by Jared Ayers
In the summer of 2008, my wife Monica and I crammed the contents of our house on Eleventh Street in Holland, Michigan, our two-year-old son, and our dog into a Budget Rental truck and made our way 739 miles east, to downtown Philadelphia. We had agreed to be guinea pigs for a new initiative in the Reformed Church in America called the “Classis of the City”: an ecclesial structure that would exist to start gospeldriven, city-positive churches in the largest metro areas in North America.
Three and a half years later, what began as a few scared friends in an apartment living room has become, through the strange providence of God, liberti church, a congregation of the Reformed Church with several hundred people in Philly’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, at the very center of the city’s life.
As we began feeble efforts to start a church, we were painfully aware that we didn’t know what we were doing. We still really don’t. But the experience of living in a city has taught us something surprising: Christian faith, spoken with a particular, Reformed “accent,” has been good news to my secular, post-Christian Rittenhouse friends.
Many of my new friends and neighbors here have been glad to encounter a kind of Christianity shaped by my old “friends”—people like Calvin, Bavinck, and Kuyper; Augustine, Luther, and Newbigin. Frankly, I never would have guessed that these theological voices would be so helpful for a church in mission without the experience of seeing this dynamic firsthand over the last several years.
In what follows, I’d like simply to offer a bit of “reporting from the field” on how the experience of inhabiting the mission of Christ in a secular city center has made me deeply thankful that I happen to inhabit an old, Dutch Reformed branch on the Christian family tree. Here are a few of the dynamics I’ve noticed.
Lessons in humility. When we moved into our first apartment, we did two things: pray desperately and meet our neighbors. To our left: a university professor, deeply committed to Richard Dawkins-esque atheism, who thought that anyone who even believed in God was, in his words, “an idiot.” To our right: a pair of tattooed DJs who ran something called “The Drunk Spelling Bee” (which is pretty much what it sounds like) in many of the clubs around town. Across from us was a woman who suffered from alcohol-induced dementia. And down the way were a pair of spiritually exploratory, sort-of-Jewish, sort-of-Hindu, careerdriven professionals.
As we’ve encountered a life with this sort of diversity, we’ve been buoyed by the bracing vision of human brokenness, and God’s “common grace,” that we Reformed folk imbibe from Abraham Kuyper, among others. A full awareness of the depths of human brokenness, and an eye for God’s grace in all people, energizes us to do two things: to be humble, and to be humble as Christians.
Because we inhabit a kind of Christianity that is keenly aware of the depths of human sin, we don’t assume for a moment that we’re better, in any way, than our friends who don’t share our beliefs or lifestyle. And because Kuyperian reflection on Holy Scripture has trained us to expect to see the fingerprints of God’s grace in everyone’s lives, we can expect to meet lots of non-Christian people who are wise, generous, kind, self-sacrificial, creative. They’re fashioned in the image of God, too!
At the same time, by God’s grace, we’ve remained moored to robust, historic Christian faith. Tragically, as we attempt to navigate life in a dense, wildly diverse place, Christians can at times develop a “faux humility,” which simply assumes that no one can really know who God is and that it’s unbridled arrogance to claim we have the “correct” way to God. The nimble mind of the late Lesslie Newbigin, and the body of work he developed over a lifetime of working in India and then in post-Christian England, has helped us here. Newbigin points out that this claim, in fact, is every bit as bold as any that Christians make. Everyone has a “take” on ultimate reality, even if one’s “take” on it is that no one should have a “take.”
The experience of being surrounded here by thoughtful, very skeptical friends and neighbors has helped me to taste in a new way a piece of spiritual wisdom that the Reformed tradition has long seen with clarity: we’re in no way better than those around us who are different than us. We are not Christians because of our goodness, or even our capacity for arriving at correct beliefs. We are Christians because we’re a mess, and God is gracious.
Confidence in the gospel. As I was doing research on Philadelphia, I stumbled upon some less-thaninspiring statistics. Currently only somewhere around three percent of Philadelphians are in any kind of Christian church on a given Sunday. And, as I write this, the kind of person who makes up the predominance of my church—a young, urban northeastern professional or creative—is among those in the United States who are least likely to be Christians.
