Running from Nineveh

by Bob Turner on August 09, 2023

God calls Jonah to visit Nineveh and preach. Jonah runs in the opposite direction; he wants to live somewhere else, anywhere else. During his escape he finds himself on a boat with pagan sailors, begging them to throw him overboard so the storm would end. Not only does he refuse to live in Nineveh, he’d rather die than go there. In the Book of Jonah, Nineveh not only represents a physical place as the capital of Babylon, but is also symbolic of people, places, and ideas that are easier ignored.

  • Nineveh could be a Latin American immigrant.
  • Nineveh might attend community college.
  • Nineveh might be our enemy in a school board meeting.
  • Nineveh could be Critical Race Theory.
  • Nineveh might be our ex……or the one dating them.
  • Nineveh might be poor.
  • Nineveh might wear a red MAGA hat.
  • Nineveh is the other.

America had many Nineveh’s in the 20th century (people of color, Jews, indigenous people).

But America also had a geographic Nineveh, a place where people avoided and didn’t want to go. It was a space they referred to with euphemisms and cloaked language. A place where they built freeways around (or worse, through) in hopes of not spending too much time there.

In the Bible, Nineveh was a city. Today, the city is Nineveh.

In the late 1900s, suburbanization or (worse) White Flight sent people packing for the suburbs. The exchange was presented as one that would net people more house, better schools, less traffic, and less crime. The exchange also meant trading public transit for private autos, neighborhood schools for commuter schools, and public parks for fenced yards. 

We cannot place the blame on individuals for this mess, however. It is not just a personal issue; it’s systemic. Our metros are so spread out that they require us to spend our lives in our cars. The city of Memphis had 623,000 people in 1970. It has nearly that same number today (628,000). The population has basically been flat. During that time, the geographic footprint of what is called Memphis has increased by 55%. This means we take up more space and are more spread out than ever before. One might think that digital technology replacing analog and having fewer kids would decrease our footprint, but it hasn’t. We sprawl like homesteaders but live like accountants. We should not be surprised that our greatest health concern is loneliness.

This suburbanization has presented challenges for the church. The churches that I’ve spent my life in have struggled ministering in urban settings. Despite the fact that by 2050 most of the world will live in urban areas, Christians still seem uncomfortable in them. Most urban areas are littered with old, empty churches that used to be relevant for the community, but their membership died or moved away. The largest feature of many older churches was the building; now it’s the parking lot, as churches worry more about attracting certain demographics to their Sunday programs (usually young families) than about seeking the welfare of the city to which they’ve been brought (Jer. 29:7).

Rural and suburban habits have left us with churches who struggle to reach urban areas. So we have a disproportionate number of churches in places that are already saturated with the gospel and a paltry number in places that need it most. Seattle has nearly a million people and one of the top economies in the country. There are six Churches of Christ. It could be worse, New York City’s 8 million people are served by seven. For comparison, there are 38 congregations for the 40,787 residents of Florence, Alabama. (This is not a dig, the smoked duck sausage at Ricatoni’s was outstanding on my last visit). But there is a Church of Christ for every 1,000 people in Florence, so if NYC had the same proportion they would have 8,000 congregations. Start spreading the news.

In 2008, there were roughly 19 universities/graduate schools associated with Churches of Christ in the United States. There were campuses large cities, including Nashville, Portland, Memphis, and Austin. Since that time, at least four have closed, including those in Portland, Austin, and Memphis. The ones in Henderson, Tennessee, Searcy, Arkansas, and Abilene, Texas remain. Notice a trend? We know statistically and demographically that people who train in medicine, higher education, public service, technology, and most other professions will spend their careers in major metropolitan areas. Shouldn't they be trained in one?

It seems more urgent than ever for churches to have an urban theology. 

  • We need a theology of exile that teaches us to minister in places where we don’t get to make the rules. If our churches and communities are comfortable or always seeking comfort, we need to rethink our convictions (1 Pet. 2:11-17). 
  • We need a theology of multiculturalism where we expect and dream that our homes, neighborhoods, and places of worship are filled with “every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
  • We need a theology of contentment to counter our addiction to prosperity. Anxiety pushes us to isolate; contentment gives us the calm we need to stay close (Mt. 6:25-33)
  • We need a theology of compassion. We don’t always know why someone is suffering or why they hurt or what caused it or who is responsible or what we can do. In any case, we should never run away. God has us here for a larger reason (Jer. 29).

The Bible is full of prophets who stutter, prophets who get rejected, prophets who get depressed, and prophets who fail. Jonah could have been one of those. But he refused. And the world is full of churches who struggle and churches who get sidetracked and churches with ugly paint and broken steeples and boring preachers. But the church has survived and thrived, because God can work through a willing heart who runs to the hurt. If God can work through a fallible prophet he can work through a fallible church.

As long as we don’t run away.


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