Could Keller Have Saved Detroit?

I haven’t seen too many posts from the transformers about Detroit’s decline and bankruptcy. (I can’t say that I would be all that concerned with Detroit if I were not now a Michigander.) Detroit is not chic. Even when it was the Paris of the mid-West it was still in fly over country and didn’t have the ginormous buildings that made East Coast folks marvel at Chicago. Then there was the automobile industry. If Detroit had been the home of Mercedes or BMW maybe New Yorkers would have cared. Just as likely, New Yorkers (and Philadelphians) would have preferred Chevys and Fords if Detroit made Mercedes and BeeMers.

Still, the woes of Detroit do put into perspective the hyperventilation that goes on in some neo-Calvinist circles when folks talk about the power of the gospel to redeem all of life. Cases like Detroit would certainly call for a bit of qualification to follow those inspirational claims since I am not sure that even having thirty full Reformed and Presbyterian congregations could have forestalled a constellation of circumstances that calls for David Simon’s genius. In other words, if you whet people’s appetites for transforming culture, then don’t they become disappointed when Detroits come along (as Geneva did not though its ecclesial fortunes have declined while its political and economic success has soured soared).

In which case, what the gospel does is not cultural but spiritual. And what works culturally are matters, still from God, but having little to do with what he sent his only begotten son to do.

And to help with this lesson in two-kingdom distinction-making, along comes an astute post by Matt Feeney on why the suburbs overwhelmed Detroit — because Detroit was a city that resembled a suburb:

For a long time I’ve thought an underappreciated factor in Detroit’s demise was this mix of housing, or, this lack of a mix of housing. The city is a virtual monoculture, residentially speaking, 140 square miles of detached, owner-occupied, single-family homes. Being a monoculture made it vulnerable to a particular pathogen that infected many large cities, but not so thoroughly as it did Detroit, the run on real estate known as white flight. If you were renting an apartment in a dense patch of, say, Chicago, in the 1950s or early 60s, the distant sound of whites fleeing areas to the south and west perhaps foretold a change in your neighborhood, which you may or may not have welcomed, but it didn’t make you panic that your biggest investment was heading for a collapse in value, because you were just renting. And so those who did own houses on the leafy back stretches of your cross-street could take your relative equanimity, and of the whole clot of other renters you’re part of, into account. Not everyone would be reacting to the same cues. Change would be slower and less total. It might be worth it to stay put.

Homeowners in Detroit had no such break on their panic. It was all houses, almost all owned by the families inside them. Maybe they were racists, the white people who owned and sold those houses, but it wouldn’t have mattered. You didn’t have to be a racist to flee whitely. You just had to suspect that some meaningful portion of your neighbors were, or that some meaningful portion of your non-racist neighbors were engaged in a slightly more anxious calculation than you were, for your market behavior to become identical to theirs: Sell! Racial fear and the endemic anxiety of homeowning fueled each other. The ’67 riots didn’t help, but those two factors were already spinning in a feedback loop.

This suggests another convenient, Jane Jacobs- and James Scott-inspired hypothesis I’ll just throw out there: Detroit’s stunning increase in violence, which made it the Murder Capitol in ’73, was not unrelated to this housing scheme. As in arid planned cities like Brasilia that turn sketchier than anyone imagined, life in the atomized residential blocks of Detroit is carried on less visibly, more amenably to crime, than in dense urban streets with 24-hour business happening under the streetlights of busy intersections. Crime obviously happens amid urban density, but maybe it’s easier for violence and fear to invade and conquer a place where so much less other life is visibly happening. And maybe this housing scheme heightened racial suspicion by making so much black-white interaction so private, comparatively, and high-stakes, subjectively, our property lines tending to be etched in vigilance already, if not yet fear: Why is that black man walking down our all-white street? Past our homes? Where our children live?

