The Robey

Wicker Park, 2020

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.

—Leonard Bernstein, quoted in chapt. 5 of The Nation City by Rahm Emanuel

“America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births”

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Derek Thompson for The Atlantic:

In high-density cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., no group is growing faster than rich college-educated whites without children, according to Census analysis by the economist Jed Kolko. By contrast, families with children older than 6 are in outright decline in these places. In the biggest picture, it turns out that America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births.

Cities were once a place for families of all classes. The basic custom” of the American city, wrote the urbanist Sam Bass Warner, was a commitment to familialism.” Today’s cities, however, are decidedly not for children, or for families who want children. As the sociologists Richard Lloyd and Terry Nichols Clark put it, they are entertainment machines” for the young, rich, and mostly childless. And this development has crucial implications—not only for the future of American cities, but also for the future of the U.S. economy and American politics.

More in the full piece, including that even the paragon of urban renewal — NYC — experienced decline this year, principally because there is no room for families.

After 20 years of living in major city centers, I can attest to them feeling more and more difficult for kids and families. Just last week, I reached out to several local churches as I searched for youth groups for our two teens. Not much going on for youth here in the city,” was the universal response.

Of course, there is more evidence of family-unfriendly cities than my youth ministry anecdote. In the area of construction, for example, the vast majority of new housing that has been installed during the urban rebirth” is made up of studio, 1-, and 2-bedroom units. My neighborhood was built around 1910, almost entirely with families in mind: three-bedroom units in two-flat” buildings that were explicitly created for the emerging middle class. Every year there are fewer of these buildings because they are either being replaced with 1-bedroom multi-units for young singles, or they are being converted into urban mansions for the very wealthy.

For sure, cities face many obstacles that are inherent to urban life and population density. But this kind of population decline not one of them; it’s a self-imposed problem resulting from a couple of decades of policy-making and profit-chasing without children and families in mind. If left unchecked, these trends will undo the very urban renaissance that has benefitted the developers and policy makers.

“The two stated pillars of American housing policy are fundamentally at odds”

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Daniel Hertz for City Lab:

In other words, possibly the only thing worse than a world in which homeownership doesn’t work as a wealth-building tool is a world in which it does work as a wealth-building tool.

This also means that the two stated pillars of American housing policy — homeownership as wealth-building and housing affordability — are fundamentally at odds.

I think that Hertz has it backwards; people are in fact better off when home ownership builds wealth. Nevertheless, the thesis that housing policy mandates are contradictory is incredibly insightful.

“Lagos: Hope and Warning”

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Armin Rosen for City Journal:1

In Lagos… nothing is guaranteed. Everything is relative. Your yellow cab could be driven by a drug dealer, or it could be driven by a banker who wants another income. You just don’t know.

Poverty, confusion, and moral fluidity haven’t stopped Lagos from achieving global prominence. Maybe an all-pervading looseness has even been a source of the city’s growth, since it has expanded with a velocity that prudent planning would avoid. Lagos is now West Africa’s economic and cultural hub, as well as perhaps the continent’s largest city, depending on which population figures one accepts. By most accounts, Lagos has twice as many people as London, along with a GDP greater than all but six African states. In its successes and failures, the city offers a cautionary preview of where an urbanizing developing world is hurtling.

Much more in the full piece. This profile of one of the world’s most overwhelming cities reminded me of of another quote I read a couple of years back: Lagos is chaos theory made flesh and concrete.”

When I lived and worked in Mexico City, we were astounded to discover that its population was growing by 500 people a day. As a church planter, that meant that a new church of 500 needed to be launched every single day to reach only the new arrivals — never mind the city’s extant millions. According to this City Journal profile, Lagos has four times Mexico City’s number pouring in: 2000 people every day. That’s 730,000 new arrivals a year, more than the entire population of Washington D.C.2

There has been, perhaps, no other city in history with this kind of population growth. It makes me all the more thankful that we get to know and serve Femi and Tosin Osunnuyi and their work to establish a new church in Lagos.

After all, like the above article also states, the world is sure to look more like Lagos in the coming decades.” In other words, we have work to do. As the world becomes more urban, so must the church.


  1. h/t @nickoparsons for the link to this article.

