Series: A Church For The City (2008)
The vast majority of churches in America, whether they realize it or not, adopt one of three attitudes towards the city they live in. Those attitudes are apathy, animosity, or imitation.
When a church is apathetic towards a city, they’re simply in the city, but make no impact on the city whatsoever. Most churches fall into this category.
When a church has animosity towards a city, they’re against the city and maintain an escapist mentality. It’s the mindset of the city being evil and the church being good. Just like Jonah who would sit on top of the mountain looking down upon the city of Nineveh and wish like crazy that he didn’t have to go into it, but that God would just destroy it. It’s the “us” versus “them” idea. I used to work in one of these churches. We were led to think the church was good and the city was evil. Everything we did was to prove this and show how the church was right and the city wrong. We isolated ourselves from the city and its culture. We smiled on the outside, but disdained on the inside.
Most recently there has been a movement where the modern church tries to imitate the city. It’s the idea of being a church that looks, feels and sometimes acts like the city. It sounds right and to some extent is, but there’s a problem. Many of these churches begin to be sucked into bending so far to the culture that they actually start looking so much like the city that they quit seeking the city’s renewal and restoration. Inevitably, they water down the gospel to be inclusive and miss the whole point. I think that is what Jesus was referring to in Revelation 2.
Jesus looked at the Church of Ephesus and told them they had lost their first love. He wasn’t first anymore. But there were a couple of things they were doing right. He told them they were not doing the deeds of the Nicolaitans. He applauded them for this. The Nicolaitan church had a great heart to reach lost people, but they bent so far to the culture they began to water down the gospel and lost their effectiveness.
Fortunately, God shows us a fourth response we should be having toward our city.
It’s not to be a church in the city, or of the city, or against the city, but to be a church that is for the city.
Last week we talked about the London Tabernacle in the 1850s and how being a church for the city completely changed the city of London. I want to show you biblically what this looks like.
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. Jeremiah 29:4 (ESV)
God was speaking to His people, the Israelites. The nation of Babylon, which was a woefully evil nation had come in and beaten Israel. They invaded them, tore down their city and then took the people of Israel back to their own city. God told them how He wanted them to respond and act in this evil city they’d been taken to.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. Jeremiah 29:5-6 (ESV)
God didn’t want them to decrease; He wanted them to increase. God blasted the idea of being a church that just imitates the city and assimilates into its culture. He shot down the idea of bending into the culture so far that we lose our own identity.
Historically, we know Babylon had a very specific and sneaky strategy for taking over another country. They would go in and fight and beat them down. Then they would bring them into their own city and make them feel right at home. They gave them all the good jobs, let them live in good neighborhoods, and even gave them governmental positions. Daniel, who was a Jew, was even hanging out with the King of Babylon. They would assimilate them into their culture and they would get so at home that two generations later there were no more people waving their hands claiming to be Israelites. They liked being Babylonians and would take on all their systems and values.
God told the Israelites He didn’t want them to do this. He didn’t want them to decrease, but to increase. He wanted them to move into the city, but continue to be His people. He wanted them to move into the city, get into the middle of it, build houses, raise children, but do not lose their identity when they did it. Be a part of the city, but be His in the middle of it. He destroyed the idea of being a church of the city. Then He also destroyed the idea of being a church against the city.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7 (ESV)
He wanted them to go into the city to seek and pursue the welfare of the city. God didn’t want them to hate them; He wanted them to love them. He didn’t want them to escape the culture or the city. He wanted them to stay there and seek the welfare of the city, the people, which had just beaten them down. This completely dismantles the idea so many churches have held of what it means for us to be salt and light in our culture and that we have to hate the city and their evil.
The idea of being salt and light is that we come in and seek their welfare.
The word welfare is the key word to this whole series. It’s the Hebrew word Shalom which is translated into English as peace. But in Hebrew that word means so much more than just peace. Usually we think about being calm. Yes, it means that, but that’s only a part of the definition. A lot of times we think about the cessation of fighting between two enemies. It means that too, but so much more.
Shalom means universal flourishing.
It’s universal wholeness, complete health. It would have been crazy enough for God to tell His people to be at peace with the Babylonians and not hate them. That alone would have been revolutionary. But God told them to go into the city and seek their universal flourishing.
The principle we take from this is multi-faceted. First of all, we need to reorient our thinking about this verse. Sadly, I think most of us live in Austin for the purpose of taking from it. We’re here in this city, and whether or not we’d ever articulate it, we’re here to get what the city has to offer. A degree. A husband or wife. Wealth. A career in business or technology or film or music.
