Address for The Alban Institute’s First Annual National Conference - Alexandria, VA
Proverbs 11:10 says, "When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices." A question undergirding this conference is: How should congregations serve the larger society? My most basic answer to this is Proverbs 11:10: when the righteous prosper, the city rejoices. I take "righteous" to mean "the people of God." I take "prosper" to mean, "flourish." And the people of God flourish when they BE who God wants them to be and they DO what God wants them to do. When the people of God are the kind of people God wants us to be, when the people of God are busy about the work God wants us to do, then the city rejoices. And if the city is not rejoicing, if there is pain and grief and bondage and injustice and hopelessness and crying, then it may be -- not necessarily is, but MAY be — because the people of God are not being who they ought to be or doing what they ought to do. Based on this definition, I’d like to offer several propositions.
PROPOSITION ONE: When the people of God exemplify by their values and behaviors that "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," then the city rejoices.
My favorite pastor, Dr. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, says that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." The chief end of the church is to glorify God, and we magnify His worth by treasuring God above all else. The people of God flourish when they live out the truth that God is worth more than the stuff of this world; when they treasure God more than they treasure money or status or fame or sexual pleasure. When the people of God are happy and satisfied in their God, when they delight in worship of Him and love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, then they are "the righteous, prospering." And this example, lived out before the city, can bring rejoicing to the city. Because the people of the city are in bondage — they are in bondage to the idols of money, of fame, of status, of sex, of power. And the righteous, the people of God, are living out a different worldview that says, "Come out of the kingdom of darkness and that bondage to the things of this world, and discover true joy and true peace and true satisfaction in God." The people of God serve the city by living out our faith that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
PROPOSITION TWO: When the people of God live lives that are a fragrant aroma to God, the city sniffs the aroma, and rejoices.
Author Ken Gire calls the Bible the "inscripturated" word. He says the Bible is the recipe for life. It gives us directions. It tells us the truth. And the recipe is very important. And so our churches know the recipe, and proclaim the recipe, and teach the recipe and memorize the recipe. But people can’t smell a recipe. They can’t smell a recipe! But they can smell freshly baked bread. Whereas the Bible is the inscripturated word, bread is the incarnated word. Christ, of course, is the perfect Bread. He’s the Bread of Life because He is the incarnated Word who perfectly lives out the recipe. But we in the church are called to imitate Jesus. Our lives, like His, are to have about them the smell of fresh-baked bread; we are called to be more than just recipe-knowers or recipe-carriers or recipe-memorizers. We’ve got to live out the recipe; we’ve got to be bread! For it’s the aroma of fresh-baked bread that will draw people.
Now here’s the kicker. You don’t get to be bread without getting baked in the oven. The Church must get into the oven of sacrifice, the oven of suffering for the sake of others, the oven of sharing our wealth for the good of others, the oven of being inconvenienced and poured out for the sake of others. The city needs to see the Church doing deep, sacrificial, costly ministries of mercy among the outcasts of society; the city needs to see the Church doing ministry that goes beyond mere "random acts of kindness," the city needs to see our congregations not just being "nice" but being radically committed to painful, costly ministries of mercy where we engage in face to face relationships for years with the homeless, with the druggies, with the prostitutes, with the multi-generational welfare families, with the teenagers in gangs. Our mercy ministries can’t just be about acts of human kindness, like when the city looks at our used clothing closet for the poor and says, "Well, isn’t that nice." No, our mercy ministries have to go far beyond this, so that the city sees the radical and difficult things we are doing and says, "Why are they doing that? How to they find the strength to do that? What’s going on over there is, well, it’s supernatural! And, wow, isn’t it marvelous that those abused children are being healed through that, and the drug addicts are becoming clean through that, and the welfare moms are finding jobs through that!" We must be conducting ministries of mercy that have the smell of God about them. They have to give off a beautiful aroma that brings about wonder, amazement, and rejoicing in the city.
