G.K.Chesterton visited Jerusalem as a tourist. He graphically described his impressions as he was bombarded by the sights and sounds of the great city. One thing that stuck him was that "...the holy city was a happy city; it had no suburbs" (in The New Jerusalem).

Chesterton's description of this phenomenon highlights how profound it is for those of us who, as Christians, are citizens of the new Jerusalem, the church. He continues his description of the city without suburbs:

That is to say, there are all sorts of buildings outside the wall, but they are outside the wall. Everybody is conscious of being inside or outside a boundary; but it is the whole character of the true suburbs which grow round our great industrial towns that they grow, as it were, unconsciously and blindly, like grass that covers up a boundary line traced on the earth. This indefinite expansion is controlled neither by the soul of the city from within, nor by the resistance of the lands round about.

How concrete is the idea of a walled city! In or out. You know where you are with walls, and the process of passing through gates further clarifies that sense of identity. It was this city that became the model for the church. Except that the boundaries are now blurred - the sprawl from the church to the world has become indistinct, and many sincere believers live in the no-man's land of the suburbs - in Chesterton's words, "controlled neither by the soul of the city from within not the resistance of the lands round about."

He continues:

The first sight of the sharp outline of Jerusalem is like a memory of the older types of limitation and liberty. Happy is the city that has a wall; and happier still if it is a precipice. But anyhow, a man must decide which way he will leave the city; he cannot merely drift out of the city as he drifts out of the modern cities through a litter of slums.

The suburbs are an architectural metaphor for people with no clear roots or identity in a community with a heart and soul. Suburbanites enjoy the proximity to goods and services that their arms-length attachment to the city affords. But they do not sing, as God's people of old did in relation to this city that Chesterton rediscovered: "Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God... Of Zion it shall be said, 'This one and that one were born in her...' Singers and dancers alike say, 'All my springs [of joy - KNV] are in you.'" (Psalm 87)

The timeliness of Chesterton's insights is highlighted by a recent article by Trevin Wax, put out by The Gospel Coalition. His piece is titled, "Are you a Part-Time Churchgoer? You may be surprised." He cites recent statistics that show that "an increasing number of evangelicals who are firm in their faith are flabby in their practice of actually gathering with their brothers and sisters in worship." Wax calls it "the part-time syndrome"; Chesterton would have called it living in the suburbs. Helpful as Wax's article is, he seems to have already conceded the idea of a suburban model of church life - for he speaks of people who are travelling, albeit less frequently, into the worship services. As soon as we think of church as the place we go to rather than who we are and where we live, we have become spiritual suburbanites. We live with our insular family behind our remotely controlled garage door and you won't see so much of us.

It's time to rise up and build the happy city with walls.


Lynne Lee said...

Powerful. I'm wondering how this fits with 'seeker friendly'