In recent weeks I’ve seen a number of headlines in newspapers, magazines, and my Twitter feed proclaiming cities like New York dead and the “age of the megacity over.” The biggest driver for these predictions is the seeming exodus from urban centers to the more spacious suburban (and even rural) corners of America.
I read these articles with interest because I pastor a church in Manhattan, and some of those exiting the city have been part of our church. I’ve performed their weddings, baptized them, and celebrated their pregnancies. Now I’m only able to see Instagram posts of their new babies.
Many of our friends didn’t leave for consumeristic or privileged reasons, but because they worked in industries, like service or performance, that have completely shut down or remain severely limited. Or they have family members they need to care for.
Because Manhattan is a more secular city, with relatively few Christians and churches, believers can have mixed emotions about moving here or leaving. Church resources are often slim, so any loss (financial or personal) can feel significant. Often, then, the decision to leave is mixed with difficult emotions of shame or guilt.
How should Christians think about this? Perhaps you live in a large city and are processing whether to leave. What is a good framework for thinking well about staying or leaving the city?
Begin with Grace
Always begin with grace. COVID-19 has brought on loss, weariness, and burnout like many of us have never before faced. None of us is practiced in pandemics. We all need heaps and heaps of grace. If you have felt steamrolled in this season, or if it hasn’t been the spiritual slam dunk your favorite podcaster or pastor said it had the potential to be, there’s mercy on the other side.
None of us is practiced in pandemics. We all need heaps and heaps of grace.
When it comes to the question of people moving during this year, it’s possible some have left for wrong reasons, driven by fear or comfort. But seasons like this demand not inquisitions on people’s frailty, but the giving and receiving of grace.
Calling and Covenant
Nevertheless, what’s a good theological framework to use in deciding whether to stay or go? A prevailing approach in our culture is to make big decisions using the categories of comfort and opportunity. Experiencing discomfort? Move on to comfort. Receive a bigger or better opportunity? Follow the open door.
But for Christians, we have two deeper categories to consider: covenant and calling. Both can be over-spiritualized and simply used to serve our desires for comfort or opportunity, so we’ll need wisdom.
Calling can feel nebulous. But Christ calls us to obedience, which has wide-ranging implications for our finances, vocations, relationships, and time. What does allegiance to Christ look like in these areas? It certainly means I can’t follow every opportunity. If there are tasks or opportunities you always say “yes” to because you think that’s how you’ll get ahead, or if your life with Christ never closes doors, then you’re likely thinking in terms of opportunity rather than calling.
Covenant is the category through which Christians act in love. Covenant is sacrificial. It often causes discomfort because it’s a thick relationship rather than thin one. You’ve probably had to ask for, and grant, forgiveness multiple times in a covenant relationship. Covenant prioritizes longer-term growth and maturity—withstanding up and down seasons together—rather than tenuous relationships that can break at the slightest pressure. (There’s a significant caveat here about spiritually abusive situations, but that’s a bit beyond the focus of this article.) When discomfort comes through challenging circumstances (e.g., financial strain, school districts, distance from family), covenant keeps us tied together longer than relationships of mere convenience or comfort.
Decisions in Light of Calling and Covenant
The gospel compels us to allow calling and covenant to drive our decisions. This doesn’t mean these dynamics always force us to stay put. Calling and covenant drove Abraham and Sarah out of the city of Ur, probably confusing and disappointing their family members and community. But if we’re always leaving to avoid discomfort (financial, vocational, or relational) or to seek opportunity (financial, vocational, or relational), then it’s likely that covenant and calling aren’t driving our decision-making. Covenant often means enduring discomfort, and calling often means losing opportunities.
Covenant often means enduring discomfort, and calling often means losing opportunities.
Still, it’s important to remember that nothing on this side of heaven is permanent. Churches shouldn’t be cultish in calling for absolute, permanent commitments. Pastors and church leaders in transient cities should have the emotional maturity to speak about covenant and calling in ways that don’t provoke fear, guilt, or shame when people consider a move. We can challenge each other to think twice before making a move, in light of calling and covenant, even as we love, honor, and lament those who choose to go.
Many of us have made life decisions for selfish rather than sacrificial reasons. Perhaps we’ve moved on when we should’ve stayed. Repentance and grace are the only ways for us to maneuver, through this fallen world, toward maturity and perseverance.
As I was grieving a leaving friend, someone wiser than me said, “I think it’s fair to believe everyone is doing the best they can, while also wishing some people did better.” I think that’s probably true.