The goal of the church is not to help the modern city to flourish. Well, not insofar as the modern city views flourishing.
The goal of the church is not to seek the welfare of the modern city. At least not insofar as the modern city understands its welfare.
That sounds anathema to ears marinaded in a thousand missional books, but it is so.
The goal of the church is to proclaim to the city: “Hey you think you know what flourishing is? It’s not. Heres what it truly looks like.”
The goal of the church is to announce to the city: “Hey you think you know what your welfare is? You don’t. Here’s what it truly is.”
Stripped of any understanding of transcendence, and completely locked within the immanent frame, the modern city has no idea as to what its flourishing and welfare actually is.
Missiologists have been urging upon us Jeremiah’s “Seek the welfare of the city” for decades now, yet with little thought given to the almost parasitic nature of the reason: “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Seeking the peace and prosperity of Babylon has a deeper goal; the eclipse of Babylonic power and influence by the true King of Israel, as Revelation 18 describes. Brazen utilitarianism, is it not?
So Babylon’s self-proclaimed goals have a use-by-date. Messiah is being incubated within surrogate Babylon. Once Messiah is safely birthed, Babylon has, in God’s intents and purposes, outlived its usefulness in God’s redemptive plan.
Yet, let’s be careful. Within God’s intents and purposes, that redemptive plan includes something of Babylon. The new city seeks for and prays for the eternal flourishing of the old city, not merely its temporal flourishing.
That is an altogether more challenging affair in these hardening secular times. Because immanent-minded Babylon resists a transcendent view of human flourishing. A city set on a hill that thinks that the hill is the highest point in the universe is destined for the valley.
As such the old city is in need of judgement – just like Babylon. But as such the old city is also in need of salvation – just like Ninevah. Babylon is Ninevah is Babylon is … and so on.
We must seek the welfare of the city in a deeper and more costly way than we may wish to. We must resist being co-opted to Babylon’s immanent frame agenda. If transcendent gospel proclamation is silenced, or if we self-censor for the sake of faux peace, then we have turned inwards; seeking the flourishing of Babylon for the praise of ourselves, or for the praise of others.
If all we do is grab a shovel and some mortar and help build Babel so that humanity can merely flourish within the immanent frame, then we have become unfaithful to our call.
If all we will dare do is beaver away silently alongside those who stoically refuse the transcendence available to them, then we have failed our Master.
The city needs to know that what it thinks is flourishing is actually withering. It needs to have a city within the city that announces: “Call that a city? Now this is a city!“
The risk of incurring the wrath of the city at this point is real. Why? Because the city is increasingly hostile to our idea of human flourishing.
We’re not here to simply say; “Let me help you with that.” We’re also here to say, “Let me show you what true flourishing looks like, because you no longer know.”
Miroslav Volf’s telling words ring true:
The idea of flourishing as a human being has shrivelled to meaning no more than leading an experientially satisfying life. The sources of satisfaction may vary: power, possessions, love, religion, sex, food, drugs – whatever. What matters the most is not the source of satisfaction, but the experience of it – my satisfaction. Our satisfied self is our best hope.
What Volf describes as withering, the culture views as coming into full flower. Deep autonomy, especially in areas sex and personal fulfilment, is considered the pinnacle of our late modern culture. And we’re just not going to sign up to that, are we?
When sporting achievement was the pinnacle, Bruce Jenner won an Olympic Gold Medal. Some forty years later, now that shaping one’s sexual identity is the pinnacle, Caitlyn Jenner is declared Woman of the Year. Jenner flourished in both idolatrous settings. We cannot join Jenner – or the culture – in celebrating these idols, or indeed abetting their flourishing.
Similarly, Mardi Gras is openly presented not only to adults, but now to primary school children as a prime example human flourishing. Mardi Gras is not looking for a prophetic voice to point out where it is getting flourishing wrong. It is saying: “Get on board the float or get run over.”
This does not preclude us from helping the marginalised. But neither does it preclude us from publicly rejecting the redefinition of the marginalised, who continue to be the poor and less educated; the marginalised whose poorly paid job was to pick up the glitter-coated human faeces after Mardi Gras, as reported by the ABC.
In a culture that values aesthetics over ethics, and that determines ethics by aesthetics, the ugly, homeless, uneducated, socially inept or untoward are photoshopped from the list of marginalised; replaced by the faux marginalised; the glamorous glitterati of the new sexual and social orthodoxies, who have been co-opted by the cultural centre for its own social, moral and financial purposes.
As Patrick Deenan writes in First Things, today:
We are in uncharted territory. Liberalism coexisted with Christianity for its entire history, with Christianity moderating the harder edges of the regnant political philosophy, supporting forms and practices that demanded from elites the recognition of their elevated status, and hence, corresponding responsibilities and duties to those less fortunate… Liberalism has achieved its goal of emptying the public square of the old gods, leaving it a harsh space of contestation among unequals who no longer see any commonality.
If the public square is now a place of uncommonality, rather than a place of shared narrative then the church has a more urgent, more angular role to play.
Time for the church to get weird again. Time to take stock and ensure we are not aligned to such withered idea of flourishing. Time to offer a vibrant, challenging and culturally-heterodox view of human flourishing in the public square. Time to become “repellently attractive” to those watching on.
For as Deenan observes:
Whether that (public) square can be filled again with newly rendered stories of old telling us of a common origin and destination, or whether it must simply be dominated by whoever proves the strongest, is the test of our age.
We have those old stories. Time to newly render them and present them to the city as integral to its welfare.