a PhD and an agnostic and I was a late-20s church planter. I met him one day at the park across from where we lived. Every evening as the desert sun was setting, the park came alive with families and older couples with their dogs. After a few times of meeting and chatting with Tom at the park, we met up for coffee at Starbucks. Even though he was a good thirty years older than me, we struck up a friendship. He knew I was a church planter and interested in spiritual things. He was somewhat of a scientist who was interested in spiritual things as well, albeit of a different kind. At the time, we were both interested, for differing reasons, in Native American spirituality. I was immersing myself in the world of the desert environment as a hiking and mountain-biking guide learning what I could about local history, archaeology, the various Native American tribes, and geology. This brought me into direct contact with Native American spirituality, given my relationship with other hiking guides who were interested in it, the proliferation of tribes in our area and across the state of Arizona, as well as our new church plant that was forming a relationship with a ministry project on the Hopi Reservation in the northeast part of the state. I think Tom was simply interested because he was interested.

Being the academic that he was and with my love for books, we decided it’d be fun to meet weekly to read a book and discuss it together. His pursuits were enjoyment, exploring new ideas, and exercising his intellect, while mine was ultimately to see him come to faith in Christ. We settled on the book God is Red: A Native View of Religion by Vine Deloria Jr. It turned out to be a fascinating book to read and discuss. Deloria’s intent was to compare and contrast Native American spirituality versus conventional mainstream American Christianity. The Protestant upbringing of his childhood had left a bad taste in his mouth, which led him on a journey of discovery of the religion of his Native American ancestry. Needless to say, the book did not paint the church in a very positive light and based upon his examples, there was no denying its past ugliness.

For the purposes of this article, Deloria brought up some pertinent points that are applicable to the idea of a theology of place. It wasn’t until I read his book in 2003 that I gave this notion much consideration. I felt there was something missing in our theology, particularly as evangelicals, that I couldn’t put my finger on. As I read God is Red and then took a trip to do a work project on the Hopi Reservation, I began feeling that there was a disconnect between the church and this idea of place. On the trip, I was exposed to the village of Old Oraibi, which is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States. People have been living generation after generation in that same village since before A.D. 1100. Talk about putting down roots. At that time in my life, I was merely a migrant, having moved into a suburban setting with thousands of other migrants who had little to no tie to the community or the land. Tom and my book club and the experience in Old Oraibi began pushing me to study and uncover a biblical theology of place.

In God is Red, I encountered a Native American view and concept of place that was in stark contrast to the suburban evangelicalism that I was most acquainted with. As I thumbed through the chapters and read, there was a striking familiarity between what Deloria described and the concept of place as found in the Old Testament:

The vast majority of Indian tribal religions, therefore, have a sacred center at a particular place, be it a river, a mountain, a plateau, valley, or other natural feature. This center enables the people to look out along the four dimensions and locate their lands, to relate all historical events within the confines of this particular land, and to accept responsibility for it. Regardless of what subsequently happens to the people, the sacred lands remain as permanent fixtures in their cultural or religious understanding.1

Over and over what we find across the pages of the Old Testament is a people rooted in context (land, place) through their relationship with the Promised Land.

Our first response may be to scoff at what Deloria is trying to communicate. However, if we remove Indian tribal religions and inserted the ancient people of Israel, then all of a sudden it does not seem so outlandish. Over and over what we find across the pages of the Old Testament is a people rooted in context (land, place) through their relationship with the Promised Land. Also, intensely spiritual activities (encounters with God) were memorialized by the construction of an altar, a pile of rocks, or something to remember when we met God, so when successive generations came across this memorial, they would be reminded of the story of what God done for their forefathers in that place.

We find one such story when Israel crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. The crossing was no mere fording of a river; rather, God miraculously stopped the water flowing so the entire nation could cross on dry ground. Upon reaching the other side, God told Joshua to mark the crossing as a place of remembrance.

When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the LORD said to Joshua, “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’” Then Joshua called the twelve men from the people of Israel, whom he had appointed, a man from each tribe. And Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the LORD your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Joshua 4:1-7)

This is not too unlike what Deloria writes when he states, “Context is therefore all-important for both practice and the understanding of reality. The places where revelations were experienced were remembered and set aside as locations, through rituals and ceremonials, the people could once again communicate with the spirits.”2 In mostly preliterate societies, we find this idea of physical remembrance vital to the ongoing identity of the people. Somehow and somewhere along the way we “modern day” worshippers of God have lost our roots and connectedness to place.