  2. List of most populace cities in the US.

“These 95 apartments promised affordable rent in San Francisco. Then 6,580 people applied.”

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Emily Badger for the NYT:

For $1,200 a month, Patricia Torres and her family were renting a bedroom, a share of time in the bathroom, one vegetable drawer and one shelf in the fridge, and two cupboards over the stove. They rented not so much a home as a fraction of one…

…San Francisco’s housing crisis had meant living without essential elements of home. A large affordable housing development rising downtown promised what they did not have: 95 complete homes, one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments with privacy, a sense of peace, a place to cook.

Cape Town and Day Zero

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Louis Scheepers, a friend and colleague, writing about the water crisis in Cape Town:

Since 2015 Cape Town and its surrounding area have experienced the worst drought in over a century. As rainfall decreased, dam levels slowly started falling. The demand for water increased significantly as the population grew from 2.4 million in 1995 to an estimated 4.3 million in 2018….

If Day Zero comes, I do not know how a city of this size will respond. Will people help each other or trample each other? I hope we will not find out! I pray that despite grave weather predictions, God will continue to send rain to fill our dams. However, my biggest prayer is that he will fill the empty spiritual dams in people’s lives, that people will seek God in this crisis and that Cape Town will turn to God, who is capable of doing much more than we can ask or imagine.

Update 05JUN:Cape Town dam levels recover to 30% after higher may rainfall.

Sullivan High soccer: 14 players, 13 nationalities

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Short film by Anthony Pellino:

Sunset

Sunset

“The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism”

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Tom Skinner’s keynote address at the 1970 Urbana conference:1

Perhaps one of the great debates going on today is being pushed by those people who resist the idea that Jesus was a revolutionary. But let us come to grips with what the Word of God says.

First, the definition of a revolution is to take an existing situation which has proved to be unworkable, archaic, impractical and out of date; you seek to destroy it, and overthrow it and to replace it with a system that works. The whole premise of the Scripture is that the human order is archaic, impractical; it is no good, it is infested with demonic power, with sin, racism, hate, envy, jealousy, pride, war, militarism. The whole existing human order is infested with ungodliness. And the whole purpose of Christ coming into the world was to overthrow the demonic human system and to establish his own kingdom in the hearts of men.

Allow me to quote for you I Corinthians 1:28: He has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order”

Although this is a classic sermon, I heard it for the first time today. Perhaps the most powerful sermon I’ve listened to this year.

(Or listen via podcast here.)


  1. h/t @djpuckett22

“The urban/rural divide is the single most overlooked fracture in American religion”

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Emma Green on Radio Atlantic:1

I think that the urban/rural divide is the single most overlooked fracture in American religion, and particularly in the American church. With religious minorities… the enclaves are urban, concentrated populations where everybody in those communities is religious. But I think in Christianity, because it’s so huge and spread out, there are radically different orientations for those people who are in cities, and those people who are in suburbs, and more rural country.

More in the full podcast, including conversation about how everyone,religious’ or not, wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something transcendent.”


  1. Only a couple of weeks since launch, Radio Atlantic is already climbing to the top of my favorite podcasts.

Welcome to Refugee High

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Elly Fishman for Chicago Mag:

If Sullivan High School had a motto, it would be Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Its immigrant population now numbers close to 300 — 45 percent of the school’s 641 students — and many are refugees new to this country. This academic year alone, the Rogers Park school has welcomed a staggering 89 refugees — nearly three times as many as last year and far more than at any other high school in the city. The recent surge, fueled in part by an influx of Syrians, has turned the school into a global melting pot, with 38 countries and more than 35 languages represented.

Much more in the full piece including infographics, photography, video, and what it means to educate kids like the girl who says she misses the smell of jasmine in her native Syria but not the sound of bombs.”

“You can grow a church in one of the most post-Christian cities in the United States”

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Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra profiles the life and times of Redeemer Presbyterian Church” for TGC:

The spiritual scene wasn’t much better: Less than 1 percent of those in center city Manhattan self-identified as evangelicals. Without a lot more connections, experience, and money, you’ll have a really hard time, New York insiders told them. Odds are you won’t last five years.

