Urban Idolatry

It used to be said that pet owners begin to look like their animals. I don’t know if that is really true, however, it has also been said that we (as individuals and as a society) begin to look like and behave like our idols.

What is idolatry?

I want to suggest that idolatry involves giving honour, value, power to something or someone who does not deserve and is not entitled to it. We often do this out of fear. When we are afraid of someone or something then we either seek to appease it or we entrust our safety to someone or something else which we expect to ward off the danger and protect us from harm. Both cases (trust and fear/appeasement) are examples of idolatry.

Idolatry happens when we believe lies about God, creation, humanity and new creation. It happens when we look to someone or something to help or protect us instead of God. It often happens because we lack patience and hope and so want everything to be okay now instead of looking forward to the day when Christ will return and put all things right.

Idolatry can be seen in the hierarchies we create through class and caste systems. We value qualities, power, connections etc and we look for protection or seek appeasement from those who are seen as having power and connections.

Idolatry can be seen in fear of the outsider and the other creating prejudice.

This helps us to answer a couple of questions that have come up during our discussions about urban justice, institutional sin etc.

  1. Is it possible for an institution to be a source of sin/evil/injustice?

Yes, in the sense that it becomes idolatrous. This is not because it has an identity/life of its own.  Rather:

  1. Individuals contribute by their actions, decisions and agreements to a way of life that becomes accepted. That way of life may be (indeed, if it is idolatrous, will be) oppressive to some and cause harm to the vulnerable and needy. Idolatry is not victimless.
  2. Individuals choose to accept idolatry, to live with it, to appease it instead of choosing to stand for God’s side.
  3. There is a further dimension to this in that humans are not the only players in the idolatry game. The apostle Paul reminds us that behind idols are demons. We are not meant to taker this in a superstitious sense as though coming into contact with an image will automatically cause demon possession. Rather, it means that the devil uses idolatry to draw worship away from God to himself and uses it to oppress, control and enslave


  1. Can working class people be classist?

One of the big topics that has been running through the summer has been the issue of class bias. Duncan Forbes has particularly picked this one up and ran with it.  He has asked whether the church has a problem with class bias and whether that has hindered Gospel outreach among the working class and urban poor on our council estates and in our inner cities.

Recently, Duncan raised the question “Isn’t classism just as much a lower class problem??”[1] He answers the question with both a “yes” and a “no.” Yes in that we all have prejudices and working class people can have their prejudices and stereotypes about middle class people. “No” in that the real issue is to do with power. It isn’t just about having wrong/stereotyped views about others, it is about how those views combine with power to harm and to crush.

However, when we approach the question from an “idolatry” perspective, it is quite illuminating.    It isn’t just about my power over others but about how I relate to them. Idolatry does not just lead me to cause harm to others but it can cause me to act passively as the victim. At this stage, I’m reminded of how Augustine and Luther talked about pride as being love turned in on itself. Mike Ovey used this point to show how pity is another side of the “pride” coin because it is once again about love turned in on itself. I become the focus. In the end, idolatry is selfish, I appease, trust, worship for what I need.

So, whilst working class people may not have power over the middle classes, when their prejudices about others leads to self-pity, passiveness and victim-hood then we have a dangerous form of idolatry.

Additionally, power is relative and if idolatry manifests itself in fear of the other, then the issue is not just about classism but prejudice that leaves those who don’t fit in on the estate because of their ethnic background, hobbies, interests, fashion choices, academic abilities, skills or lack of etc.

In church terms, we risk buying into this form of idolatry when we look and wait for the outside rescuers to come and save us.  When will the big wealthy churches start sending money and people to our urban estates? When will one or more of our national leaders start speaking out more consistently about these issues? Don’t get me wrong. I do think that large wealthy churches should see our estates and inner cities as a vital part of the mission field. I do want to see the “graduate/non-graduate bias corrected.” I do want people with influences across the church nationally to take an interest.

But what I do not do is become passive or indulge in blame/pity.  Rather, I trust God to send labourers into his harvest field. I trust him to build his church and I recommit to serve where he has called me, knowing that he will thoroughly equip me for the work he has called me to.

Taking this further – urban theology and urban missiology

If we are serious about the urban mission field, then we need to ask and find answers to some serious questions. If what we believe affects how we live, then we need a robust urban missiology. This means we need to be identifying and challenging the idols in our society.

These idols will exist at different levels. Our national culture will create idols that will affect how society is ordered, education and the media. However, here will also be the idols that go with a particular class, culture or community.

Our desire should be to see people turn from idolatry to trust in the living God.


[1] http://duncanf.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/isnt-classism-just-as-much-lower-class.html