San Franciscans: A Modern-Day Epistle

San Franciscans: A Modern-Day Epistle

Greetings

Nate, a follower of Jesus by the grace of God,
To the church of God in San Francisco, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus who are loved by God and called to be saints:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In other words, what up.

Thanksgiving

I always thank God for you because of his grace given to you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in so many ways, mostly in literal riches. God has truly blessed you. While so many people long ago wrote off San Francisco as a demonic liberal heathen town, you have instead seen the church thrive. For this we, with all the saints, rejoice.

Jesus is in San Francisco

I am not saying anything you don’t already know, of course. Jesus is in San Francisco and he always has been. I hope simply to remind you today of what that may mean for us especially at such a time as this, when San Francisco is evolving and the church along with it. I believe that the future of the church in San Francisco, indeed its livelihood, depends on what we mean when we say those very words: Jesus is in San Francisco.

For Jesus is a particular God. And when he enters the world, he enters in an intentional particularity that many of us are quick to forget or simply reject as trivial materiality that has nothing to do with Jesus’ soteriological purposes. But Jesus in San Francisco means that we, the church, are rooted in a specific place at a specific time in history and that any human who ever existed (like Jesus) was also rooted in a particular time and place. We must reckon with this Jesus. For it is his particularity – his incarnational nature – that will rescue us from our own distortions of who he is, the ways we make him in our image for our own selfish purposes, and from paralyzing, humanity-defacing universality that corrupts many churches today.

God – that is, YHWH, the Abrahamic God – has always rejected the universal in favor of the particular. Jesus is not a universal Savior. He is a Jewish Savior who operates on a cosmic scale (Rom 1:16, Matt 15:24). This might bother some folks, but stay with me for a moment. We believe that God is sovereign. Given God’s sovereignty, God’s divine intentionality, we must deeply consider why it was destined for Jesus to incarnate in the manner he did. God, for better or worse, has always, without exception, chosen to involve himself in human culture.

So we meet Jesus, the Son of Man, completely embedded in Jewish culture and ways of life. We are confronted by God’s Eternal Word now dressed in frail, broken, brown flesh. Jesus, in his particularity, within the parameters of God’s divine intentionality, joins a broken world as a Palestinian Jew, born in the Oakland public bathroom that was a Bethlehem manger, to a blue collar father and a knocked up mother who found their family in danger under Roman imperialism. This is our God. When we say that Jesus is in San Francisco, we are confronted by this man.

Incarnation is everything. Jesus’ particularity is that which we both desperately need and yet deeply fear. If the incarnation is not real, then the Gospel is formless and void, a dead, one-size-fits-all downloadable script that negates everything that makes us unique. And if Jesus was not a Palestinian Jewish man, then it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, white or black, if you speak English or Tagalog – every church would be exactly the same: sing Hillsong, read liturgy in Latin, and worship a white Jesus who gives us everything we want. If the incarnation is not real, if flesh and culture are just temporary evils that God tolerates, then it doesn’t matter if we steamroll communities, destroy culture, and colonize nations, all in the name of Jesus.

But this is not what we believe. Instead, we believe the Gospel is alive and dynamic, just as dynamic and complex as the people God made. And since the incarnation is real, we are forced to confront the particularity of Jesus and all the ways that that threatens and uplifts our own particularities.

Our brother Eugene Peterson says that Jesus became a man and moved into the neighborhood (John 1). But which neighborhood? And what difference would it make if Jesus were born in Oakland vs. San Francisco? Sunset vs. Mission? Hunters Point vs. Marina? What does it mean for Jesus to contextualize himself, to incarnate in such a diverse, evolving, and wealthy city like San Francisco? What implications would it have for us to see our Savior dressed in rags in one of the richest cities in the world?

The questions should haunt us.

Locality

We are called, therefore, to be a people who understand their own particularity and how it fits within the particularity of the one we worship. We are called to be local theologians who ask local questions. We reject the ideas that may have worked at Redeemer NY or Willow Creek Chicago because universalized ecclesiology is antithetical to incarnation. Everything must be bespoke. Everything must be reimagined, reevaluated, and rearticulated with a San Francisco hermeneutic rooted in the incarnational love of Jesus.

But this is scary. It’s much easier, after all, to tweak Keller’s vision or to read Grudem’s “Systematic Theology” and be done with it. Localized theology opens us up to all manner of theological folly – syncretism, relativism, and well, just plain bad theology. But our faith must be particular because God is particular and an epistle is a reminder that God works differently for every city and we must respond to the challenges and opportunities we face in the specific places and moments to which we have been called.

