Why Be Positive About the City?
A central element of the City Church vision is that we be a church known for celebrating the city. We intend to celebrate the city by being positive about its people, programs, and anything else that is praiseworthy. I have been surprised in recent months over the shock that a church would do such a thing, so I decided to devote two posts to explaining and defending why this is important to our vision.
1. There is a great deal of negativity about York City in York County. The city is my home and the home to many other people, all made in the image of God, and so the negativity is a personal affront to me, its residents, and to God. A visit to the public comments section on the website of the local paper will quickly enlighten one to the steady stream of racism, bigotry, hatred of the poor, and raw negativity that are directed at the city. York City is consistently portrayed as a dangerous place to live with insurmountable problems.
2. The City is a great place to live, work, and play. My family has lived in the city for several years now and is thrilled to call it home. We enjoy our neighbors, the city neighborhoods, walking to the market, fitness at the YMCA, going to Revolution games, playing Little League baseball, checking books out from the library, etc. All of these activities are within walking distance of our home, and yes, we feel safe walking in the city. The city needs residents who will support its local scene economically. I am personally convinced that the best restaurants and places of interest are in the city. More folks in York County need to hear that message.
3. Change will not happen by complaining. Granted, the city does have issues that need to be addressed and there are many good people working together to address those issues. The history of complaints about the city has created a stigma and ignorance about the good that exists in the city. Many residents of York County therefore refuse to go into the city out of fear and ignorance. More voices need to be raised in support of the City. I’m not talking about just being positive about new city development and gentrification. I’m talking about being excited about the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity that exists in the makeup of its citizens. A prominent candidate for City Mayor once referred to York City as the “dirty partner” with whom no one in the county wants to dance. I was dismayed that a candidate would say that! Citizens of York City and those who love it, need to battle the propagation of this kind of negativity. Our hope as a church is not to just be naively positive, but to work for the good of all city people and its local economy by celebrating the city. We are hoping that our little contribution will help turn the tide of negativity about the city.
Part Two: The Scriptural Rationale
Last week I began to articulate our vision for why we think it is important to be positive about the City. This week I offer the Scriptural rationale for a positive approach to the city beginning with the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 29:4-7 records these words:
“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Jeremiah’s people, the people of the land of Judah, had been invaded by the new world power, Babylon. The Babylonians came into the Promised Land and took the people of Judah captive and carried them into exile. During their period in exile, false prophets arose among the people of Judah who promised a short stay in Babylon. The LORD sent word through the prophet Jeremiah to tell the people that the false prophets were wrong. The people would be forced to live in Babylon for a period of 70 years. This period of exile was God’s punishment on His people for their idolatry.
A quick glance at God’s commands to the exiles reveals some surprising details.
- It was God who carried the exiles to Babylon.
- God commands the people to make Babylon their home by building houses, planting gardens, marrying, and bearing children.
- God tells His people to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon, not to war against it, because Babylon’s prosperity would mean their own.
- They are commanded to pray to the LORD for Babylon.
So what relevance does this have to being positive about any city in the 21st century? Two New Testament passages reveal that the LORD’s people are in a similar position today.
The Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:11-12:
11 Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. 12 Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world.
The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:
11Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, 12so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
In light of these passages, the people of the LORD today are called to a similar plan as the exiles in Babylon. Notice:
- Peter calls them “temporary residents and foreigners.” This world, like the city of Babylon, is not our ultimate home. We are foreigners or aliens in this world. In the words of Hebrews 11:10, we are looking for another city that is not of this world.
- The people of the LORD are called to continue seeking the peace and prosperity of their cities. They are called to live properly among unbelievers with honorable behavior (1 Peter 2:12) resulting in the giving of honor to God. Paul echoes this in 1 Thessalonians in commanding God’s people to live quietly, minding their own business by working to win the respect of unbelievers.
God’s people are called to worship Him in everything they do. But notice that the very act of worship for which God calls is actively seeking the peace and prosperity of our cities. Real worship means being other-centric, working for the good of our cities, praying to the LORD for our cities. Though we are temporary residents in this world, looking for a heavenly city, God never allows for His people to sit idly by in passivity and carelessness for our cities. If we claim to be for God, we must be for the City.
Next week I will look a little closer at why the Gospel compels us to be for the City.
Part Three: For the Gospel and the City
14“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.
If you read my post from last week I argued that the Scriptures call the followers of Jesus to be for the City. In this post, I am proposing that if the Church claims to be for the Gospel, then it must be for the City.
There are many reasons that the Gospel connects to the City, its life, culture, and issues. I will propose three that relate most specifically to the context of York City.
1. Cities Are Meant to Be Places of Shelter
Tim Keller writes,
The city was invented as a place of refuge from criminals, animals, and marauders. By its nature, the city is a place where minorities can cluster for support in an alien land, where refugees can find shelter and where the poor can better eke out an existence. The city is always a more merciful place for minorities of all kinds. The dominant majorities often dislike cities, but the weak and the powerless need them. They cannot survive in the suburbs and small towns. Thus, unlike villages, cities are places of diversity.
The sad reality is that, while cities are places of diversity, the weak and the powerless are not all that ‘sheltered’ in the city. The city can be a grueling, violent, and tragic place to live. York City needs to look no further than the senseless death of nine-year old Ciara Savage, caught between the cross-fire of a gang war on Mother’s Day just a few years ago, for a stinging example.
The Gospel is Good News, really, really Good News to those who are most desperate. In my time in York City, some of the most deeply religious people I have met are the poor who have no one else to look to than God. Jesus said in Luke 4:18-19,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The message of the Gospel is unspeakably good news to the weak, imprisoned, powerless, and poor of our cities. So, it only makes that if we claim to be for the Gospel, we will be for the City.
2. The City is a Picture of the New Humanity Jesus is Creating
The City is a place of diversity, both ethnically and socio-economically. There are images in the book of Revelation (see chapter 5:9; 7:9) that reveal that the eternal people of God are drawn from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Jesus is not in the business of creating His holy nation out of one national people or tribe, but out of all the tribes, tongues, and nations on earth. This explains His command in Matthew 28:18 to take the Gospel to ALL nations.
If you want to find the convergence of the world’s tribes, tongues, and nations, you go to the City. Major population hubs like New York, Chicago, and London, literally house the nations. Even a small city like York City houses people from many different cultures. Cities give us a picture of what God’s eternal city will look like.
One significant difference is that God’s eternal city will UNITE these nations around Jesus Christ. In fact, we should expect to see this happening in the Church, though sadly Sunday mornings in America continue to be the most segregated hour in the American week. The Church can bring the nations together only by uniting around the Creator, Jesus Christ. (See Ephesians 1:9-10; Galatians 3:28)
3. A Garden to a City
The flow of Biblical history takes us from the Garden of Eden to the City of God in Revelation. There is a development that God intends with regard to humanity. Our final destination is not a garden, but a City. One may wonder why this is the fact, but I believe it is because we are made for each other. Human beings are meant to be in community together.
One of the big attractions for moving to the City was that people are out and about. They sit on their front porches, not on their isolated decks in their backyards. City people go to parks, walk to their destinations, and interact with each other. In the City, you have a chance to know your neighbors, for good or for worse.
The City is the ideal venue for loving your neighbor as the Gospel commands. Cities are places where churches should be planting, not retreating.
None of this positive vision of the City is intended to demonize the suburbs, as has so often been done by self-righteous City zealots. God loves human beings wherever they are and the Church is called to go to them wherever they are. As for me and my house, God has called us to be for the Gospel and the City.