But Keller’s plant has lasted nearly six times that long. When he preaches his last sermon on June 25, Redeemer will be 28 years old. Over nearly three decades, attendance has soared from around 50 to more than 5,000. The congregation expanded into two, then three locations. They ministered to thousands through Hope for New York, re-imagined employment through the Center for Faith and Work, and launched a church-planting hub now called City to City.

Through it all, Redeemer proved the impossible: You can grow an evangelical church in the middle of one of the most post-Christian, least Bible-minded cities in the United States.

Over the past 15 or so years, perhaps no single church (Redeemer) or person (Keller) have been as influential in educating the Western church at large about the importance of and strategy for urban church planting.

“Among the classes, there is no division between ‘gentrifiers’ and ‘non-gentrifiers.’ If you live in a city, you don’t get to opt out”

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Daniel Hertz writing for City Lab:

[T]here’s no way out, if you happen to have above-average economic power or the kind of cultural capital that attracts people with above-average economic power. Whether or not you say hi” to your neighbors, your presence in a relatively low-income or blue-collar community will, in fact, make it easier for other college graduates to move in; to open businesses that cater to you; to induce landlords to renovate or redevelop their properties to attract other new, wealthier residents who want access to those businesses. If your city restricts housing supply (it does) and doesn’t have smart rent control policies (it almost certainly doesn’t), you’ve ultimately helped create an economically segregated neighborhood…

[On the other hand,] Moving to a higher-income neighborhood — one where market and regulatory forces have already pushed out the low-income — means you’re helping to sustain the high cost of living there, and therefore helping to keep the area segregated… Among the classes, there is no division between gentrifiers” and non-gentrifiers.” If you live in a city, you don’t get to opt out.

Lots more in the full piece, including practical ideas to help correct the toxic policy mix (lack of rent controls + new housing construction restrictions) that is a primary driver of gentrification.

What might Jane Jacobs observe about trust among neighbors in an age of digital distraction?

What might Jane Jacobs observe about trust among neighbors in an age of digital distraction?

The following is a guest post from Austin Gohn, a friend and urban ministry colleague. Austin is a pastor in Pittsburgh and a student at Trinity School of Ministry. His writing has been featured in Gospel Centered Discipleship.

Eyes on the Screen

Trust is built thirty-seconds at a time.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed, The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.” With her classic specificity, the patron saint of sidewalks explains some of these little contacts that add up to a sense of trust:

It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to two little boys drinking pop on the stoop, eying the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat varied. (56)

Although eying the girls” might have the opposite effect now, Jacob’s observation is still true. Trust is the byproduct of petting the neighbor’s German Shepherd, explaining the parkingchair to a new tenant from a warmer climate, asking Abby what she is drawing on the sidewalk this afternoon, and giving out high-quality Halloween candy to costume-less teenagers. It is not developed in a single moment but rather in many, many little interactions over many months and years.

In 1961, though, the personal screen was still years away from its monopoly on our attention. We were still over two decades away from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and I doubt Jane Jacobs foresaw that there would one day be more eyes on the screen than eyes on the street.

In 2017, while I might have a few moments like those she describes, I sacrifice many more of those little contacts to my most recent notification. When I walk down the street, I check anything on my iPhone when I am about to pass someone. At the post office around the corner, I read tweets from people all over the world instead of talking to the other dozen people in line. (In my defense, they are all distracted as well.) At the local Do-It-Best, I ask Siri for help on my home project while pretending I don’t hear the employee asking me if I need assistance. On the first warm spring evening, I continue my binge on Arrested Development season one instead of risking conversation by sitting on my porch.

Most of these moments are ostensibly trivial” (Jacobs, 56). Reloading Instagram a few times instead of making eye contact with the cashier at Kuhn’s Quality Foods does not seem like it will make much of a difference. Tossing a few of these relational pennies into the wishing well of distraction feels harmless. Everyone knows pennies never add up to anything.

According to Jacobs, though, these pennies are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow” (72). These small exchanges add up to trust among neighbors. Without trust, neighborhoods do not work as they could (or should). The absence of trust is a disaster” (56) to street life–a daily catastrophe that will never make the local news.  

Trust is one of the silent victims of our digital age. We have exchanged an almost unconscious assumption” (56) of trust for an unconscious assumption of distrust, and no one has noticed. It is one of those invisible qualities no one thinks about until we need it. It is a loss that everyone feels but almost no one can name.