The First Presbyterian Church in Orlando is a good example. This downtown congregation’s slogan is "We’re here for life." This is a Church that decided not to abandon to downtown when others moved to the suburbs. This is a Church who’s goal is to be open 24-7-365, operating ministries of mercy and worship that bring hope and healing to the neighborhood. They’re running a childcare center and after-school tutoring and youth basketball leagues and job training programs and drug rehab counseling. They’ve invested millions of dollars in their facilities which are oriented to blessing the community they are in. They are so exuberant in their desire to bless, and that exuberance is exhibited in so many different ways, that anyone around them cannot help but recognize it. It’s a congregation that is flourishing in the ministry of offering up fragrant, costly, sacrificial offerings to God -- putting its money and time into ministries of mercy -- and the city around it smells the aroma and rejoices.
PROPOSITION THREE: When the people of God make "foolish" investments, the city rejoices.
I call this the "Anathoth principle." In Jeremiah 32, God tells Jeremiah to purchase a field in Anathoth, a community outside of Jerusalem. It is a bewildering request, for the Babylonians have already attacked Israel and laid siege to Jerusalem, and the fields of Anathoth lie behind enemy lines. Jeremiah wonders why God would ask him to make such a foolish real estate investment. God answers by promising to redeem Israel from her oppressors; He foretells the day when feasts and weddings will sound in the fields of Anathoth and across Judea when He restores the fortunes of His wayward children. Simply put, God is asking Jeremiah to invest in a neighborhood that others have given up as lost. By doing so, Jeremiah makes tangible God’s future promise to reclaim and restore.
God is still in the reclamation business. He is still calling His followers to "foolish" investments. Impoverished neighborhoods in our communities are also behind enemy lines; Satan has a grip on them through drugs, crime, violence, abuse, and despair. But God has not forsaken this territory, and neither should we. Moreover, He has followers in these neighborhoods — even if they may be besieged by the destructive "street culture" that surrounds them. Christians outside such troubled neighborhoods should invest in them, embracing these brothers and sisters.
Thirty congregations involved in a collaborative ministry called "STEP" are investing in an Anathoth in Richmond, VA. The name of this Anathoth is Gilpin Court, the largest public housing project in the city. For over ten years, the people of God have been investing in the families of Gilpin through ministries to children and job training for adults and family mentoring. And through all this, the people in Gilpin are experiencing healing and hope and transformation and renewal. I wish I had time to share all their stories. But the point is, the people of God are doing what they ought to be doing in Gilpin Court, and the people of Gilpin Court are rejoicing.
PROPOSITION FOUR: When the people of God fulfill our cultural mandate "to subdue the earth" in creative ways, then the city rejoices.
What I mean by this is that the Church is to be about the business of transforming earthly resources into Heavenly treasures. Transformation is implicit in God’s plan for how mankind should interact with the creation. God’s plan starts in the Garden of Eden and ends up in the heavenly city described in Revelation 21-22. From garden to city — there’s a movement there that involves development and transformation. The people of God in Atlanta have engaged for the last several years in a project that has transformed earthly resources into Heavenly treasures, and brought about the rejoicing of the city.
There is a place in Atlanta called East Lake. It contained an old abandoned golf course in neglected condition and, next to the golf course, the most dangerous, crime-ridden, destitute public housing project in the city of Atlanta. Four years ago, a Christian foundation, called the East Lake Community Foundation, took over the golf course. It refurbished the clubhouse, and reconditioned the golf course back to the state it was in when the famous Bobby Jones played there in the 1920s and 1930s. It opened the course again but made it a corporate-members only golf course — big businesses like Delta and Coke pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to join — and the course is used for professional golf tournaments by the PGA. The golf course had become a wilderness, and Christians subdued and transformed it, and it is a profit-making machine of a phenomenal order. And all those profits are being poured into the housing community right next door. The original apartment complexes have been bulldozed down, and new, beautiful townhomes have been built — it’s the prettiest public housing you’ve ever seen. And it’s not only public housing; it’s mixed income housing — 50% of the units are rented to families on public assistance, 50% are rented at market rate. The community used to be called "Little Vietnam" because there was so much gunfire there. Now it is a safe and beautiful place. The golf course money has flowed into the community to build a charter school, a state of the art YMCA, a daycare center. The golf course money pays stipends to Christians who live in East Lake as "strategic neighbors" to minister to all the families there and bring together the people across economic and racial divides. This is a profoundly creative example of the people of God transforming earthly resources in a way to bring about kingdom purposes and blessing.
My time is up. These four ways are just some of the many ways that the people of God can prosper, to bring about the rejoicing of the city.