This non-mix of housing has of course made Detroit a less attractive target for repopulation and gentrification than pretty much any city of its original size, not to mention of its cultural prominence. (And this is the real issue in this conversation, not why Detroit went downhill – virtually all eastern cities lost jobs and people and saw crime rise after WWII – but why it kept going downhill and saw no revival as even humble rivals like Cleveland did.) Indeed, some of Detroit’s closer suburbs feel more like urban neighborhoods, by the light of the current urban BoBo revival, than most of Detroit does, or did, or, probably, could. By the 1980s middle-/working-class Royal Oak was already becoming a hip quasi-urban destination, with clubs and restaurants lining Woodward Avenue. More recently this role’s been taken up by Ferndale, right across blighted Eight Mile Road to the north, a humble old working-class suburb of little houses that used to be called “Fabulous Ferndale” ironically, because of its dilapidation under the care of poor whites, but which now bears that handle unironically, or in ironically self-canceling irony about the old irony – because it’s hip now, and because it’s where the gay people live and, perforce, fabulous. Buzzing right up against Detroit as it does, anchored in a strip of Nine Mile Road that probably has more vintage clothing stores than trees, peopled by hipsters living in its low-slung houses on its highly uninteresting streets, Ferndale feels like the gentrifying BoBo impulse throwing up its hands and saying, “Look, we’re really trying, but this is the best we can do.”

City planning in the name of Christ might help though it would likely add unnecessarily to too many meetings. But how about some basic city planning with or without Christ for all those pikers living this side of glory?

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  1. David Zook
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Scott: I will have to get back to you on the definition of culture … I have much to do today. I think part of the general disconnect is how missiology fits in with ecclesiology. Maybe, we can touch on that a bit later.

  2. Zrim
    Posted August 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    David, you write: “When people trust Christ through the means of grace and abide in him, there is a peace which surpasses all understanding that comes into their hearts. As a result, relationships begin to heal, marriages become stronger, abuse stops,and all the rest. If a lot of people who live in the same area come to Christ, the effects of that would change the culture.”

    I know this is the standard refrain, and it plays well to flatter the faithful, but frankly it’s a version of prosperity gospel. Faith just doesn’t yield these kinds of results, in fact the opposite tends to come with faith. How does one read the NT where the faithful suffer and die and harmonize it with this sort of religious optimism?

  3. Posted August 15, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting to note that the primary example of “cultural renewal” and “making all things new” in Scripture was carried out unilaterally by God and didn’t go so well for mankind — the flood. Not a lot of examples of people rallying around the gospel and renewing their communities. Most people beyond the age of 40 have kind of moved on from that notion, unless they’re selling something.

    There is Joe Bayly’s “The Gospel Blimp”, though:

  4. David Zook
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    Zrim: I am able to harmonize the two quite easily. It depends on context. Here in America, we don’t suffer NT or early Christian persecution because we are protected by the constitution from institutional persecution. Not so much in Rome or Jerusalem back then and not so much in Saudi Arabia today or Egypt in the past 72 hours.

    I would agree with you that when a person trusts Christ, their lives could get more difficult for a while before it gets better, but it’s usually due to living through their consequences of their former life. The darkest, yet sweetest time of life was the nine months after I trusted Christ.

    The gospel does heal … after all we are ministers of reconciliation. Read “As We Forgive”. It is a chilling and powerful collection of seven stories of reconciliation and forgiveness for the victims and perps of the genocide in Rwanda back in 1993.

    When people repent of their sins to those they have sinned against … which includes confessing, asking for forgiveness, turning from their ways, and asking Jesus for the strength to move forward much of the relational brokenness present in their lives would be on their way to being healed.

  5. Zrim
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    David, then could it be that the American arrangement, contrary to popular belief, is a hinderance to Christian piety? I don’t say that to be flippant, and I sure like my religious freedoms, but if as the Bible suggests martyrdom and persecution are marks of God’s favor on his people then I might have cause to wonder if my life of ease and comfort are marks of, well, something less than favor. My point is that if you are laboring for a temporal life marked by health and happiness then I wonder what you might have against the prosperity gospel?

