By Milan Homola
In preparation for the Portland City Impact Roundtable I’m revisiting a great book about which I’ve wanted to write a short blog series. The book is “To Transform a City” by Eric Swanson and Sam Williams, Swanson will be the keynote speaker at the City Impact Roundtable. I’ve found this book to be the best read for practitioners who want to see practical models and strong biblical support. It isn’t packed with cutting edge vocabulary or high brow theology.
There are a plethora of wonderful concepts and stories. I hope to highlight just a few of them that I feel are relevant to where we are at as a 21st century church engaging our communities.
Right up front the authors make a comment that should help flip our paradigm. “The church does not have a mission; the mission has a church. The mission is God’s.”
In a fast paced business modeled world; getting your ducks in a row, sitting down your leaders, crafting a slick mission statement, and convincing your followers is the process for success. As the leader of a non-profit and a church I know well the pressures of creating a mission that is strong, potent, and eloquent.
Yet the authors smack us in the introduction with an important point. God has a mission and we are His agents.
This may sound simple and basic…but I would argue that it requires a transformation on the part of leaders of churches, NGOs, and even down to small groups meeting in homes.
The authors give a great assessment of their own city after many years of churches serving their community. Someone had visited their city and proceeded to write a glowing report to his entire network praising the churches for their “acts of giving, kindness, engagement, and service….and that Boulder was a changed city.” The authors reflected on that report and humbly admitted something that resonates deep in my soul.
“Boulder (their city) itself has changed very little! If there is a story of change in our community, it is a story of a changing church….Little by little, we are being changed, becoming more like Christ as we engage in meeting the needs and fulfilling the dreams of our community.” (My emphasis)
I love this concept, not because it is cerebral, instead it is exactly what I’ve seen happen in our community and our local church. This is not a fluffy shallow statement reflecting the common sentiment “I get more out of serving than I ever give to the person I’m serving”; instead it is a statement that points to the true strategy of city transformation. We have to be transformed more and more into the way of Christ, which can’t help but overflow into our cities and streets. It describes a gospel culture.
There is an under-valued principle often left out of both discipleship and evangelism. We separate the two actions of the church to the point that we miss the fact that as we serve and reach out to the broken and hurting members of our city we are learning a sacrificial model of life that draws us deeper into Jesus. Discipleship (growing in our Christ-likeness) in our day and age is most potent when it includes reaching out and serving the least of these. Likewise, evangelism, is often best realized while a person is growing in discipleship through serving the least of these. That does not mean a diminishing of either of the two aspects but rather a fuller understanding of how they must function in 21st century culture.
This paradigm is not dependent on a well crafted mission statement that has all followers moving in one singular direction creating a culture that fits the mission and vision of an organization. Rather, this suggests a gospel culture where followers of Jesus come to know and are transformed by Him as they actively live out this lifetsyle in the midst of a broken and hurting community.
Today I find myself engaged with one of the concepts presented in “To Transform a City.” . It has to do with motives and the goals we have when we enter into serving and loving our neighbors. It is a concept that probably ruffles the feathers of some tried and true fundamentalists. I’ve wrestled with the question of motive as it relates to community development and kingdom purposes in my own life.
The first place to start is to admit this is not a one dimensional conversation. When it comes to serving and justice, some suck the dynamic expression of scriptural truth away by stating completely unbiblical things like “it does no good to pull the weed but not the root.” (Which I’ve literally heard with my own two ears)
Jesus followers ought to be able to say that God’s word is truth. But then to say that truth can be expressed or lived out in many ways can cause some discomfort. Let me make one simple point. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” This is a direct truth from God’s word, but what does it look like lived out. One person might say preaching on the street corner is how that is lived out and another person might say serving a meal at the soup kitchen is how I live that out. Is either of the two wrong?
Now the question of motive when it comes to living out our faith in the midst of serving our neighbors. The authors make a distinction between “ultimate motive” and “ulterior motive” when it comes to serving others. Where does our desire to see people come to know Jesus fit in the equation?
