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Towards a positive urban estate theology

Cris Rogers is the rector of All Hallows Church in Bow, East London. At the Multiply: Estates Mission conference of March 2023, Cris gave this keynote talk, drawing on over a decade of experience and insight of estate church planting and multiplication.

I want to talk about our need to create a positive theology of the urban estate. Our theology shapes what we do. If we think we are in a deprived neighbourhood then we will think we are there as its saviour. But maybe there is another way of seeing our home.

Before Beki and I moved to East London, it was announced at our church that we were leaving and that we were going to be moving from West London to Tower Hamlets. Some of the congregation responded like we were moving to Beirut. They couldn’t believe we would be taking our family to East London.

We were approached by someone with a passage of scripture for us from Jeremiah 29. As I started to read the passage I became very uncomfortable. It reads that God’s people were going into exile from Jerusalem (seen as God’s holy city) to Babylon (seen as a pagan godless place). As I read the passage, I had this real sense that God was asking me to read the passage backwards. We weren’t going from Jerusalem to Babylon but we were going from Babylon to Jerusalem. We were going home.

I grew up in a working-class town in West Yorkshire. From a hardworking working-class family, I had gone to Bristol to study and had to learn the cross-cultural mission of the middle class. I had become bi-lingual. This is important to understand where I am coming from. I spent 13 years in middle-class places. I loved them and enjoyed them so much. But the call to go to East London strangely felt like going home and this is what God was confirming with Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 29:5-7 (ESV): This is what the Lord of hosts says, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare (Prosperity) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for if it prospers you will too prosper.

Build, plant, eat, multiply, reproduce, create, seek the welfare of the city – seek the flourishing of the city. Be people of life, multiplication, and growth. People with heaven’s vision for home.

As I go on to talk about urban estates, this isn’t about rose-tinted glasses but about a heaven’s perspective on a very broken place. I believe heaven wants to pull places up; hell wants to pull them down. 

Hell’s perspective condemns.

Heaven’s perspective inspires.

A gathering of the All Hallows Bow community

Is this theology we are speaking about Evangelical or Catholic? The simple answer is, yes. Positive urban theology is both Evangelical and Catholic hand in hand.  For a good theology of the urban place, we need both.

Evangelical in sharing Christ, personal salvation. Catholic in terms of incarnation, social action and being Christ’s hands and feet and seeing salvation in terms of a place.

Evangelical salvation of the soul.

Catholic salvation of the space.

Those of us evangelicals living in the urban setting will often find ourselves appreciating and loving the catholic writers. Although we do not necessarily agree with everything, we still find a kindred spirit in their writing on place, incarnation, personhood, restoration and resurrection.

Mother Teresa says, ‘This is my Calcutta; where is yours?’.

Gregory of Nyssa states, ‘Do not despise the poor. Ask yourself who they are and you will discover their greatness. They have the face of our saviour’.

Much of the urban theology in the 1970s was:

  • Condescending: Some champions for Urban theology have not aged well. For example, some presented the terms ‘urban’ and ‘deprivation’ as synonymous.
  • It boiled the urban place down to poor people needing the middle to upper-class church to save them.
  • It made the church unreliable by class.
  • It was about surface-level work. Positive action with shallow impact – much of the work made the Church feel better but didn’t change anything. That is a broad-brush stroke which isn’t true all around but can be seen in most urban parishes.
  • Urban theology focused on negative terminology – deprivation, poverty, hopelessness, and the needs of ‘these’ people.
  • People become projects to serve or solve.
  • Often, the working class were seen as a cursed people. They will toil and graft hard because of the fall. This means salvation becomes about becoming middle class to save us from manual labour – you get educated and get an office job.
  • The Biblical model for the inner city was that of Babylon. A shameful, cursed, confused place and people.

This negative theology gives people the idea that we need to get out of our estates. The dream then is about moving on and getting somewhere else. When we first planted our church we had a group of people who would miss church once a month to go and attend worship at a larger church in the city. They would say that they were heading into the city to ‘get a top-up’, or ‘be refreshed’. What this communicated was God was at work over there and we had to leave to find him elsewhere. God wasn’t in the inner city, we had to go out and find him and bring him back.

We also have this odd idea in East London that if you ‘make it’ in life you are able to move out and move further East. For those on my estate, moving to Barking or Dagenham becomes making it, it’s heaven bound. 