  6. Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink


    Have you read much Machen or have you read’s Hart’s book on Machen’s experience?

    I do welcome you here because we haven’t had a perspective like yours for awhile. Maybe never that I can recall.

    The reason I asked about Machen is I think most of what he experienced when he stood valiantly for truth was opposition and frustration. He had no luck whatsoever “making all things new” within Presbyterianism. In fact, he was basically kicked out of the PCUSA and Princeton Theological Seminary (which led to the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Seminary).

    People didn’t flock to join the OPC then or now and I haven’t heard many stories of OPC’s renewing the cultures in which their churches are located. How do you assess that? Is the OPC somehow unfaithful or unbelieving?

  7. Posted August 16, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Machen died on a speaking trip in North Dakota, trying to drum up support for the newly created OPC. He was born into wealth in the east. I don’t know if one would say from an earthly perspective that things “got better” for him as he matured in Christ. They probably got worse and certainly got harder.

    As I grow older I become more convinced of and comforted by the notion that God’s ways are not man’s ways.

  8. kent
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Yes, filling that hole in my heart led to me quickly becoming a miwwionaire, I now own a mansion and a yacht.

  9. Chortles Weakly
    Posted August 16, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    David, my service and commitment to my old school church nearly cost me my marriage and things are just tolerable at the moment. Before you say “You’re not doing it right” I’ll admit you’re probably right. But there’s no formula to crank out a perfect suburban Vision Forum family, antebellum rural paradise of patriarchy, or victoriously awesome Xian hipster life. That’s what the guys are saying.

  10. Posted August 16, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Pulled an all-nighter at work last night and managed to watch a really good documentary on Harry Nilsson:

    Also watched most of “Top of the Lake”, the series starring Elisabeth Moss. Pretty dark. We’ll see how it wraps up.

    Meanwhile the first four episodes of “The Larry Sanders Show” arrived in my mailbox.

  11. David Zook
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Been away for a couple of days … life and ministry often get in the way of great conversation.

    To clean up several items:

    1) Someone on the first page asked about the definition of culture. Cultures generally have a common language, government, beliefs, commercial system (like capitalism, socialism, etc) education system, arts, science, food, and the like. When the talk turns to “transforming the culture”, many people in the missional camp do not have in mind changing governmental policies or establishing new laws as their first priority. (That’s the D. James Kennedy and Dobson crowd)

    Rather, their concern is primarily the battle within people’s hearts. They see the heart as full of idols and is the battleground between good and evil. If that is the case, then how do you reach these people?

    The same way missionaries do overseas: understand the community your serving, find ways to serve in order to earn a voice to speak into their lives (in many parts of urban America, the church has no voice and conservative Christians are dismissed out of hand), then speak that voice and call for action. BTW: This takes years … something a few missional people don’t get.

    History tells us “the primary change agents in the spread of faith … were the men and women who earned their livelihood in some purely secular manner and spoke their faith to those whom they met in this natural fashion.” Kennenth Scott Latourette The History of the Expansion of Christianity V. 1 p. 116.

    This is the way our faith spreads the surest and most sustainable way throughout generations and over time cultures do begin to change. It took the Roman empire about three hundred years to change … during those three hundred years, I suspect there were many setbacks along the way, but God continued to move forward in order to fulfill his ultimate mission found in Revelation.

    The best thing we can do is teach our people how to communicate the gospel in appropriate ways at the appropriate times.

    Zrim: I do think our first amendment rights do play into the church not being on fire, but that may not be the whole story. There have been a number of “revivals” here and since our founding millions of hearts have been transformed due to his power and love.

    Chortles: Life is difficult and discipleship does cost regardless the type of church. Sin is real, suffering is painful and the cost is often great. There is nothing perfect this side of heaven and to paint life in those rosy terms is not right. Despite us never attaining perfection here, we can attain healing. After all Jesus is the Great Physician who has redeemed us from all that binds us and sets us free from the wounds we carry. That’s the power of his resurrection.

