This letter is for Doug and Betty Jo Winters, new friends who have walked with Jesus a long time.


I feel confident our fledgling relationship is off to a good start, just as I feel that we see the world much the same way and understand our responsibility both in the world and to the world as agents and emissaries of the gospel. I’m writing to you peer-to-peer, thanking you for your faithfulness and affirming you for your exemplary character.

Recently I’ve begun thinking about the different labels society has adopted for people in our cities. Zygmunt Bauman is, in my mind, the greatest sociologist of the 20th century. He understands community, society, and human relationships like no one else.[1] One of his favorite means of talking about the ways we interact is to distinguish between “tourists” and “vagabonds.” I’ve always felt this distinction needs to be further developed to include “vagrants” and “resident-aliens” in order to better understand God’s calling for his people to be a City in the cities,[2] and I am writing to remind our church we are meant to be a city of light within the cities of darkness.[3]

Here’s how I’ve come to apply Bauman’s categories to the church:

A vagrant is a hostile person living downtown. Vagrants are often listless and purposeless, but if provoked will quickly turn violent. Many Christians live as vagrants. They have no noble purpose, but seem to be everywhere, drawing attention to themselves. If approached, Christians can lash out and do great harm to those around them, yet never seem willing to accept responsibility for their actions. Some Christians seem convinced their violence is necessary.

Vagabonds, by contrast, sleep under park benches and keep their libations in brown sacks. They are rootless and without family. Christians can also be vagabonds, pitiful creatures, always trying to solicit sympathy for their suffering. They wonder why the world doesn’t help them, growing frustrated and despondent that their plight isn’t addressed.

Tourists are people who visit downtown but take no responsibility for the city. They look and laugh, spend a little money and go shopping, but the only legacy they leave behind is their spare change. Some Christians play tourist in the world. They taste its goods and enjoy their stay, but never leave their mark. They’re players, not producers.

It’s clear God never intended us to be tourists, vagabonds or vagrants. We are citizens of heaven, but we live on earth.[4] We are not native to our earthly city, and it has been so long since we lived “at home” that we hardly feel like immigrants, either. The best way to describe us is as resident aliens. We’re from there, but we live here. We still do heaven things quite naturally, but we also commit ourselves to the good of the earth; we live by earthly rules, we obey earthly government, and we participate in earthly community.[5]

One of the things I appreciate about you is that you’ve got one foot in each world, but you live wholly in both. It’s like you’re wearing X-ray goggles and can see the things right in front of you while simultaneously seeing through them to the invisible realm beyond. You never seem to lose your grounding in this world and all that accompanies it—family, hobbies, travel, charity—nor have you lost your vision of how God wants our world to be shaped, either—glory, love, peace.

There are certain days in any city when the various ethnic groups celebrate their national holidays. On Cinco de Mayo, for example, Mexicans celebrate in distinctively Mexican ways, and those who were born there but live here share a special kinship enhanced by the occasion. I’m hoping you read this letter and experience a little of that Cinco de Mayo flair, an echo of your native land, and that you realize it’s possible to succeed and to thrive in this country while still longing for home.[6]


[1] For an accessible introduction to Zygmunt Bauman’s work, see Community.

[2] The City in the cities is my dominant thought within this project. The City is a metaphorical way of referring to the people of God in scripture (Isaiah 62.4; Revelation 21.2).

[3] Jacques Ellul, the famed French theologian, does a nice job of defining why our earthly cities are so very dark: “The man who disappears into the city becomes merchandise. All the inhabitants of the city are destined sooner or later to become prostitutes and members of the proletariat. And thus man’s triumph, this place where he alone is king, where he sets the mark of his absolute power becomes in truth the very place where he is made slave.” Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 55.

[4] Philippians 3.20.

[5] Romans 13.1.

[6] Hebrews 13.14.