The needs of our estates are a real issue and one we need to get a handle on. I don’t want to undermine the battle many of us are in and the heartbreak we live through daily. But today, I want to lift our eyes from the muddle to heaven’s perspective of our homes. I want to help us with a positive urban theology. We want heaven’s                                                                                                     perspective, not hell’s perspective, for the                                                                                                           places we are called to love.

A positive Urban Theology centres around a few things:

A) Jesus is already present and living deep. The Incarnation is the centrepiece of our theology. It’s the theology of presence and the understanding that we follow a God who moved in, lived deep, became the boy next door and made home. It was this place that he loved and was part of a family.

B) We also hang our theology on the reality that our estates have a king and this king is on its side.

The King says his kingdom is here, there and in our midst. God’s realm is already present on our stairwells, pavement slabs and community space. It is not somewhere else, but here. We don’t need to leave to find it.

Jesus tells us that the Father is already at work. An estate is a place of God’s activity. When we sleep he is always at work. When we leave and move on he will continue to be present. God’s activity is not determined by us or our presence but is sometimes brought into focus, sometimes it’s seen and sometimes he uses us. We are part of his active presence, but not the end of it.

This theology helps us realise that King Jesus determines the value of a place, not house prices.

C) We are called to embody the theology of the sacred space, a theology that agrees that the estate is as sacred as Jerusalem and that we are called to love the hell out of our estates as no one else can. The Jews had this theology of the sacred and holy city of Jerusalem, it was a perspective they had that Jerusalem was sacred from the soil on the ground to the air they would breathe. We need a holy estate perspective that this is holy ground.

As Dr Romero says in Spy Kids 2, ‘Do you think God lives in heaven because he, too, fears what he has created?’ God is not elsewhere, he is here in the holiness of this place. Which reminds us that the estate is fearfully and wonderfully made. We must see it as such.

Friends, isn’t it brilliant that the estate is:

  • A place of innovation. It’s out of the inner city new creative communication is born. Both new music and art are known to come from the inner city. My estate is very proud that Dizzy Rascal grew up there.
  • A place of diversity, every tribe and tongue gather here in a unique way.
  • A place of resilience and hard work – people fight for their future and work hard for their families, sometimes working two to three jobs to make sure their kids have what they need.
  • A place where there are bountiful untapped resources of creativity, imagination and problem-solving. Estates are full of entrepreneurs. 
  • A place with a high value and commitment to family and friendship. There is nowhere on earth where the phrase “blood is thicker than water” is more true.
  • A place with untapped urban leaders who speak the local language and who can be championed and encouraged. They know what they talk about and they know the contextual ways of saying it.
  • A place of being endlessly hopeful. A place where we hope and long to see beauty in the ashes. We see this daily in people’s lives. As Delboy said, ‘Next year we will be millionaires’.
  • A place we call ‘home’ where we are called to love.

Ultimately, a positive urban estate theology would seek to empower and mobilise the residents of the estate to become agents of positive change in their own community, working alongside others to create a more just and flourishing society. It would be a theology that is grounded in hope, recognising that God is at work in the world and that the Kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future hope.

Adam, a local resident, once said to me, ‘Don’t see hell where you are supposed to see heaven’. I found that quite interesting – what was it about what I said that made him think I saw my home as hell and not heaven? It gave me so much to think about.

A robust urban theology conveys that liberation is not about becoming free from a place like the estate but free to restore, renew and rebuild that place. For us, salvation isn’t freedom from the estate but freedom to see another possibility here in the bricks and mortar.

Our theology shapes what we do. Our songs create our theology in us. There is this beautiful old him, How Great Thou Art. I would love singing it until we got to the 3rd verse which sang, 

When through the woods and forest glades I wander 

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.

When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur

And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

I was left thinking, how many in church estates and urban churches have seen forest glades? Many haven’t even left the estate. The hymn was suitably telling people that somewhere else was a place of God’s glory. So we rewrote it. We now sing:

When through the estate and shaded parks I wander

And see the shops and people in the streets

When I look up and see the tower blocks’ grandeur

And hear the cars and the sound of dancing beats. 

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee, 

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

What we sing tells us what we believe. Do we need to rethink our worship in line with a positive urban theology?

I want to end by reading Isaiah 55:12-13. A passage that reminds us of God’s presence in the estate. I warn you, this translation is what I call the Cris Rogers Urban Translation.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the towerblocks and maisonettes will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the estate will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the conifer, and instead of briers the mothers day flowers will grow. This will be for the LORD ’s fame, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.