    Erik: I have read about Machen and admire him. He absolutely did the right thing by severing ties with the New Princeton crowd. I wonder if the Spirit of God left the PCUSA before Machen did? If so, that would explain why Machen was unsuccessful in reforming the denomination and many people since him have failed as well. Ministry is only successful when the Spirit precedes our work. As far as forming his new works, the OPC and WTS: there will always be frustration and headaches when starting up. It is tough and troubling work, so that is why the Spirit going before is so crucial.

  12. Zrim
    Posted August 18, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    David, you said: “When the talk turns to ‘transforming the culture’, many people in the missional camp do not have in mind changing governmental policies or establishing new laws as their first priority. (That’s the D. James Kennedy and Dobson crowd)

    Rather, their concern is primarily the battle within people’s hearts. They see the heart as full of idols and is the battleground between good and evil.”

    Right, this is the kinder and gentler inside-out transformationism, as opposed to the harsher outside-in transformationism. But it’s all still in the orbit of transformationism. The problem with the kinder, gentler form is that it banks on a rather naive way of understanding the world actually works, as in the more Christians there are the more the world changes. I’d recommend Hunter’s “To Change the World”:

    If there is an exemplar whose life mission touches all of these themes and strategies—and who is celebrated as such—it is William Wilberforce (1757-1833). Wilberforce was a member of the British House of Commons and spent over forty years seeking to end slavery and “reform the manners” of his society. He was a devout Christian who believed that true personal change came through salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, and his ideals were fed by his deep faith. As an activist, he led a social movement committed to the moral reform of British society and against much opposition eventually prevailed in abolishing the legalized slave trade. Wilberforce was indeed, a great man and a model of what one courageous person willing to step into the fray can do.

    At the end of the day, the message is clear: even if not in the lofty realms of political life that he was called to, you too can be a Wilberforce. In your own sphere of influence, you too can be an Edwards, a Dwight, a Booth, a Lincoln, a Churchill, a Dorothy Day, a Martin Luther King, a Mandela, a Mother Teresa, a Vaclav Havel, a John Paul II, and so on. If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world.

    This account is almost entirely mistaken.

    Thus ends chapter two. Hunter then goes on to explain what one might hope would be quite obvious to the sane and sober mind. In a word, the real world works in a much more complicated way than certain wistful hearts might imagine. In another word, “Culture…is a knotty, difficult, complex, perhaps impossible puzzle.” If that is fundamentally understood it trends to cast a less-than-enthusiastic reception of ubiquitous calls to transform the world. In chapter four he suggests an alternative view of culture and cultural change in eleven propositions (which is actually the title of the chapter). He begins with one alternative assumption that “one cannot merely change worldviews or question one’s own very easily” and suggests that “Most of what really counts, in terms of what shapes and directs us, we are not aware of; it operates far below what most of us are capable of consciously grasping.” From there a handful of others follow, among which are: culture is a product of history (“It is better to think of culture as a thing, if you will, manufactured not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them”); ideas only sometimes have consequences (“Weaver’s statement [that ideas have consequences] would be truer if it were reworded as: ‘Under specific conditions and circumstances ideas can have consequences’”); and cultures change from the top down, rarely is ever from the bottom up (“In other words, the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites; gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life…In a very crude formulation, the process begins with theorists who generate ideas and knowledge; moves to researchers who explore, revise, expand, and validate ideas; moves on to teachers and educators who pass those ideas on to others, then passes on to popularizes who simplify ideas and practitioners who apply those ideas”).

  13. Chortles Weakly
    Posted August 19, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    Kruger on “mercy ministry”:

    “In light of the rapidly increasing focus on mercy-ministries in the modern evangelical church, we need to be willing to ask the tough questions: How Christ-centered (really) is our mercy ministry? Are we any different than the United Way?

    “If we are going to maintain Christ-centered mercy ministries that do not morph into social-gospel ministries, then two things will need to be in place.