God says He didn’t put us in this city to just take from it. He put us in this city first and foremost to give to it. To seek its shalom. To pursue with your life its universal flourishing.
He didn’t say to seek its universal flourishing only spiritually. That’s not what He means. It means we seek the flourishing of the city theologically and spiritually, but also socially. We seek the universal health, wholeness, and prosperity of the city of Austin socially. It is the church’s job to feed the poor and take care of the sick, to minister to the lonely and oppressed, and to bring justice into the city.
Businessmen, we seek the shalom and universal flourishing economically. Your business plan doesn’t just include your flourishing. As a Christian, a person that belongs to Yahweh, your business plan includes the flourishing of Austin and of the nations.
Artists, we don’t come to Austin just to take. God desires you to go into the city, be a part of the culture and seek the shalom and restoration and renewal of the culture. You don’t change it; you do what Jesus did. You make it the same, but new.
Parents, teachers, administrators, we’re seeking the universal flourishing of the city educationally, not just of our own home or school.
I could go on and on. We will spend more time on all this stuff through out the series, digging into what it should look like. This is what it means to be a church not just in the city, or against the city, but for the city.
Tuesday night we had an event called Austin Stone on Campus. There were twelve hundred college students there. That’s a little bit above one-third of the entire population of Christian students at The University of Texas. One-third of everybody we know that claims the name of Christ showed up. It was unbelievable. God showed up in crazy ways. But the thing I kept thinking about was what if twelve hundred students started thinking about their university biblically?
What if they thought they’re not going to class to get anything, but to seek the shalom of The University of Texas? If twelve hundred students began to live out this picture, I promise you, that university would begin to glorify God in a way it never has.
Forty-two hundred people came to service last Sunday and worshipped God here. What if those forty-two hundred people virally went out into the city of Austin, not wanting to be a leech and take from it, but began to look biblically at the city, pray on its behalf and began to seek its universal flourishing? Jesus said something would happen; the city would turn and begin to glorify God. How cool would that be?
To me this idea is revolutionary. The first time I heard of this was in New York City from Pastor Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian. I had never heard that church and God’s people are not here to live in a little bubble together, but that we’re actually supposed to exist for the universal shalom of the city.
This is and always has been God’s plan for your life.
In this city, if you are a believer, God wants you to do this. The Bible teaches us that before the beginning of time, God was thinking this up for you. He had you in mind for this plan.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. Acts 17: 24-25 (ESV)
The reason you are breathing right now is because God is letting you. God’s given that to you as a gift. In His infinite sovereignty and wisdom God says you can breathe. Everything you have, God chose to give to you.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place. Acts 17:26 (ESV)
There are four things to learn from this passage. One, He gives you life, breath and everything you have. Second, He knew when you were going to live. Third, not only did He know that, but He also knew where you were going to live. Lastly, He didn’t just know these things, but He determined those things.
God determined where you were going to live. You are not in Austin by accident. God chose it for you.
Before God made the earth, or the sun, or the solar system and universe, somewhere back in eternity, God was thinking and dreaming specifically about you. In those thoughts, He determined where you would be born, how long you’d live, the city you’d live in, where you would move to, and what you would do.
For you formed my inward parts; you wove me together in my mother's womb.14 I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; and my soul knows it very well.15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth.16 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance… Psalm 139:13-16a (NASB)
God’s eyes saw your unformed substance. Before your mom and dad ever went on a date, God was picturing you. He was dreaming about what you would look like and about your name. Oh my goodness, you are not a mistake! In eternity past, God was picturing you!
And in Your book were all written, The days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them. Psalm 139:16b (NASB)
The word ordained in the Hebrew means to construct in advance. King David just said all our days were constructed and built in advance before we ever lived a single one of them. God was not only thinking and dreaming about you, but He was forming you and constructing every single day of your life.
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand. Psalm 139:17-18 (NASB)
A handful of sand holds about a million grains of sand. One million grains in one handful! Think about South Padre Island. Picture Destin, Florida. Imagine Hawaii. Think about the entire world.
From eternity past when God was picturing you, figuring out where you would live, choosing that at this moment you would live in the city of Austin, thinking the untold countless thoughts of you, carefully creating you and your life, do you really think His big eternal dream for you was to put you carefully, wonderfully and fearfully in Austin so you could get a job, buy a house, make a fat 401k, retire on a beach, and then die? You think that’s it? Is that as creative as God gets?
Do you think maybe Paul had it right when he said in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship…” which in the Greek means poem, you are God’s poem. He continued, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
In light of everything we’ve learned today, listen to this verse. It should mean so much more to you now.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)