The good news is that trust is built in the same way as distrust: thirty-seconds at a time. It is never too late to start developing trust among our neighbors. In Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle concludes:

This is our nick of time and our line to toe: to acknowledge the unintended consequences of technologies to which we are vulnerable, to respect the resilience that has always been ours. We have time to make the corrections. And to remember who we are—creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of conversations artless, risky, and face-to-face. (362)

This is not as terrifying as it seems. Instead of looking up the time of the Lenten fish fry, try asking the neighbor with the rosary hanging from his rearview mirror. Ask an older person in line at the deli what kind of cheese goes best with capicola (even if you do not care). Purchase some overpriced lemonade from the kids next door instead of pretending you’re on the phone. These things feel trivial, but as Jacobs reminds us, the sum is not trivial at all” (56).

In a cultural moment when distrust is the norm, perhaps what we need most is a willingness to turn off our phones and talk to our neighbors again — even if it’s just for thirty-seconds.

Church planting’s purpose, potential, and power

Church planting’s purpose, potential, and power

26 From Attalia Paul and Barnabas sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.

Then…

In Acts 14, the first-century urban church planters, Paul and Barnabas, gather together members from a partnering congregation to celebrate the accomplished work of new churches planted and new believers baptized. The preceding verses tell more of the story: despite the cost of much time, effort, resources, prayer, and profound hardship, local churches were successfully established in cities throughout the region. New Christians were born and new leaders were appointed.

Now…

With present trends like unprecedented urban population growth, rapid globalization, and ever-shifting cultural values, the complexity of ministry and church planting in today’s world can seem daunting. For this reason, stories like this one Acts 14 are crucial because they serve as reminders that establishing new churches has always been deeply challenging, and it is always accomplished only by God’s grace. In particular, these verses display a beautiful purpose, an astonishing potential, and the sustaining power for church planting:

  • Purpose of church planting: opening a door of faith” (verse 27) and
  • Potential of church planting: completed work” (verse 26).
  • Power for church planting: the grace of God” (verse 26).

A few weeks ago, I was reminded again of this purpose, potential, and power while I visiting a church that my wife and I helped to plant in the Mexico City Valley. I was there to celebrate the church’s was tenth anniversary, and I found myself emotionally overcome — not with the magnitude of the task at hand, but with the magnitude of the work completed: more than 250 gathered together, a dozen home groups, a local eldership and pastorate, and local resources providing for the church’s numerous ministries. I was, like Paul and Barnabas before me, able to participate not only in the labor of church planting, but in the celebration of the completed work of a church being established by the grace of God.

Then and Now…

It’s startling how little has changed since the first century: we’re still traveling, training, preaching, confronting obstacles, allocating resources, and appointing local leaders (Acts 14:23) for churches in population centers where people might otherwise never encounter a compelling case for Christianity. Like the churches planted in Acts, God is actively working to bring his work to beautiful completion in Cape Town, Harlem, Lagos, Paris, and too many other places to list.1

And like the partner church in Antioch, established churches today play a critical part in God’s work of grace through their giving, fasting, and praying (Acts 14:23) for the sake of new churches and leaders. All of this — the planters and the supporters, by God’s gracious action — are helping to write a book of Acts” for the 21st century.


  1. Why these particular cities? The organization I work for is helping to plant churches in these cities in 2017, so they are places that I’ve been thinking about lately.

The eleven “nations” that make up North America

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Business Insider summary American Nations by Colin Woodard:

[A]ward-winning author Colin Woodard identifies 11 distinct cultures that have historically divided the US.

The country has been arguing about a lot of fundamental things lately including state roles and individual liberty,” Woodard, a Maine native who won the 2012 George Polk Award for investigative reporting, told Business Insider.

[But] in order to have any productive conversation on these issues,” he added, you need to know where you come from. Once you know where you are coming from it will help move the conversation forward.”

Not a new article, but relevant nevertheless. I like that Woodard has considered the frontiers of each of the 11 nations” purely culturally rather than arbitrarily relating them to existing geopolitical borders.

[A]mong these 11 nations, Yankeedom and the Deep South exert the most influence and are constantly competing with each other for the hearts and minds of the other nations.

We are trapped in brinkmanship because there is not a lot of wiggle room between Yankee and Southern Culture,” Woodard says. Those two nations would never see eye to eye on anything besides an external threat.”