    “First, we need a Christ-centered motivation. When we call people to do mercy ministry, we must call them to do it for biblical reasons, and not for worldly ones. Certainly, Christians should not do mercy ministry to earn favor with God; our favor with God is secured by the finished work of Christ. We should not do mercy ministry just because it’s hip or trendy, or because it gives us “street cred” in the eyes of the world. We should do it for the glory of Christ and out of keen sense of the mercy that has so lavishly been poured onto us.”

  14. Nate Paschall
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    My question is what business do churches have altogether in “Mercy Ministries”? In my opinion, mercy ministries (in a public sense) should be something that is akin to the way that we petition the Government in “cases extraordinary” (WCF 31.4). The church’s business (if I may so speak) has to do with itself.

    A “Christ-centered” mercy ministry, if we are speaking of a service provided by the church, ought to have it’s own members as the recipients of that ministry. If Christians want to help with their own time and resources in these types of ministries that’s one thing. Christians are obligated to support and provide for those who minister the word (1 Cor. 9; 1 Tim. 5:17-18) but even when it came to Christians supporting the poor in Jerusalem, Paul did not put them under obligation – “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.“. And this was for a ministry to be disbursed among those who were are part of the Jerusalem church, not unbelievers.

    Mercy ministries are not ever pitched that way by churches – they are rolled into the church budgets that get ever expanded and burden members into giving more to support the ‘welfare-esque’ programs of churches. If there are surpluses from members who give to the church to pay those who minister the word, then that is one thing, but to make them a part of regular budgets is a whole other issue.

    The sad truth is that most “Mercy Ministries” are as harmful as they are helpful (an interesting book on this topic is When Helping Hurts and
    this gal
    certainly tries to debunk international government aid)

    This isn’t to dissuade Christians from privately giving to organizations, etc. but that all those good intentions are doing the good that we necessarily think it is. Hence why the church should focus primarily on serving the gospel and ministering the word.

  15. David Zook
    Posted August 22, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Zrim: I am a fan of Hunter and have read bits of his latest book. His research is solid and he is sober minded in his analysis. Perhaps, there can be a both/and, rather than an either/or to this transformational business.

    Briefly, the LGBT movement got started in the late 60’s in a gay bar in NYC after a few of them were roughed up pretty good. I can’t remember if anyone died or not, but none the less they decided to stand their ground and organize. Now it has take nearly 50 years to get there, but they are on the cusp to having nationwide institutional approval for their lifestyle. (the arts, the media, the education system, many in the business sector who have provided benefits for years, and lastly government and mainline faith communities all approve.) Yet, it started as a grass roots deal, then the thought leaders picked up on it and have been able to transform many adults minds (the TV shows Modern Family and Glee are extraordinarily effective) and form children’s thoughts.

    The same was roughly true for Christians during the Roman times. It started out as a fringe movement of 120 people and 300 years later it became the dominant worldview (loosely defined) and institutionally approved throughout the empire.

    One of the things that I know is true is that whenever Christians are not involved in the public square a vacuum is created and is usually filled by views not so kind to Christianity. For me, that is why I stay engaged as much as I can to be and I can tell it you, it has made a difference at the local level. Our local urban public school would be a different place if the Christian parents hadn’t consistently voiced their opinions and showed their love for the school. Because I have been intentional about building relationships with folks in city and state government, I can reason with them on policy issues and many times get them to agree with me.

    Mercy Ministries: this is a tricky, tricky business. In most cases, we live in the tension between temporary help and creating dependents. There are over 2,000 verses that speak directly about the poor and oppressed and many of those verses call us to respond. Calvin, Luther, and Chalmers created relief societies (a network of local churches able to respond to the poor) in each of their cities with great effect. I also believe these societies started pubic works projects for sanitation and medical needs. I know that Calvin and Luther saw their actions as a part of the common grace of God … along the lines of treating your neighbor as you would want to be treated.

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