The authors state the following: “Conversion is our ultimate motive but not our ulterior motive” Ultimate motive means we desire, like God, that all people on earth would come into right relationship with Jesus, but ulterior motive means we do acts of service and love so that people become Christians (and if they don’t we potentially stop loving and serving).
“It is important to remember that we don’t engage in the needs, dreams, and pains of our communities so that they will become Christians; rather we engage the community because we are Christians.”
This may sound like semantics or it may sound like a loophole which allows for the “social gospel.” I firmly believe neither is the case. The real question is what happens to the people around us the more and more we live like Jesus. If we stop focusing on conversions and focus more on an impassioned following of Jesus I have a sneaking suspicion that more and more people will come to know Jesus.
It is an absolute honor to serve the Lord here in Portland, OR. He is doing amazing things and His Church is doing well. I would be remiss to follow the trending negative culture that loves to poke holes in the church. Here in Portland we can see what happens when small groups of churches act as The Church of a city or neighborhood. We see the ground that is gained in sharing Jesus holistically and realistically. We find ourselves in a very liberal culture that has at least turned a listening ear and gained a bit of appreciation for the gifts and talents of the church (that is not our ultimate goal but it sure isn’t a hindrance to unveiling who Jesus is)
We find ourselves in this place because we are living an alternative story. The authors of “To Transform a City” make a wonderful point about culture change. They say that for culture to be transformed we need to tell a better story. They quote Ivan Illich who stated that neither violent revolution nor gradual change was the catalyst for societal change: “If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story.” (pg 63)
We know that “story” meshes with the culture around us. We also know that story means more than simple platitudes; it involves a life handed over to Jesus. This story as we live it personally and communally begins to draw new participants in. They have seen the billboards, the megaphones, and the tracts….but what happens when they see a community of lives filled with love of God and love for one another?
This telling “an alternative story” is not new by any means. In the early days of World War II the Confessing Church of Germany told an alternative story. For an unlikely witness we turn to Albert Einstein as he stood back and assessed his society.
“Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but no, the universities were immediately silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks….Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration for it because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual and moral freedom. I am forced to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly!”
-Albert Einstein (Quoted from Time Magazine Dec 23 1940 and To
Transform a City pg 130)
We know from history that not all of the church in Germany stood up. But those like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed the Barmen Declaration, which unquestionably provided the basis for an alternative story that Einstein was seeing.
In a time where culture was subtly subverting justice and walking in the opposite direction of Jesus, the Church stood up to offer an alternative story.
We have this wonderful opportunity today, for “such a time as this.” Many are answering God’s call to live the alternative story: a life that is “in the world, but not of the world.”
I write this with deep conviction knowing that I often fail. I use biblical truths that refer to “becoming all things to all men…” and often they just allow me to look, talk, and live just like the world instead of seeing that Jesus us calls me to a radically transformed way of living. That life calling is not isolated and naïve but neither is it powerless and conformed.
In our day of social justice, community development, neighborhood transformation we can’t stop at being the hands and feet of Jesus (eventually this might allow us blend into culture), but we must also live out the heart of Jesus (this is an alternative lifestyle that lives with the world but beckons the world to come taste and see how good the Lord is.)
Is your story (the way you live your life) an alternative to your co-workers, friends, and family? I believe Jesus asks us to live in such a way that our love, our reconciliation, our servanthood, etc will display the alternative story and people will be drawn to Him, because it unveils a picture of who we were created to be.
Is your church living an alternative story in its neighborhood? You were placed in a PLACE for a reason. Are you standing against the evils that persist, are you offering a safe place for love and reconciliation? Are you unveiling who Jesus is and what His Kingdom looks and feels like?
Are you alternative? (Not in a Nirvana, punk rock, radio kind of way…but in an “I love Jesus and my life looks different today” kind of way)
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