Seven Essentials of City Transformation Part 1

Changing Your World

I was senior pastor of a megachurch for twenty-five years. For pastors of churches large and small, it’s the local congregation that demands our attention. Just being church, doing church, going to church keeps everyone in leadership church-focused.

The church, though, isn’t just about the church. It’s about kingdom mission: what God wants to do through us to lead others to Christ and to make our communities, our cities, our nations better places. Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Multiple passages in the Bible tell us that church is not an end in itself, that we are a missional community.

  • To Abraham, God said, “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed “(Genesis 26.4)
  • Through Jeremiah, God said, “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 29:7).
  • Through Micah, God said, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it” (Micah 4:1).
  • Through Daniel, God said, “While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were all broken to pieces and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35). Many understand this to mean that Jesus, the Rock, turns into a pile of rocks—”living stones”) that fills the earth.
  • It’s through the people of God that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
  • Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:13-14).
  • Jesus commanded us, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We have a responsibility to reach not only individuals, but to disciple nations.
  • Paul wrote, “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed” (Romans 8:19). I realize that this passage points forward to the new heavens and the new earth, but it also suggests the remarkable relationship between the people of God and his whole creation.
  • Ephesians 1:22-23 tells us, “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
  • Ephesians 2:6-7—”And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
  • And pew potatoes should ponder Ephesians 3:10-11—”[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s people, perhaps more than at any time in Christian history, are embracing these kingdom purposes and promises. Yes, the church is God’s family, a place where believers worship together, grow in their faith, and learn how to serve others. But the church is also the hope of the world, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Church is Christ in the world.”

What’s in your wallet?

For most of my ministry life, I did church. But a few decades ago at a justice conference in Phoenix, I heard John Perkins talk about community transformation. His message reshaped what I thought about ministry and redirected my life. John asked, “How can you know what’s important to the church? Just look how we spend our money.”

What’s the focus of our church budgets? Words: books, media, preaching, and buildings next door to one another where the pastors present different shades of the truth. Sadly, we spend only a small portion of our funds on actually making a difference in the lives of people around us who are not regular participants in our religious practices.

In his landmark book Generous Justice, Tim Keller points out that, throughout the Bible, God express his concern for the poor and the oppressed—and expects his people to do something about it. Keller writes about three levels of care for the less fortunate:

  1. Charity, that is, giving something someone who has an immediate need, like food or shelter. “Give a man a fish.”
  2. A long-term sacrificial commitment to care for those who are suffering, like the Good Samaritan or, for example, the new ministry Open Table. “Teach a man to fish.”
  3. Justice, recognizing and address systemic issues that keep people oppressed and in poverty. “Restock the lake.”

Amazing grace, amazing justice

Regarding this third category, let me tell you an extraordinary outcome of one man’s passion for justice. My friend Brendan Walsh leads Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy (CASE). He’s an advocate for minimum wage and low-income workers.

A couple years ago, the City of Phoenix asked for bids for Sky Airport service workers, because the contract with their previous provider was expiring. Brendan, who has an undergrad degree from Harvard and a PhD from Yale, lobbied our mayor and the Phoenix City Council to insure that people currently working at the airport, some for a decade or more, would not lose their jobs.

This was unprecedented, because new companies want to eliminate all those slightly higher paid workers and replace them with a work force of absolutely minimum wage people. Brendan appealed to our mayor and every member of the city council to include a protection-for-current-workers clause in the bidding process, and to his delight, everyone agreed. Until it got to the city manager who said abruptly, “Hell no. Nobody does that.”

But Brendan fought on, and somehow, someway was able to convince the mayor and the council to prevail. The companies submitting bids for the airport service contract agreed to keep all the current workers employed.

Brendan’s success has helped me understand that, not only do we have to help the poor with their personal needs, but sometimes we have to be voice for the voiceless to change the systems that keep people in economic captivity. Simply stated, it’s a matter of advocacy, like the Civil Rights Movement leading the way to eliminate Jim Crow laws, or pro-life adv¬ocates calling for an end to liberal abortion laws, or a growing number of influential conservative, evangelical Christians demanding comprehensive immigration reform.

Some people like to say, what part of illegal don’t you understand? Playing the Devil’s advocate, my response to the question is another question: If you are prolife, what part of legal don’t you understand? Abortion is legal, right?

Yes, it is a legal right, but is what’s legal right? Laws need to change. It’s why we had an American Revolution. Our Founding Fathers didn’t want taxation without representation. You know that, right? But did you know that many, perhaps the majority of those living in the Colonies didn’t want to rebel against the King. After all, the Bible says we should submit to the king and others God places over us.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence saw it differently. They believed that what was “legal” was unjust, that the laws had to change, so much so that they were willing to establish a brand new nation of freedom from oppression. “Give me liberty or give death,” Patrick Henry cried out in St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Four score and seven or so years later, Abraham Lincoln called for the end of slavery, an unspeakable injustice that excluded millions from the freedoms purchased by the blood of George Washington’s soldiers. Yet it took another sixty years for women to be given the right to vote—and another hundred for the Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the way to the end of social slavery in America.

Thus, God’s people are called

  • to immediate acts of charity
  • to long-term, sacrificial commitments to help people out poverty so they no longer need charity
  • to be a voice for the voiceless and an opponent of injustice in the social and economic systems that keep people poor.