A theology of place gets its beginning in the Old Testament where place mattered in God’s plan and for God’s people. Since then, we’ve lost touch with place and the church has become mobile. What would happen if we become rooted in place? In a highly mobile society, the church, rooted in a neighborhood, can become a stabilizing agent of community transformation. Before we dismiss the notion of place as simply an Old Testament concept and not applicable for today, let me share with you a familiar example of the kind of tragedy that can occur when we undervalue place in the role of mission.

While I served as a church planting strategist in Tucson, Arizona, I had the privilege of working and networking with church planters and pastors across the city spanning denominational lines. My heart was for the city, the city center in particular, and the surrounding neighborhoods, which brought me to that area on a weekly basis, whether for meetings, shopping at one of the ethnic grocery stores, or simply to work out of coffee shops. One of the cultural hubs of the area is Fourth Avenue between the downtown core and the University of Arizona. It is a vibrant, funky place full of odd shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and the like. A perfect place for mission. “It can be argued the most creative new frontier was back in the central cities.”3 Just off the avenue was the old historic First Baptist Church. Back in the early part of the twentieth century, it was the church in the city and a mega-church before there were really very many with thousands of weekend worshippers. Fast forward to today (or when I left a few years ago), there were but a handful of elderly people left in this massive, grand, historic, and architecturally beautiful building. Authors Ray Bakke and Sam Roberts write eloquently about the story that has unfolded concerning these historic city center churches that they refer to as Old Firsts:

Old Firsts have now come upon hard times. Their once thriving memberships became depleted when countless members chased the “American Dream” to the outer fringes of the suburbs. The large, magnificent edifices, so imposing in their grandeur in an earlier time, now appear forlorn as row upon row of empty pews give mute testimony to a faded glory. The few loyal worshipers who do return on Sunday out of a sense of loyalty must now pass sullen neighbors who, despite living in close proximity to the church, do not feel that it is “their” church. Old Firsts seem forgotten by the wealthy and expendable to the men and women in power–so unlike an earlier time when the powerful needed membership in Old Firsts as a part of their respectability.4

What has taken place in so many city center churches is that the neighborhood and demographics have radically changed since their formation. As new people moved in, the ethnic makeup of the community transitioned. People began commuting in from greater distances, and the church found itself still holding on to its past. This same story can be told of church after church in the city centers across North America regardless of denomination. The latest happenings of First Baptist Church Tucson found it leveraging its assets to fund a church planting effort in the far reaches of the suburban fringe. More than a church plant, it was a relocation. While the building was rooted in the city, the church was attempting to flee the city. While those may seem like strong words, how else can we make sense of it? In light of this scenario that has taken place over and over again, Bakke writes:

The evangelicalism I grew up with had a theology of persons and programs, but it lacked a conscious theology of place. Protestants generally cut themselves off from “parish” thinking – an ongoing commitment to their place of ministry – so that when a church’s location became “inconvenient” it simply relocated to a new place, often near a freeway (reflecting our society’s shift from a walking to an automobile culture). Along the way, we abandoned real estate that had been prayed for fervently by Christians before us – and along with it abandoned any commitment to the neighborhoods we left behind.5

Developing a theology of place can indeed be a tricky and arduous task. What we desire to do is say no more and no less than what Scripture says. I have heard amazing lectures on this topic of a theology of place with varying starting points, such as being rooted in Trinitarian theology, the missio Dei, and so forth. Usually it is accompanied by quoting dead theologians of yesteryear with names that are hard to pronounce. My attempt here in this article is to simply broach the subject, make some observations, set forth some applications, and move on.

A cursory reading of the Old Testament reveals some interesting insights in regards to place and God’s emphasis on it. We find a holy land, a holy city, a holy temple, and a holy people–“holy” in the sense of being “set apart.” Let’s start with the holy people. God called Abram out and through him created a holy, set apart, people. “And I will make of you a great nation.” (Genesis 12:2) Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, we find this called-out people, which became the nation of Israel, struggling with what it means to live in covenantal relationship with God. Next we find that the holy people needed a home or a country to dwell in. God provided that as well. “Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.” (Genesis 12:7) God’s called-out people would have a country of their own with cities to dwell in, where they were expected to live out their relationship with God before the nations. “The mission of God to the cities of the world was to be lived out in Israel’s theocratic self-understanding. Covenantal commitment to Yahweh carried with it a rejection of loyalty to the gods of the city-states and empire and rejection, therefore, of how those urban societies were ordered.”6

