Seek the Welfare of the City: Some thoughts after Mission JC

In 2006 there was a disturbing story out of England about a 38-year-old British woman discovered dead in her apartment. What was shocking was not that she died nor how she died. What was shocking was how long she had been dead. It was determined that Joyce Vincent had actually died over two years earlier yet no one knew. She was estranged and self-isolated from friends and family. She had resigned from her job and moved into a different flat. Her rent and her utilities were all set for auto debit payments and due to this, and some debt forgiveness plans, it took two years for bill collectors to demand possession of the flat. And that was how Vincent’s death was discovered.

Four years ago some crazy Baptists at my church sat in a room together asking the question – would anyone notice if we left Jefferson City? Would it matter to anyone if we closed up shop and disbanded the church? Would it take two years for anyone to notice the building was empty? Would they rejoice that there was now prime real estate available downtown to build a parking garage?

The focus of the question wasn’t about us and the need to be known, the need to have a big fuss made about us in the unfortunate event of our demise.

The focus of the question was our relationship with the community that God has placed us in to serve and to love. Did the community see us as advocates for their overall well-being or simply advocating for our own well-being? Could the community give witness to our overwhelming love and support for our neighbors or would they testify to a church who focused all her resources on the corner of Monroe and East Capitol? Would the city say – “you weren’t really a pain in the neck. You were more like a tonsil. We aren’t really sure what good you do but we know you can be removed without it really affecting anything.”

I think if more churches were honest we would recognize that a lot of what we do and a lot of what we preach and a lot of what we believe is preoccupied with the individual rather than the community and leads to being inward focused.  Most things that focus inward eventually die. There are some churches around the world that have died and the community has yet to realize it – because they can’t tell the difference.

Should we matter to our community? It might seem like a no-brainer question to ask but sometimes I wonder. I hear a lot of “us vs them” and “circle the wagons” speech from Christians. I sense a lot of fear among the Church in the US.  A lot of people are quick to remind Christians that we are to be “in the world but not of it” – a phrase that is based on some of Jesus’s words in John 17. Our meaning with that phrase, however, is often – “whoa is us. We are stuck in this God-forsaken world for a little while but just hold your virtues up and watch where you step until the good Lord can take you home.” We treat it like an obstacle course at Basic Training – just try to get to the end without falling in the mud or getting shot or worse yet – kicked out.  The church is called to be separate in lifestyle but never called to be isolated from the people it seeks to influence.

So maybe it would serve us better — at least in light of all that Jesus said in John 17 and the rest of the Gospels — to revise the popular phrase “in, but not of” in a way suggested by author David Mathis: “not of, but sent into.” The beginning place is being “not of the world,” and the movement is toward being “sent into” the world. The accent falls on being sent, with a mission, to the world — not being mainly on a mission to disassociate from this world.¹

But regardless if you feel like an exile in America or not, the prophet Jeremiah has some words for us.  Jeremiah 29 begins by saying, “This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem … to those carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” What follows are instructions on how to live as aliens in a foreign land. They are to build homes, settle down, get married, have children, and watch their children get married. God is basically saying – get comfortable. You’re going to be here awhile. Don’t wait until an elusive “someday” to get on with the business of continuing to be God’s covenant people.

The letter ends with an even more surprising word in 29:7, “Make yourself at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.” God calls the Jews not to just live in the city they are in exiles in but to love it and work for its shalom – its economic, social and spiritual flourishing.  God’s word to the exiles was to pray for their conquerors for their fates are inextricably bound up together.  There is no “us versus them” or “me versus you”. There is only us.

One of my favorite quotes is from Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal woman, who issued the following reminder to mission workers in her country:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.

Christians are, indeed, not of this world.  We are citizens of God’s heavenly city, but we are called to be the best possible citizens of our earthly city as well and that only happens when we walk together.

Churches are throwing out the old measures or metrics of success. It’s no longer about size, budgets, buildings or number of small groups. It’s about making a significant and sustainable difference in the lives of people around us – in our communities and in our cities. The question should no longer be, “How big is your church?” but rather “How big is the impact you are having on your community?”²  Or as Pastor Rick Warren said, “I believe that you measure the health or strength of a church by its sending capacity rather than its seating capacity.”  Or even better “A lot of church members who are singing “Standing on the Promises” are just sitting on the premises.”

