General Motors did not invent the motor car, but they certainly perfected how to mass produce and sell them. Founded in 1908 when there were only 20,000 vehicles in the entire USA, they quickly outsold the already established pioneer of the industry, Ford. Throughout the years they acquired the Pontiac, Cadillac, Oldsmobile, Opel, Vauxhall, and more recently the Saab brands. Yet the company that at one time was selling over 50% of all cars sold globally is now going through a tough time. Despite being loaned over $50 million from the US government, last month it slipped into bankruptcy protection measures and has been forced to close factories, sell off some brands and discontinue others.
If you go to GM headquarters in Detroit, you can still see the iconic towers of the Renaissance Center shining with all their corporate sheen. They are still in use as the company restructures. But if you go to the outskirts of town the decline is more evident. Factories razed to the ground, warehouses gutted and graffitied, whole communities in decay. The auto industry was the centre of these communities and, in some cities, was the only major employer. Now, according to one BBC correspondent, people are asking “What is the point of Detroit without the motor industry?”
Growing up in North East England in the 1980’s, I have seen this before. The rivers Tyne, Wear and Tees used to be major centres of shipbuilding, at one point building two of every five ships produced in the world. Last month the last remaining shipbuilder on the Tyne moved it’s production to India; Swan Hunter was responsible for building ships such as HMS Illustrious and RMS Carpathia which rescued some of the survivors of the Titanic. It’s was a similar story for pit towns in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, counties which are now littered with small towns with no industry. In the globalised world that we are living in, it is inevitable that industries will move as other countries become able produce things more cheaply. But it still leaves towns and cities such as Detroit which feel like their communities have been destroyed and their hearts and souls have been ripped out of them. We are left asking “What is the point of such towns now?”
In many cases, new technologies and new employment sectors will rise up and provide employment, as has happened in the North East. They usually don’t offer a new centre to the community, but they provide jobs nonetheless. Regardless, cities always have a point, because they are made of people and people are important. However, people derive their importance not from the jobs they do, or the place they live but from God and from each other. When God chose to create people, he put them together in the Garden of Eden. Also, His final vision of this earth is of a heavenly city – a place where people are together, interacting and working, but crucially, the centre of this heavenly city is God himself in Christ. Revelation 21 describes the vision that the apostle John was brought of this city – “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” (Rev 21:22) God is in the centre as the source of and focus for the community.
Of course, out earthly cities fail to live up to that vision. They can often be difficult places with lots of social issues which need to be addressed. They often lack a centre or are centred around systems that will ultimately fail. But although all empires, nations, and corporations will someday fall, God is the author of history and he will remain. This is a truth for these towns and for our own. Church congregations might be small in some places but they can still point towards the God who is the author of history and can live lives worshipping and witnessing, in keeping with the eschatological vision of Revelation 21. They can be God’s hands and feet, offering hope and support in communities that are grieving a lost identity and pointing towards the One who gives purpose and who will never fail.