En route to the Promised Land, God instituted a system of worship, celebration, and sacrifices centered around the tabernacle. Years later under the leadership of Solomon, this temporary tent was set aside for a permanent structure, the temple. This temple was located in Jerusalem. The holy people had a holy land and in that land was a holy city with a holy temple. Place was most certainly central to the identity of Israel, their practice of worship, but it was not supposed to just exist within certain geographic and ethnic boundaries. “The Lord who reigned over Israel had global and universalistic intentions.”7

Fast forward to the New Testament and the idea of place was completely uprooted. First of all, the identity of the holy people exploded beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and a geo-political identity. No longer was it tied to those of Jewish descent or relegated to the nation of Israel. The good news crossed all ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and political boundaries. The center of gravity shifted away from its Jewish origins to include the Gentiles and the rest of the world. Now the idea of a holy people referred to a spiritual identity in Christ rather than a bloodline.

This shift also radically altered God’s relationship with both the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem. “The Jewish/Jerusalem-centered community, shaped so profoundly by its long narrative history of God’s dealings with them, has been displaced.”8 Across the pages of the New Testament, a decisive geographic shift takes place. The locus of the story in the Gospels through the first part of Acts was rooted in Israel and the Jews. By the end of Acts, it was as if the camera had shifted and zoomed out. The location of the drama unfolding of the emerging first-century church, the new holy people, was now taking place in numerous other cities of the eastern Mediterranean, including Rome itself. Lastly, in A.D. 70, Roman legions destroyed the temple and indeed all of Jerusalem. Yet even before its destruction, Christ’s death and resurrection had rendered the temple structure and the sacrificial system as no longer necessary for worshipping God. In fact, the temple as a physical entity in Jerusalem in Israel had been replaced by a new spiritual reality—that the followers of Jesus themselves are now God’s holy people. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19)

God calls his people out of the world, transforms them, and then sends them back into the world. In other words, place has missiological implications.

Where does that leave us today in regard to the role or theology of place in the mission of God? Constructing a theology of place must consider the context of where the missio Dei is to take place. Today, that context is that over half of the world’s population are urban dwellers. Yet the challenge is we often see ourselves as pilgrims, sojourners, or aliens. David Bosch aptly states, “The church is viewed as the people of God and, by implication then, as a pilgrim church.”9 This would seem to imply that we ought to have no attachment to place. The natural progression seems to short-cut or make irrelevant any concept of a theology of place beyond where we happen to live. However, Bosch also states: “The church is a pilgrim not simply for the practical reason that in the modern age it no longer calls the tune and is everywhere finding itself in a Diaspora situation; rather, to be a pilgrim in the world belongs intrinsically to the church’s ex-centric position. It is ek-klesia, ‘called out’ out of the world, and sent back into the world.”10

This is a decisive shift! Called out and sent back. The very nature or definition of the church is that we are the “called out ones” which gets at the idea of what ekklesia means. However, the tables are turned in John 20:21, where Jesus tells his apostles, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” God calls his people out of the world, transforms them, and then sends them back into the world. In other words, place has missiological implications.

One of the challenges at hand in regard to place is its future dimensions. Many have written about certain eschatological doctrines of the twentieth century that took root in the imaginations of Western Christians.11 This has led to a disregard of place and its importance. The assumption was that if in the end everything “burns,” then why care for it and steward it now? Why care for the environment? Why seek to see cities redeemed? If everything will get burned up like useless trash at the end of time anyway, then why bother? Wayne Grudem asks, “But will earth simply be renewed, or will it be completely destroyed and replaced by another earth, newly created by God?”12 He further points out the tension these questions cause, especially in Protestant circles. “Within the Protestant world, there has been disagreement as to whether the earth is to be destroyed completely and replaced, or just changed and renewed.”13 Depending on how we answer those questions may dictate not only our view on a theology of place, but even our degree of involvement today with such things as creation care and urban renewal. After weighing the various arguments, Grudem’s own conclusion is that, “The Reformed position seems preferable here, for it is difficult to think that God would entirely annihilate his original creation, thereby seeming to give the devil the last word and scrapping the creation that was originally ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31).”14

Place is redeemable. “Salvation and spirituality are to be found,” Millard Erickson writes, “not by fleeing from or avoiding the material realm, but by sanctifying it.”15 Again, the scope of place is more than the natural environment, such as oceans, forests, plant and animal life, and so forth. It encompasses our cities. In other words, we’re not to flee from cities, but rather to live in them and carry out our responsibility to care for them, the people within them, and work towards renewal. We are God’s agents of urban transformation.