Sounds about right.

“In the last 20 years, Christianity has exploded by 300 percent in the world’s most influential city.”

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Relevant Magazine on the growth of churches and Christianity in New York City over the last 20 years:

I’ve never seen so many pastors collaborate with each other—they’re sharing encouragement, strategy, communication,” Cabrera says. Everybody is now realizing that God didn’t assign one church to reach the whole city.”

Kelsey echoes Cabrera’s sentiment. New Yorkers are leading the way in terms of church unity,” he says. They really want to see each other’s ministries succeed. We actually are for each other. If we want to see this city saved, to look like His kingdom … we would need a hundred Redeemer Presbyterians, a hundred Hillsongs.”

Update: Also, listen to this conversation with Tim Keller on gospel movements.

Measuring the “character” of neighborhoods in 50 U.S. cities

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The Atlas of ReUrbanism:

The Atlas of ReUrbanism is an evolving and expanding tool, allowing users to explore the built environment of American cities, block by block. Using our maps, you can interact with data on your city’s built assets, and click to layer demographic, economic, and environmental data from the U.S. Census, American Community Survey, and more. The maps focus on the Character Score for buildings and blocks across 50 U.S. cities…

Ambitious project that attempts to quantify and visualize the qualitative character of neighborhoods.

“Sorry, Canada—your entire economy would fit inside Tokyo”

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Richard Florida maps the economies of cities relative to nations:

Although it’s common to rate and rank the economic power of nations—think of all the articles you’ve read about China catching up with and eventually overtaking the United States in terms of GDP—the real economic power centers of the world economy are cities and metro areas.

To put that into perspective, let’s look at how the economies of the world’s largest metros match up to national economies.

“Solving Chicago’s murders could prevent more”

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Alex Kotlowitz in the New Yorker:

But one issue is rarely raised: year after year, the vast majority of murders and non-fatal shootings in Chicago go unsolved. Last year, the police charged individuals in just twenty-six per cent of all murders. Of the nearly three thousand non-fatal shootings, only ten per cent of the assailants were charged, which means that you have a pretty good chance of shooting someone in Chicago and getting away with it.

Much in the article about the mutual distrust between cops and neighborhoods (that leads to 90% of shootings going uncharged) reminded me of Kevin DeYoung’s mini review of the book Don’t Shoot.

“No matter where you’re from, what neighborhood you call home, and no matter what your dreams are in life… There’s no dream you can’t achieve”

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WBEZs The View from Room 2015:

No matter where you’re from, what neighborhood you call home, and no matter what your dreams are in life, it is right here at Penn that our children are going to get their start — so that they can have that dream, chase that dream, capture that dream and live it…. There’s no dream you can’t achieve, if you stay focused and persistent.”

And with that, [the speaker] makes very clear that it’s up to the fourth graders — and every kid in the room — to work hard and succeed.

It’s up to them and William Penn Elementary.

Moving piece that challenges the validity of the (deeply American) axiom dream big, work hard, and succeed” in the context of a poor neighborhood school.

(The visuals on the website are good, but hearing the kids’ and teachers’ voices in the hour-long audio production is even better.)

The hyper-locality of gun violence in America

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Excellent insight and visualizations from The Guardian:

Looking at the risk of gun homicide in terms of sweeping racial demographics, or even in terms of individual neighborhood census tracts, still obscures the real concentration of violence, crime experts said — and that further concentration is crucial to understanding how to save lives.

Even within high-poverty areas that struggle with many kinds of disadvantage, the majority of residents have nothing to do with gun violence.

Within neighborhood areas, the risk of violence is further clustered within specific social networks of high-risk people. Sometimes these are people whom police identify as gang members; sometimes they are not.

“The year in housing: the middle class can’t afford to live in cities anymore”

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Emily Dreyfuss for Wired:

In 2016, rents continued their years-long rise, incomes stratified further, and the average price to buy a home in major US cities rose. The strain pushed the middle class out of cities like Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Austin—the so-called hot cities.” Some families move to the suburbs. Others flee for less expensive cities. But across the US, the trend holds: cities are increasingly home to high-rollers who can pay the high rents or down payments and lower income people who qualify for subsidized housing.