Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Ambition or Motivation in City Redemption?

Ambition, or motivation?

Which one can be an idol for us?

We know we can be motivated by the wrong things, which is wrong, but can we be ambitious without being conceited?  Conceit is not only a sinful trait, but one that is usually undesirable in society.  However, conceit can be cleverly disguised, and one of those disguises is ambition.

Ambition usually involves a motivation to excel at something, to achieve something, or to manipulate some hierarchical system to one's own advantage.  It involves the notion that we are better than somebody else, or at least, we should be.  Motivation, meanwhile, doesn't necessarily involve ambition.  Motivation is recognizing the value in something and applying resources in attempting to secure that something.  Ambition, of course, can motivate, and almost always does.

Maybe it sounds like a benign matter of terminology to you, but a distinction does exist between these two terms.  And I'm growing increasingly skeptical about the ability we Christ-followers display in respecting that distinction.  Here in North America, we're expected to be motivated, of course, but we're expected to be motivated to be ambitious more than almost anything else.

It's not the motivation part that's wrong, for indeed, one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to motivate us to love and good deeds.  Everything we do should be motivated by our love for God and our desire to honor Him above all else.  Ironically, sometimes it seems that we evangelicals are more ambitious about what we think we can do for Him, than we are humbly motivated by His sovereign glory.

And that's where ambition can get tricky.  It can become our idol as we seek avenues of ministry and service that can be as beneficial to us as we assume they are beneficial to God.  Not that earning what we're worth or enjoying the fruits of our labor are bad things in and of themselves.  It's not even wealth that's the problem:  it has been said by some skeptics that Mother Teresa (who I'm not saying was saved, although some evangelicals are convinced otherwise) was almost intoxicated by the power she derived from flaunting her public persona of pious poverty.

Is Redeeming the City Simply a Herd Mentality?

I recently wrote a three-part essay series on the "redeeming the cities" movement that has been taking place in North American evangelicalism.  It's a trend the Rev. Tim Keller, of New York City's famed Redeemer Presbyterian Church, has come to personify, since he was one of the first evangelicals to seize on the creative class repopulation of central city districts.  Whereas, when I lived in New York City in the early 1990's, you could count the number of evangelical congregations in Manhattan on one hand, there are now dozens.  With many more in all four of the outer boroughs.

Lending an impression of impermanence to these new congregations, however, is the fact that hardly any of them have their own church building.  Even Redeemer, with multiple worship sites, only owns one, a remodeled parking garage.  And while congregation size can vary between churches, their dominant demographic - white professionals from the suburbs who are in New York City building their resumes, like I was - is in constant flux.  It's hardly the model upon which lasting interpersonal relationships with hard-core lifelong New Yorkers can be sustained with any degree of consistency.

True, Redeemer has a vibrant outreach program to the city's poor, but if there's one thing some critics say New York doesn't need, with all of its government and corporate welfare programs, it's more charity.  It's become hip and trendy for the city's new Christianized class to volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, kind of as an emotional trade-off, I suspect, for guilt over one's own superficial lifestyle of expensive restaurants and overpriced apartments.

Not that it's wrong for America's twentysomething Christians to want to live in big cities and help poor people, and it's not even like moving to the New Yorks and Chicagos of career-driven America isn't a smart way to pursue jobs through which you can minister God's grace to our nation's power brokers.  But there's a bizarre level of ambition most people need to have in order to be successful in these environments - environments that methodically reward only those people who can prove they're better than others.

Judging Success by Ambition or Motives

Of course, many of us don't see that as a problem, because we're sold on the American way of succeeding.  Our culture teaches us that ambition involves a personal motivation for accomplishment.  It's not a matter of being, but of doing.  And doing not just anything ordinary.  We're not considered ambitious unless we're trying to accomplish something extraordinary.

Granted, what's considered extraordinary depends on your social reference group.  For example, if you are a suburban high school senior in middle America, your social reference group likely stipulates that success is being accepted at a popular university.  If you're a high school senior in the Northeast, your social reference group likely stipulates that success is attending an Ivy League university.  If you're a marginal student living in an American inner-city slum, your social reference group likely stipulates that success is, quite literally, staying alive into young adulthood.

If you're a born-again high school senior in any of these socioeconomic communities, your parents will probably encourage you to follow these paths your unsaved peers are taking.  We've largely abandoned the "in the world, but not of it" ethos of education and embarking upon our working life, so as the move by secular middle class suburbanites back into our cities took steam during the 1990's, we evangelicals went along for the ride.

Now, bear with me:  I'm actually an advocate for urban ministry.  But our idea of what urban ministry should look like doesn't seem to mesh with what urban ghettos need.  Most of Redeemer's congregants don't live in slums or housing projects.  They go in, like recovery workers after a storm, do busy work for a designated relief area, and then withdraw back to their hip abodes when their time is up.  How do you build relationships and community that way?  After all, isn't the importance of community one of the things on which preachers harp?  World Magazine ran a story recently about a family that has moved into one of the worst parts of Detroit - purchased a house there and everything.  They've committed themselves economically to their new neighborhood, with little expectation that it will get gentrified.  Indeed, all of the suburban whites moving into formerly ghettoized neighborhoods in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Dallas are pricing indigenous residents out of those 'hoods.  How is that ministering to the poor?

Why We Want to Live Where We Live

On his blog, the Heidelblog, theologian R. Scott Clark muses about misplaced ambitions when it comes to evangelicalism's infatuation with "redeeming the city:"

"We are a 'can do' people even when we’re wearing sandals and holding a steaming hot cup of mocha latte with our name written in cream on the top. Utopianism is the notion that we can build the heavenly city on the earth. It leads to towers, (Babel), to Egypt, and to Rome. It tends to confuse the creature for the Creator. Christians, however, love to be part of the 'hip' and 'in' crowds. The ideas of 'doing church' and 'saving the city' make a powerful elixir to which American Christians, historically, have had little resistance."

By way of qualification, Dr. Clark admits that he lives in California's suburbs, and he believes American suburbia is as valid a mission field as anyplace else on Earth.  And of course, he's quite right about that.  Considering the degradation of American society that has been spawned in our cul-de-sacs, McMansions, and strip shopping centers, evangelicals can't claim any victories from the past sixty years of abandoning the inner city.

Yet I remain convinced that the places we white, affluent Americans fled because of supposedly scary black people, crime, and pollution still present viable opportunities for living out God's grace.  They're not easy places in which to live, or park your car, or find clean supermarkets.  They're also surprisingly expensive, which if you know anything about urban sociology, is one of the reasons why poor city people stay poor.  Gentrification has re-introduced a level of stability and functionality into many old neighborhoods, but it has also exacerbated contributors to poverty, and inflated resentment against all of the altruistic newcomers.  If Clark is saying that we might not be as effective as we think we're being in urban America, he's probably right.

But even though the ambitions of many young evangelicals who are flooding back into the cities their parents and grandparents fled may be more self-centered than anything else, can't we hope that what's motivating at least some of these new urbanists is a love for God and all of His people, wherever they may live?  Perhaps our city redeemers really are more interested in new urbanism's idols, such as the new craft breweries and industrial-themed lofts materializing in old warehouses.  And like any trend, it will end eventually, and somebody will have to pick up the pieces.  Much like the folks still out in our aging suburbs are doing now, actually.  People who are operating on genuine motives of service to God will remain in both the urban and suburban ghettos of our country, no matter where new trends take everybody else.

Helping to regenerate not only the neighborhoods our country's elites no longer find desirable, but ministering to the souls of those whose challenges Christ told us we'd always have with us.


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