Having considered the biblical basis for the role of the church in the world, allow me to share seven essentials of city transformation.

1. Transforming a city is complicated.

Let’s get real right from the start. There are multiple hurdles that will stand between you and a better community, and all of your best intentions will have to keep leaping those hurdles.

Cities are complicated! If you think it’s easy to change a city, just attend a city council meeting in your community. Or a budget meeting for the department of human services in your city, county or state. I thought my leadership context was difficult in the local church until I started working alongside people serving in local and state government. Cities are complicated because they are living spaces for thousands, even millions of complicated people for whom life is growing increasingly complicated.

Family. Every leader has family and personal issues that limit his or her time and emotional energy to serve others and their community. Of course, the apostle Paul writes about this, that if you are in vocational ministry, you can’t simply neglect your family because you believe that what you are doing is so important.

Ministry costs money. Always has, always will. In my own experience, networking and city-reaching are, in some ways, the least financially viable expressions of ministry. People paid me to be a pastor, and preaching honorariums are common. Gratefully, a growing number of friends and followers are generously supporting my city-reaching work, mostly because they believe in me personally. Yet many others get that far away look in their eyes when I try to explain to them why, for example, it’s important that pastors need to be friends with one another—and how much time that takes to make it happen. Sometimes decades.

Furthermore, as John Perkins says, churches pretty much spend all their financial resources staying in business. The last year I was senior pastor at Word of Grace, our missions and outreach budget exceeded $1 million, yet we spent about $5 million on running the church.

People—and the systems that keep us bound to the present—are resistant to change. Churches and church people are no exception. In this regard, I recommend a book by Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.

Theological, philosophical, and operational differences – even in the church—on how people and places change.

Spiritual conflict. Everyone loves the Christmas story, even people who aren’t particularly religious. You know, squeaky-clean Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus. All the animals that aren’t actually mentioned in the Bible. The porcelain shepherds and wise men.

Few manger scenes have dead children scattered about, which is what plays out in the Bible story just after the wise men leave the Christ Child. An angel, you probably know, warns them to return home a different way, to avoid Herod. Yet angels don’t warn the young mothers in Bethlehem, though, that they will lose their little boys. What’s up with that?

I mean, have you ever heard this in a Christmas Carol?

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18).

I chose to speak on this text last December (2012). It just so happened that I preached this message, which I prepared a week or more in advance, the weekend after all the children were killed in Newtown, Connecticut.

A monster in the manger

These are things we don’t want to talk about during the holidays. Yet to me, the dreadful darkness of Herod’s purge of Bethlehem is at the absolute center of the Christmas story. Our world, the apostle Paul writes, is in a “life and death fight to the finish against the devil and all his angels” (Ephesians 6:12, The Message).

Indeed, the birth of Christ unleashed the power of hell. Revelation 12 tells of a great and terrible red dragon poised to devour the Woman’s child. I’ve said many times during the Christmas season that folks with manger scenes should include some nasty monster figure glaring down from the roof of the barn at the at the holy family.

God sent his Son to die gruesomely because the world can be such a gruesome place. His coming was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s ancient prophecy that people who live in dreadful darkness will see a great light (Isaiah 9:2 and Matthew 4:16).

All this leads me to my second essential element of city transformation.

2.  The power of God

City transformation is, ultimately, not the result of strategies, systems, or even good and godly people. In fact, the only thing that really changes people and places is the power of God. For Jesus, his ministry of deliverance and transformation didn’t begin until after a significant event in his life: his baptism, when the Holy Spirit came on his person.

Immediately after his power encounter, Jesus was led into the wilderness—and into cosmic combat with the Devil. Where the first Adam failed, the “last Adam” prevailed. Triumphant, he returned to his home city where, in the synagogue, someone handed him the scroll of Isaiah, and he read these words recorded in Luke 4:16-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,to set the oppressed free,
to set the oppressed free,

The excluded middle?

In the Western World we have an anti-supernatural bias, so the immediacy of God is difficult to understand and embrace, that God is both omnipresent and immediately present in the person and power of the Holy Spirit. In American theology and practice, we are certain of the transcendence of God, but unsure and unclear about his immanence. Yet for most of the other world cultures, God is immediately present, and human life is a moment by moment interface with the realities of the spiritual dimension, something missiologist Paul Hiebert has referred to as “the flaw of the excluded middle.”

George Otis describes the problem this way: “The worldview of most non-Westerners is three-tiered:  on the top is the cosmic, transcendent world, in the middle are supernatural forces on the earth, and on the bottom rests the empirical world of our senses.  The unique tendency of western society has been to ignore the reality of the middle zone.”

We have no trouble believing in a God who is above and beyond, or in the concept of a God who is personally interested in our daily lives. Yet we are not so open to the idea that God works presently and immediately to work miracles and change lives. We are also not so clear about the reality of spiritual conflict, even though there’s no denying the matter in the thinking of the apostle Paul:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:10-12).

Because spiritual conflict is real, because the world needs truth and power encounters, Jesus commanded his disciples to wait for the same Holy Spirit who empowered his life:

You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:48-49).

It’s for all these reasons that prayer is so necessary. It’s my third essential of city transformation … which I will write about in my next newsletter.

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