It’s increasingly popular to quote Jeremiah 29 about seeking the welfare of our city. In these secular times to seek the welfare of the city is viewed as a strong apologetic for the Christian faith, a way of showing the city that the Christian community has the city’s best interests at heart.
Yet this comes with a tension. For it is deceptively easy to move from seeking to love the city to seeking to be loved by it. (I was reminded off this recently in a series of excellent conference talks about the cities Jesus addresses in Revelation 2.)
While these two – loving the city and seeking to be loved by it – look similar they are in fact very different. Indeed the difference between them is a watershed moment.
Because the Christian community that first seeks to love its city will not necessarily win that city’s love. And the Christian community that first seeks to be loved by its city will not, in the end, be loving its city.
And the question we have to ask is, Which are we committed to? Loving the city? Or seeking its love?
How we answer these questions will determine what our Christian communities maintain and what they give up. This is doubly hard in a culture in which we not only seek the approval of others, but in which have been trained to avoid their disapproval.
So. what are the marks of a Christian community that loves its city first, rather than seeking to be loved by it first? Here are a few:
- It believes that God Knows What Is Best For The City
This is simply to say that God’s revelation in the Bible outlines what is best for the city, not what the city itself has decided. And the church sticks with that, even if the city’s rejects this as a mark of love.
For despite its apparent sophistication and worldly air, the city does not actually know what is best for it. Why? Because it is deceived by the prince of this world, namely Satan.
Hence the necessary components of love that the Christian community must express to its city are the very components of love the city rejects as love, and indeed calls hate.
Now I am not saying we should be all fist pumps and “Yes’s” when the city does not love us, but rather that the scorn and rejection by the city of a Christian community is not the benchmark of whether the Christian community is loving the city or not.
The benchmark for us is determining that we will stick to what God has decided is most loving act for a city.
2. It believes that Gospel Declaration is The Most Loving Act
If we follow the logic of point of the gospel propulsion in the book of Acts, the most loving thing God did for cities all across the Graeco-Roman world was to ensure that the gospel message about His Messiah was clearly proclaimed in them.
If God ever used up time or energy, then Acts shows that he put a lot of time and energy into making that the priority for the apostles.
Yet the modern day city rejects the exclusive nature of the gospel, and indeed has myriad other gospels (good news’s) to offer people that require an altogether different sacrifice and fidelity.
Hence its easy for the Christian community to subsume the declaration of the Gospel (you know, like actually speaking the good news!) under subsequent actions of love, and particularly acts of love of which the city approves. But without the root of the gospel, the fruit of the gospel soon withers.
The church that decides that the proclamation of the gospel is the most loving thing it can do for the city will have to stare down the city’s strident complaint that this is exclusive and unloving.
But if God has indeed fixed a day when he will judge the whole world through Jesus. (Acts 17:30-31), then while it is not the only loving thing we can do for the city, its the primary loving thing we can do for the city.
3. It Believes That Holy Living is Truly Loving
For some time we assumed that the modern city would be happy enough to live and let live. As long as we proclaimed our message about matters of sexual ethics among ourselves, the city would let that slide.
But the city increasingly sees the promulgation of such views even in private as an unloving and threatening act. If such declarations are carried out in any sort of civic building, then the city must purge its buildings from such hatred; enshrining legislation that protects the sanctity of civic resources from such unloving groups.
Now this issue is just in its infancy, and of course it is not the only matter of holy living. But at the moment it is the matter that matters! It’s the matter that is being determined as the threshold of love for the city by the city.
Want to plant a church? Want to use a civic building? Now is the time to decide what you will stand for in the sexual ethics debates. It’s too late to figure that out when you’ve got 200 people meeting regularly in a school hall, and the school board wants sign off on a piece of anti-discrimination legislation.
Even if for wisdom’s sake we don’t raise our heads above the parapet in the public debate about sexuality, our churches must at the very least be havens of declared and enacted sexual purity, not simply for the sake of the church, but for the sake of the love of the city.
For the sake of those who are being hollowed out by the chimera of relational satisfaction and extreme individualism. What a pity it would be if they turned up, tired, wrung out, frayed at the edges from seeing sexuality as a destination rather than a sign post, and we had nothing different to offer them.
A church I know seeking a public meeting space in a city was turned away by another church because it would not sign off on that church’s commitment to, and approval of, same sex marriage.
That church thought it was being loving to the city, but was in fact seeking the city’s love. That church will have nothing to say, nothing to offer the city beyond what the city itself has to offer. And more pointedly, that’s precisely why that church has so much available space for hire. That church sought the city’s love and got the city’s disinterest. Irony of ironies.
If a Christian community is primarily seeking the city’s love, rather than to love it, then there is no end to what it will do to attain it. There is nowhere that the city will go that that community will not follow. Nothing the city will stoop to, to which that Christian community will not say “me too”.
Our instincts tell us that the proof that we have successfully sought the welfare of the city because the city loves us. This instinct is wrong. It may well be the other way around. The proof that we have sought to love the city is that it may hate us.
Not because we are hateful, but because as Jesus said to his disciples; “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”
Can we love in such a way that we are called hateful? It’s going to come to that.