Local theology demands that we surrender neat, compartmentalized ideas and growth strategies in favor of messy and unpredictable relationships. Good, honest, local theology means that the Gospel is not a beautiful flower implanted into receptive hearts; it is a seed planted in new soil whose leaves and fruit no one has seen before. It will grow on its own terms at its own pace in harmony with the soil in which it was planted. We can water the ground, till the dirt, and throw our legally enforced compost on it, but we have so little control over what will sprout forth, its shape, its color, its fruit, or the way it will provide for us in the future. We would love to control God’s movement, but the Gospel is more powerful and dynamic than we would ever hope for. So when it grows into something that we did not expect, will we immediately prune or chop it down? Or are we prepared to enjoy it in its particularity, growing from the rich yet distinct San Francisco soil and the city’s year-round fog?

There is already a forest here in San Francisco. There are churches who have been here for 100+ years, thinking locally and intentionally, whose fruit is not the sweetest and whose branches are not the broadest, but whose roots are deep and whose bark is calloused by the storms of history. Any young pastor hoping to plant a Jesus-shaped church must reckon with San Francisco on its own terms in ways that honor the soil that will nurture it. An implanted Gospel from another place will not flourish here; in fact, it will eat away at the churches that have been here the longest. It is already happening. So if you’re a young pastor thinking about coming to San Francisco to plant a church and love the city, it doesn’t matter how many articles you’ve read, prayers you’ve prayed, or conversations you’ve had, you don’t have a clue. Love is not possible outside of the context of long term commitment. In this sense, spiritual readiness is primarily a function of time; those most prepared for the theological are those most disciplined by the temporal rooted in the geographical. Any church with a congregation greater than 100 and an existence shorter than 10 years is not a successful church, it is a tree without roots. When the winds change, do not expect this church to stand.

So let us slow down a bit. There is much for us to learn.

Let us have the same attitude of Jesus, who being in very nature God did not see equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, becoming a servant and spending 30 years doing pretty much NO MEASUREABLE MINISTRY. Thirty years. It turns out that an MDiv and an idealistic prayer are not enough to make someone effective in this city. We don’t need more pastors or churches – we already have those, and they’re fine. What this city needs is deeply rooted, honest, thoughtful, consistent presence.

We are a generation that has forgotten how to wait. We are a people who love the idea of rising up on eagles’ wings and running without growing weary but we miss the part where we wait upon the Lord. Jesus in San Francisco means that sometimes, we wait. And sometimes waiting means not planting a church. Sometimes it means not evangelizing your neighbors until you’ve built up longstanding trust. Sometimes it means you stop instagramming stuff and saying how much you love the city. Sometimes it means you keep your mouth shut so that your neighbors can speak. Sometimes it means you do absolutely nothing but keep showing up in the same place again and again for 30 years until people learn that you are trustworthy. In San Francisco, a city run on instantaneous technological gratification, we will be a people who wait. And our waiting will be prophetic.

Kairos

And church, this is why I am writing to you. SEE WHAT LARGE LETTERS I USE AS I TYPE WITH MY OWN HANDS! The church in San Francisco has a sacred opportunity to be prophetic in a city that is losing its conscience. The church has thus far been complicit in San Francisco’s injustice, but has the chance to repent, to begin loving San Francisco in its particularly with a love the reflects the incarnational nature of Jesus. This is kairos time – God’s appointed moment of action – and we are being called to live our lives as if the Kingdom of God were a reality, as if Jesus were present here in San Francisco, calling us to join his movement toward the cross.

Prophets/Profits

Jesus’ presence in San Francisco is a prophetic presence that threatens many of the assumptions we hold dear about what the city is and will become. In order to seriously reckon with Jesus’ presence in San Francisco, I believe the church is being called into a new, prophetic relationship with technology, the tech industry, and its effects on the city we love.

Over the past 20 years, tech has essentially recalibrated the Bay Area’s collective consciousness, drawing everything and everyone into its inescapable orbit. The church has also been swept up, often willingly; many have embraced technology as its most crucial ministry tool, others have specifically targeted transient tech employees as their key demographic. And while tech employees certainly need a place to worship, the greater issue is that the church has willingly bowed to tech, allowing the industry to determine existence in the Bay Area rather than imagining a new existence where technology is held to a Kingdom standard for the betterment of the poor and vulnerable.

Some of this has to do with our unhealthy relationships to our smartphones. Indeed, technology often leads us away from the very thing we need most if we are to be effective ministers in San Francisco: presence and awareness. However, our iphone addictions are merely indicative of the real issue. Our true prophetic stand must address the tech industry’s proliferation of poverty and the displacement of our most vulnerable residents. San Francisco’s political leadership has surrendered entirely to tech because of its profitability. In this world, profits always trump prophets. Mayor Ed Lee’s promises to keep tech accountable are pitiful; this city has no conscience. Tech is responsible for exorbitant rent prices, astronomical cost of living, and essentially turning San Francisco into a playground for the rich. Many tech companies have attempted to illegally skirt zoning laws, they pay no respect to the communities they steamroll, and their employees are often transients who care nothing for local businesses if they aren’t bars or coffee shops. Tech is the greatest force behind the city’s greatest injustice: gentrification and the displacement of the poor. While the tech industry seems to be earning the city tons of revenue (which is why the city bends to its every need), that money doesn’t go to those who need it; it goes back into tech, back to the rich, to new housing developments that cost millions of dollars as the poor struggle to care for their most basic needs.

However, most of us see technology and the tech industry as a neutral or even positive presence in San Francisco. This is further confounded by the fact that many churchgoers in the city are in fact tech employees. The issue here is not that technology is inherently bad. Nor is this another voice in the disenchanted chorus lamenting that the city is “losing its character.” I don’t believe God is overly concerned with how “weird” this city should be. The reason this is so monumental an issue, and the reason the church’s silence regarding tech is so offensive to God is because the poor are being trampled beneath the ascending feet of tech giants.

So consider this a warning: where the poor suffer, the church is damned. And all throughout the Old Testament, the barometer for righteousness is not how many people attend church or how well a city can “avoid sin,” but whether or not the poor are welcomed and cared for. And judging from our mayor’s priorities, we are on our way to spiritual death.

“They have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice. They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” declares the Lord. “Should I not avenge myself on such a city as this?” Jeremiah 5:27-29

The church’s silence reveals the shallowness of its roots in San Francisco and a profound oblivion of what is needed for our future growth. San Francisco churches have often been complicit, subconscious coconspirators with injustice and evil in this city. Our churches have often been microcosms for the city’s own self-prostitution to an elitist, racist, unjust social ethic. Even our most progressive churches are apt to exclude the poor and vulnerable (except on service days when we get to wash their feet and cleanse our consciences), use technology as status markers, elevate white male voices, and essentially run their entire services in affluent, Euro-centric ways that betray the multicultural façade they are quick to display.

More specifically, I struggle to understand how churches in our most at-risk neighborhoods have no idea how to engage with the patterns of racism that have led to the crystallization of poverty in their communities. Please, if you attend a Tenderloin church or ministry that has never spoken a word about racism, then you are not doing good in the neighborhood; your silence reinforces lies about poverty and you are complicit in evil. Racism in San Francisco doesn’t look like the racism in South Carolina or Florida; it looks like the Ellis Act and other unjust housing policies, endless microaggressions, and the displacement of Black, Latino, and Asian residents. It is a more invisible racism, but it is just as demonic, and our silence makes us allies with Satan.

The church’s silence about racism and gentrification is disgusting. We have not held anyone accountable, we do not challenge our tech and finance employees to any higher living; we simply roll over to the industry, just like everyone else. What will the church say? Will we bow to profits or will we produce prophets who disrupt the city’s patterns of injustice? Our allegiance to God’s Kingdom must threaten our allegiances with the technology we love and serve. It is kairos time for us to live differently.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression, if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness. You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings. Isaiah 58:9,12

Redemption over Transformation

Therefore, do not conform any longer to patterns of this city, but be redeemed by the deepening of your roots. In San Francisco, we do not seek transformation; the city has seen enough of that. Instead, we demand redemption and repentance, an intentional, thoughtful turning away from the injustice that infects this city, suffocating its most vulnerable residents.

City-wide redemption will start with the church. It happens on the streets as we engage with the poor and needy; it happens as we consider systemic, institutional injustice as it plays out in tech, the housing industry, and racist policies that allow gentrification to run rampant; it happens when we address the patterns of racism, classism, elitism, and entitlement within ourselves and our churches. The time to act is now. God’s kairos moment demands a response.

Now to him who is able to do more than we can ask or imagine, to the one who chose the ordinariness of humanity, the marginality of Bethlehem, and the powerlessness of the cross as his stage for salvation, according to his power to overcome even our most calloused prejudices and internalized injustices, to him be the glory, honor, and power both now and forevermore. Amen.