In a talk at TED Global in 2009, British architect Carolyn Steel spoke about ‘How Food Shapes Our Cities”. She traced how, from ancient times, cities developed in tandem with the food sources that surrounded then. There was literally an organic connection between the cities and the farms, fields, lakes and seas nearby.
What was most interesting was that analysis of ancient city maps shows that the cities’ design was directly related to the paths that food stuffs took into the city or to where markets were originally established. For example, the fish markets that developed near the River Thames in London were in place from the 15th century until the late 1980’s. Streets were named “Bread Street” or “Chicken Lane”, first informally and then in time the names were formalized.
It appears that once the food paths were introduced, they simply stayed in place as the city developed around them. There was a sort of cultural memory that locked food pathways into place. Centuries later, the memory is still there in the structure of the city, long after the fresh markets have disappeared and people now shop for their food in big box stores in sprawling suburbs.
I wonder whether same truth may be at play with the introduction of spiritual “food” in parts of the Bible Belt like Kentucky and other strongly Christianized parts of our culture.
Jesus identified Himself as the “bread of life” and the “living bread that came down from heaven.” He said that anyone who ate of this bread would “never hunger” and that this bread was different from the mere manna of the wilderness that led to death. He claimed that whoever fed on this bread, will not die, but live forever.” (John 6: 36, 48-51, 58) It’s an astonishing claim and promise.
The gospel of Jesus comes to one person, one sinner at a time. That one sinner turns from sin, gladly trusts and submits to Jesus and is made new. (That is what Jesus means by “eating this bread.”) Lives thus transformed by Christ bind together into churches. Over time, Christ-followers and the churches they create impact communities with the life, love and truth of Jesus.
The path of the gospel is established in a community through the interlocking web of relationships of the followers of Christ in that community. Influence follows as the life of Christ is enfleshed there by people who are walking as Jesus walked (1 Jn. 2:6) in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Disciples live as Jesus and live out the gospel in a community, for the good of the community and the spread of Jesus’ fame. When Christians are obedient and churches are healthy, the unique energy of the Holy Spirit flows in and through that community, spotlighting Jesus and doing the work of wooing, convicting, and convincing people..
Over time, individual Christians and churches can grow stale to the things of Jesus. Faith can become centered around an appointment on Sunday mornings at the church rather than seen as the center of every aspect of life. Religion becomes a nice part of life. Good-neighborliness, upright morals, love of family, and conservative politics can become equated with discipleship. Most people may identify with a church, whether or not they actually participate in any meaningful way. Fear of rejection or labeling may cause Christians to be hesitant to discuss matters of faith in most settings. Little by little, an unspoken assumption grows that most people must have heard the gospel and that most are in a relationship with Him.
When that happens, the gospel simply becomes a faded memory in a community. The paths where it entered are still there, mostly represented by the church buildings that dot the community. But the truth stays safely tucked inside the buildings with the already convinced while the majority of people around us drive by, scurrying somewhere to satisfy the longings of their souls– and never give a thought to what goes on inside.
When the gospel becomes a cultural artifact in a community, it signals that the church is on life support. This is true in hundreds of communities across the South.
So, what can we do? Two things, one internal and one external, come to mind.
First, those who know Jesus must recapture a sense of the indispensability of Jesus and His gospel for our own lives. He remains the “bread of life”, who alone will satisfy the longings of the human soul. Yes, eating His body and blood is the way to trust Him for forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But we desperately need Him in every moment of life right now –in every relationship, every decision, every temptation, every opportunity, every ordinary second of driving, spending, working, learning, resting, playing. Until we who are Jesus’ own people recover a sense of our own desperate dependence on His all-satisfying life, it is highly unlikely that we will share that life with anyone else.
Then we can intentionally re-establish pathways for the bread of life to enter our communities. We can carve out fresh roads where people outside the church can begin encounter Jesus and the fullness of His gospel. These roads will be places where people already are, but don’t expect Jesus’ people to be. The gospel will need to show up in ways that are surprising, whimsical and probably feel a little dangerous to church people.
These new Bread Streets will be shaped by the serving heart of the church to the needs of its community. It will look like love for the loveless, or remembering the forgotten and left-out, or simply stepping into the mess that nobody else wants to deal with. And all along the way, there will be opportunities to speak the reason why. We have a Savior-King who is generous, welcoming, saving, loving—and who has enough to satisfy the soul of any person.
Christians in the Bible Belt, with all our churches and our smiling Jesus niceness, live among thousands of men, women, students and children who are starving for Jesus. The stale crumbs of our religion will not feed them. Only the Bread of Life will.
Jesus is the Bread. We simply deliver it.
And when we forge new pathways for this Bread into hearts of precious people of our community, we will again see those pathways shape our city — for their good and His glory.