More than what will happen to place at the end of time, a theology of place has direct bearing on our lives today. “There is a ‘theology of place.’ God calls us to a place to be present; totally immersed as His agents of transforming presence. We are called to commit to a location for time periods and serve whatever needs arise there.”16 Any construction of a theology of place necessitates that it is rooted in missiology, for without that focus, it is easy to wander down many side roads. Far from simply being a set of theological assumptions about place, in the context of this book, this offers the urban practitioner more impetus to love the place along with the people to which God has called them. “God often calls us to commit to a place. God often accompanies that call with an unusual curiosity–if not supernatural love–for that place.”17 Place is of crucial importance in urban contexts as the intensity of where one lives is more prevalent due to density and has wide-reaching implications than in other contexts. It is why where we choose to live, minister, and/or plant churches is paramount. A theology of place is more than a cognitive adherence; it has influence over our everyday lives. It propels us into the city. “People of biblical faith are called to live in the city, to raise their families there, and to share in the struggle for life and the things that make for peace.”18

Our theology of place has a direct bearing even on where we are drawn to minister and plant churches. If in our theological schemas, place is undervalued, or in this case various parts of the city are neglected, then there is a high likelihood of avoidance.

In Metrospiritual, I spent considerable time exploring some of the features of calling in terms of where church planters feel that God is leading them. In looking at place, and in this case the city, it was helpful to consider where church planters felt drawn to. In light of my research into where churches were being planted in the city and why, I posed some clarifying questions: “The first question to ask is: Is God calling me to this part of the city? Is the decision based upon preference or fear? Is cultural compatibility and geographic familiarity the most important factor that weighs the heaviest? My fear is that if we church planters only stick to the parts of the city that we like, love, and are full of people just like us, then there will be many parts of the city that will continue to be untouched.”19 Our theology of place has a direct bearing even on where we are drawn to minister and plant churches. If in our theological schemas, place is undervalued, or in this case various parts of the city are neglected, then there is a high likelihood of avoidance. That does not necessarily mean that everyone needs to pool and collect in the same parts of the city, but to instead realize that where we choose to live can be in some ways reflective of our theological assumptions of place. Place leads into other doctrines as well, such as the Incarnation. Jesus was place-specific in that he was born into a specific time, place, culture, and among a specific group of people. As The Message renders John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” The calling for us is to go and do likewise.

The call to a place followed by a commitment, even a love and perhaps a supernatural mantle, is incarnational ministry. The word usually applies to God the Spirit taking on the flesh of humankind as Jesus Christ did. When applied to urban ministry, it means that a ‘person becomes one of us.’ It means moving into a neighborhood and taking on the same circumstances of joy and pain that everyone else is experiencing. It means connecting to the hopes and destinies of the people of the neighborhood. It is living life among and with those who were are ministering among and with.20

Again, the practical importance of place is that it dictates our involvement in our cities today and into the future. Do we have hope for our cities? Do we jump in to see community transformation take place or simply throw our hands up and wait for the Rapture? I will leave you with two questions about place and cities that Ray Bakke poses: “Does God care only about people, or does he also care about places, including cities? And if the Holy Spirit of Christ is in us, should we also care for both urban people and urban places?”21


1 Vine Deloria, Jr. God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 3rd edition (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003), 67.
2 Ibid.
3 Lyle E. Schaller, Center City Churches: The New Urban Frontier (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993), 13.
4 Raymond J. Bakke and Samuel K. Roberts, The Expanded Mission of City Center Churches (Seattle, WA: International Urban Associates, 1998), 16-17.
5 Raymond J. Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 60.
6 Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 97.
7 Ibid.
8 Alan Roxburgh, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 29.
9 David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 373.
10 Ibid., 373-374.
11 For further reading around this theme look at the theological debates surrounding the Great Reversal.
12 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 1160.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 402.
16 Brad Smith, City Signals: Principles And Practices for Ministering in Today’s Global Communities (Birmingham: New Hope Publishers, 2008), 127.
17 Ibid., 128.
18 Mark R. Gornik, To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 115.
19 Sean Benesh, Metrospiritual: The Geography of Church Planting (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011), 104.
20 Smith, City Signals, 131.
21 Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City, 61.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *