Positions and attitudes about living in the city or in the country vary among Seventh-day Adventists. For some, cities are to be avoided in preference for the country. Others urge an adoption of the “method of Christ,” in which Christ “mingled with people,” and suggest that members interact with the people of the city in the interest of their salvation.
The attitude of avoidance seems to be reflected in some of Ellen White’s teaching that the virtues of faith, love, happiness, and hope would be better cultivated in the “retired places,” away from the city.More specifically, the author counseled that in obedience the people of God “must leave the cities.” Like Enoch, “we must work the cities but not dwell in them.”1
The degree to which current positions in the church take their cues from this nuanced stance of White awaits empirical confirmation. Be that as it may, any appreciation of these varied positions on the city and the country and, more particularly, the reasons for the apparent decline of country living among Adventists must be assessed in light of what we know or perceive about the city and country realities.
The city and the country are more than geographical, physical entities. They are also sociological contexts, with their own unique cultural features. It is not so much the physical aspects of the city and the country that distinguish one from the other. Rather, it is the social, psychological, spiritual, and relationship patterns with which they are associated that separate them as unique social types. Seen in this light, the country and city represent two contrasting yet not mutually exclusive paradigms, given their potential to facilitate our physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual life and expression.
The ideal image of country living presents a picture of a small, bonded collective marked by familiarity, a heightened sense of belonging, like-mindedness, and oneness. Moreover, country living symbolizes preservation. It is the context in which the untampered sentiments and systems of popular belief and practice are thought to stand the best chance of survival.
In the country, rules that regulate conduct tend to be clearer and unambiguous. While these guidelines are seldom formally documented and enforced, they are nonetheless followed. Life tends toward a seamless, predictable order. Behaviors and beliefs that fall short of the norm are likely to be treated with clear sanctions.
City living stands in contrast to the image of the village presented above. Cities are large collectives of people. Whereas country inhabitants experience bonded relationships and a sense of oneness and belonging, the lives of those who dwell in the city are often marked by a lack of bondedness and a sense of disconnection.
Other features of cities include a perceived impersonality, diversity, and instrumentality. Ethnic, language, religious, and class diversity all add to this impersonality and can tend to a sense of alienation. Further diversity of competing perspectives and values can also make it difficult for citizens to reach a common consensus on a variety of topics.
In the city, product tends to trump people. The city’s instrumental nature is such that peoples’ value is tied to what they can do (their training) and what they have procured (their achievement). To the extent that people’s humanness and welfare take second place to their productive capacity, they experience a sense of meaninglessness and cynicism.
The foregoing characterizations of city and country living reflect what these social entities might be if they existed in their pure forms. But they do not. Nevertheless, these images often inform our perception and attitude toward living in the city and the country.
Adventists concerned about any currently perceived decline in country living should take into account the sheer disappearance of actual rural space because of the march of urbanization. Whereas in the 1800s only 3 percent of the world lived in cities, today that number is more than 50 percent. By 2050 it is expected to grow to more than 65 percent. In the United States the situation is even steeper. In 1790, 5 percent of the population lived in cities. Today that number has grown to 79 percent. It’s almost as if there is little choice between city and country living.2
City and country living represent varied but not necessarily mutually exclusive possibilities. Through modern-day media, “retired places” are no longer as retired. Moreover, the current emphasis on reaching the city with the gospel seems to be leading to a reappraisal of attitudes towards the city. Additionally, renewed appreciation of God’s love for the city may find affirmation in the fact that He will return for us with a city of His own, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2). That too might be borne in mind as we define our attitudes toward city living.
Indeed, despite our continued search for peace and tranquillity, there is no hiding place down here. Perhaps the key to pure and undefiled living may rest in the choices we make about the use of the technology at our disposal that is capable, all on its own, of letting us into and shutting us out of the city or country at the simple touch of a remote.
Lionel Matthews, recently retired, was a professor of sociology at Andrews University.