Vision For The New Millenium: Civilizing The City
Some years ago now, my wife gave me this Bible. There is an inscription in it which reads: “This Book is an infallible guide, a source of truth, a standard of direction. Take it to your pulpit and take it to your heart.” I have followed that instruction. I trust this Book completely. It is God’s Word to our world, to our church, and to you, and to me. Therefore, as we begin to cast the vision for this great church in the new millennium, this Book, the Word of God, becomes our infallible guide- for it is from this Book that we draw the five expressions of that great vision: Civilizing the City, Confronting the Culture, Celebrating the Church, Concentrating on the Content, and Capturing the Children. Over these next weeks, I want to flesh out for you that vision, one facet at a time. Today we begin with “Civilizing the City.”
The city of Jerusalem was in ruins. Many of its citizens had been led away into slavery. One of them was Nehemiah. Against all odds, he did rather well, in spite of his slave status. In fact, he wound up becoming an assistant to King Artaxerxes. It was then that he became aware of the situation in his homeland- about how the city of Jerusalem needed to be restored, about the crushing needs of the people there, and about how the city seemed unable to pull itself back together again. Nehemiah was deeply pained about what was happening in the city he especially loved, so he prayed to God to guide him in how to respond. God said to him: “Nehemiah, you’ve got the ear of the king, start there.” So Nehemiah appealed to King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Jerusalem to build and restore the city. The king granted permission.
At that point, Nehemiah journeyed to Jerusalem and took up residence in the heart of that city. From there, he began to study both the physical and the spiritual needs of the city and he developed plans to address both. The Bible tells us that only when Nehemiah was prepared did he take his plan to the people for their response. He writes of that occasion: “I told them of the hand of God which had been upon me for good, and also of the words of the king.” Nehemiah then laid out his dream for the future of Jerusalem. He told the people that he believed God was calling them to build that city both physically and spiritually- to restore it to greatness and to restore it to God. The response of the people was overwhelming. They cried out: “Let us start building!” And the Bible says that they then “committed themselves to the common good.” As a result, Jerusalem became known not just as a great city, but also as “the city of God.”
Using the story of Nehemiah and the city of Jerusalem as inspiration, I want to declare to you today that here at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, our call is to the city. Our call is to make a difference in this city for Jesus Christ and our call is to make this city different through Jesus Christ. Let me try to spell that out for you.
Our call is to make a difference in this city for Jesus Christ.
I have studied the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul all my life long, but only recently did I see something which somehow I had missed before. As Paul set out to fulfill his call to spread the church of Jesus Christ, he concentrated all of his effort on the cities. He never stopped and stayed in the small towns and rural areas. Clearly, he believed that because of the concentration of people in the cities, if he could solidly plant the Gospel there, then through the traffic of people and commerce, the Gospel would spill over into the countryside. He was right. That’s exactly what happened. Acts 19:10 proves the point. It’s a verse most people skip over and miss and never notice, but when you understand Paul’s city strategy, the verse is incredibly important. Paul had stopped in the city of Ephesus and he had poured himself into the work there for two years. Listen carefully to what happened: “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the Word of the Lord.” Paul focused on the city of Ephesus, knowing that the Gospel would spread out into the rural areas. It did, so that all the people in Asia (what we know today as Turkey) heard- not all believed- but all heard the Gospel. Here then is Paul’s strategy in a single sentence: penetrate the city, and the Gospel will travel.
In our day, we seem to have reversed the strategy. We are abandoning the places where the biggest problems and the greatest needs are- the center cities- and we are going out to where people are nice and decent and comfortable and where the ministry is relatively easy. It’s happening even in our own denomination. Do you know that just recently our denomination had what was called “A Conference on the Urban Church”, and do you know what the theme of that conference was? “How to Help City Churches Die With Dignity”. My golly! Have they ever looked at this city church? You see, our denomination has reversed Paul’s strategy, focusing on small churches in suburban or outlying or rural areas- and what’s happening? The denomination is dying fast. In contrast, Paul focused all of his effort on creating dynamic city churches, and he wound up changing the world.
Paul’s strategy ought to be ours. It certainly is mine. My friend and mentor, Peter Drucker points out that in the early years of this century, 95% of the population lived in rural areas, 5% lived in cities. Now at the end of this century the figures are reversed. 95% of our people live in cities; only 5% live in the rural areas. It represents the largest, swiftest demographic location shift in all of human history- and it means that the city has become the mission field for the 21st century. And I use that term “mission field” quite deliberately. We used to live in a society which in essence stood in support of the work and ministry of the church. No longer is that true. More and more, America is becoming a secular, even pagan, society- every bit as challenging and forbidding as any pagan society we may read about on the pages of Paul’s letters or hear about from missionaries out in various parts of the world. More and more, you and I will be engaged in mission work right here in glorious America- and that will be especially true in our cities. That is why we must continue to build here, not a monument, but a “mission station” right here at the heart of this city.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the church began through the person of Jesus Christ in the hamlets of Bethlehem and Nazareth, and yet, the church spread through the power of Jesus Christ in metropolises like Antioch and Alexandria and Ephesus and Corinth and Rome. That’s what happened in the first century. I believe that’s what will happen in the next century. Our call then is to make a difference in the city for Jesus Christ.
But, more than that, our call is to make this city different through Jesus Christ.
You know of my deep admiration for Leonard Sweet. He has a new book out called Soul Tsunami, and in that book he sets down these incredible words: “Can the church stop its puny, hack dreams of trying to make a difference in the world and start dreaming Godsized dreams of making the world different? Trying to make a difference in the world is preoccupied with us. Trying to make the world different focuses on God.” He is right.
Dear friends, I believe that God’s Kingdom agenda seeks the personal salvation of all persons and the social transformation of all places. In other words, we are not called only to present the Gospel to individuals who come through our doors- though of course we must do that. We are not called only to take care of those who are part of the family of faith- though of course we must do that too. No, we are called to do so much more than that. We are called to change this city for Jesus Christ. We are called to make this city different through Jesus Christ.
Believe me when I tell you that a group of Holy Spirit-led men and women can transform even a large city. Believe me when I tell you that the city centers of this country, for the most part are wastelands. Believe me when I tell you that is not entirely true here in Orlando, and I would contend, and I think I can document it, that this church already has had some impact in shaping the quality of life at the center of this city. And believe me when I tell you that we have only just begun. Yes, we are called to make this city different through the power of Jesus Christ.
In the year 140 AD, a letter was written to a government official named Diognetus. We do not know who wrote the letter but we do know that the letter was written in order to make the point that Christians were not a threat to the city, but instead they were the conscience for the very soul of the city. The letter is quite amazing. This anonymous letter to Diognetus gives us a beautiful picture of how the early Christians impacted the cities in which they lived. Listen to the letter: “For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity. To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world.”
Think of it. One hundred years after Jesus, Christians had rallied to change their cities through the power of Jesus Christ. Now, two thousand years after Jesus, you and I are called to do the same.