Nothing challenges us to think about changing times more than the transition from one year to the next. On this first day of 2012, we asked six Christian leaders to think about the church a year from now and to draw a picture of our progress—and our problems—then.
Last fall my family moved to the north side of Chicago—we love this city. We love Chicago for its sports teams, architecture, and history, but most of all, we love Chicago for its people: hard-working, unpretentious, and good-natured—as long as you don’t take their parking space after a major snowstorm.
In Jeremiah 29 we find part of a letter to the Israelites where God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, challenging them to love the city of Babylon where they were living in exile. And as we look ahead to 2012 and beyond, I believe the church will need to rethink what it means to love our cities—whether your city is 5,000 or 5 million.
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. . . . ‘Seek the peace and prosperity of the city. . . . Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’” (Jeremiah 29:4, 7).
In this letter, God is saying to his people, “I don’t want you to just be where you are, I want you to love where you are. I want you to love your city!”
There are three words in this letter that will help us learn what it means to love our cities for many years to come.
Exile—The word exile is not the most exciting word. It makes me think of someone who is sent away. But the idea of living as an exile is a picture of what the New Testament teaches about being a Christ follower. In 1 Peter, Christ followers are addressed as “foreigners and exiles” in this world (1 Peter 2:11, 12).
God was reminding his people of their status as exiles. They were in a city that wasn’t their true home. And he was saying to them, “I want you to live where you live as exiles—as the strangers that following me makes you. But I don’t want you to be detached and uninvolved in your community. I want you to engage your culture and seek to transform your city. I want you to love that place!”
My favorite phrase in the Lord’s Prayer is this: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come . . . ,” he was challenging us to recognize that we, too, are exiles. This world as it is, is not our ultimate home. But this doesn’t mean we isolate ourselves or dwell only on Heaven. He’s saying that while we’re in our earthly cities, we’re to be praying and working toward restoring them, so they reflect the values and priorities of his kingdom—the priorities of peace, hope, love, generosity, and justice. That’s how God’s exiled people are to live.
Shalom—The second word is actually two words in English: peace and prosperity. In the original language there’s just one word—shalom. You’ve probably heard shalom as the way people say “hello” or “goodbye” in Hebrew.
Shalom is so much more than a greeting. The best one-word translation for shalom is “peace.” But we think of peace mainly as the absence of conflict or war. And that’s why we have the English translation “peace and prosperity.”
Shalom conveys the idea of thread that is woven together into fine fabric. The more expertly fine threads are interwoven, the more beautiful and desirable the fabric becomes. God’s desire is for his people to make peace and prosperity the very fabric of our cities.
Author and speaker Dave Gibbons says churches need to measure success by “decreasing metrics.” Not by numbers like attendance or the size of our budget, but by other numbers going down in our cities:
• Fewer people who are poor and lonely and outcast.
• Fewer divorces.
• Fewer kids without a first-class education
• Fewer people facing a Christless eternity
This is what it looks like to seek the shalom of our cities.
Pray—God also tells his people to pray. “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city. . . . Pray to the Lord for it” (Jeremiah 29:7). Theologian Karl Barth said this about prayer: “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
Start praying for your city, and I guarantee you will see at least one thing change in your community. And that’s you. At the very least, praying for your city will change you.
Try praying for just one particular aspect of shalom where you live:
• Pray for less loneliness in your city.
• Pray for less addiction in your city.
• Pray for less poverty.
• Pray that fewer people will be spiritually lost.
God so loves your city that one day, more than 2,000 years ago, his one and only Son, Jesus, came into this world. He was a self-imposed exile from Heaven. He lived with us, died for us, and came back to life to offer us shalom. When you choose to follow him, his Spirit comes to life inside of you so that you and your church can extend that same shalom to the people in your city.
Jon Ferguson is co-founding pastor and Chicago network leader with Community Christian Church, Naperville, Illinois.