This was disheartening news. And yet, as I’ve tried to get the theological vision of Christians like Augustine of Hippo into my imagination, nerve endings, and bloodstream while living here, it has actually helped me to clear my throat and narrate the Jesus-story with confidence. How is this? Augustine had a nose for how the grace of God operated in the life of a person—even before he or she was aware of it. He traced out the operations of God’s grace in his own life, even before he was interested in Christ, in his famous Confessions. And Augustine thought carefully about how God’s grace effectually woos women and men into loving union with Christ.
Paradoxically, living in a secular city center has deepened my confidence in God’s effectual calling and strong grace. I don’t need to fuss over whether my own cleverness, slickness, or intelligence is enough to convince the unconvinced. It’s not. I can tell the Story, and let God’s grace to work. And go to work it has! Over these three or so years, I’ve been surprised to continually see really unlikely people be drawn to the cross of Christ. As they are, I always breathe a sigh of relief that God does all the heavy lifting in the work of salvation, not me.
Off to work we go. Even the most skeptical of my friends and neighbors, I’ve noticed, are religiously devoted to what they do. This has taken a bit of getting used to for me. I grew up in suburban environs, where, broadly speaking, one’s work was mostly a way of providing for family and achieving a certain standard of living. But it’s different in Rittenhouse Square. My neighbors are tirelessly devoted activists, passionate medical professionals, focused businesspeople. They don’t work to live; they live to work. And so one question they carry into any initial conversation with or about Christian faith is whether Christianity has anything meaningful to say about what they do with their hours and days, weeks and years. Many of them couldn’t care less about having their ticket punched for eternity; they’re concentrated on what they’re doing now.
It’s here that I’m deeply glad for the Dutch Reformed “accent” of Christian faith, as compared to some other, narrower versions of Reformed theology. As Herman Bavinck famously put it, the renewal movement of the Reformation was after a “Reformation of the natural.” Luther and Calvin cared that everyone—not just monks, nuns, and priests—see their work as sacred.
The Dutch Reformed tradition has been particularly adept at reminding us that this world is God’s idea. God created it, and created humanity to steward it and create within it, to contribute to its flourishing. Encountering this kind of Christianity has given my Rittenhouse neighbors and friends a meaning-making framework for what they do during the week. A Dutch Reformed kind of Christianity preaches to vocationdriven people the good news that what they do matters and lasts—that wise, creative, good work is God’s idea! This good news has often emancipated them from being squeezed into a view of the world that says that whatever they do, however beautiful, noble, or creative, is ultimately meaningless and impermanent.
Old is the new “new.” Before becoming a Reformed Church minister and moving to Philadelphia, I spent a decade pastoring generically evangelical megachurches with lots of fog machines. We told ourselves that if we were to connect with non-Christians, we had to make sure our worship services felt more like rock concerts and not much like, well, worship services.
My experience in Philadelphia has led me to question this sort of logic. Our worship services are, in many ways, very traditional. We sing mostly hymns, read prayers, and confess our sins; we say the Creed, pray the Great Thanksgiving, and celebrate Holy Communion every week.
To my surprise, our twenty- and thirty-somethings, many of whom come to us quite unfamiliar with Christianity, love it. They like that our church feels like a church. The cadences of the ancient “fourfold ordo” of Christian worship, the songs and prayers, and the bread, wine, and water have taught many of them the gospel, and given them a language with which to engage God when they had none. They like that we don’t mess around with fog machines, laser light shows, or other licks, tricks, and gimmicks. As one person put it to me when explaining why she kept coming to our church, “I come here because I want God. If I wanted a Britney Spears concert, I’d pay the money and go see her.”
This has made me thankful to belong to a part of the Christian family that actually has a liturgy “on the books,” so to speak. Sometimes this has surprised other pastors or Christian leaders who’ve visited with us. One seminary executive, after worshiping with us, took me aside and remarked, “The last thing I expected when I came today was to pray the whole Eucharistic liturgy, and receive communion by intinction from someone covered in tattoos, declaring to me, ‘This is the Body of Christ, broken for you.'”
Week by week, as I preach the gospel, as I bless bread and wine and water, and as I live out the weekly rhythms of life in my neighborhood, I’m grateful that, surprisingly, I keep bumping into a John Calvin kind of Christianity here. I’m glad so many others are too.