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Over 600 volunteers from 8 churches served together on over 60 projects.

The city I serve in is incredibly blessed with so many churches who get it.  Churches who are in the city, for the city. Churches who are seeking the welfare of their neighbors in so many creative ways without the publicity or spotlight. Churches who simply love this community. Last Sunday was an absolutely beautiful picture of this truth as we joined together for Mission JC, a Sunday morning where we join together to worship through service rather than attending a service.  Our hearts are still full and our spirits still soaring from all that took place.  But the reality is Mission JC is just one small vehicle of loving our city.  It is by no means the pinnacle nor is it sufficient on its own.  My prayer is that Mission JC will always be on the altar. If one day this program, this event gets in the way or supersedes the mission of serving our city, I pray we will be quick to surrender it in order to stay true to its purpose to send us out into our neighborhoods to love and to serve in the name of Christ, one body, one Church.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Mission JC is the unity of the churches – from the planning to the serving, it is a family project. Our community needs the family of God to work together. I truly believe that Jefferson City has the potential to become as close to “as in heaven as on earth” as possible this side of heaven. But it can’t happen without God and it can’t happen without all of the churches working together and cheering each other on.  It also takes partnership with local agencies and organizations.  We need partnerships not around theology but around our common concern for the city.

Let us seek the welfare of each other’s congregations and our community organizations and let all of us together seek the welfare of our city.  Let us love her and work for her shalom.  Let us be neighbors and not just consumers.  Let us weep with our community and let us celebrate with her.

May we be quick to praise and slow to criticize our leaders and neighbors.

May we commit to do whatever it takes for children to just be children.

May the fears that keep our neighbors up at night be our priorities.

May there never be in our city a neighbor who, like Joyce Vincent, dies alone and forgotten.

¹Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.
²Swanson, Eric. To Transform a City: Whole Church, Whole Gospel, Whole City

Wake Up, Sleeper

read a story about a disciple who asked his master whether there was anything he could do to make himself grow spiritually.

The master answered: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

Disconcerted, the disciple asked what then was the use of the spiritual exercises the master had taught him.

And the master replied: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”

This past weekend was our annual youth DiscipleNow Weekend and the theme was Awaken based on Ephesians 5:14 – Wake up from your sleep, Climb out of your coffins; Christ will show you the light. For a lot of reasons, it is very easy for us to be asleep. We are a rich nation and most of us don’t know what it means to want; to be desperate for Jesus. Many of us have grown up with Jesus and His power and glory long ago faded.  We really like him, like a favorite uncle, but we are asleep to the Jesus who calmed the storms, healed the sick and raised the dead.

So many of us are asleep.

Once you realize it and you decide that you don’t want to be asleep, what is next? How do we wake up? Here is the gist of our DNOW weekend on how to awaken to God.

  1. Remember who God is. Remember God’s power and beauty and authority. Remember God is a wild, awesome, incomprehensible mystery that can’t be understood, contained or controlled.  But also remember that God is reckless in grace and extravagant in love.  For you.  For me. For every one.
  2. Practice repentance. Every day. Repentance is a gift, not a burden. Repentance reminds us of who we are and how desperate we are for a savior. Repentance is a way of living inseparable from faith. Repentance is chucking all of our riches, everything we count on, everything we find safety in, everything we find worth in, and declaring that we are in desperate need of only one thing – Jesus.
  3. Follow the Way of Jesus. The spiritual disciplines or exercises aren’t hoops to jump through or ways to earn more grace or love. They are the practices that help keep us awake to the God who pursues us, to the Christ who leads us, to the Spirit that forms us. They are a cold glass of water to the face so that we can see the goodness of the Lord. They are smelling salts to arouse us to fragrant love of God.
  4. Choose courage over comfort. We get sleepy when we are bored. So many of us are bored. So many of us choose comfort over courage. We pray for protection rather than boldness. One of the best things we can do to stay awake is to make choices that thrust us outside our comfort zone and squarely in the arms of God.  Nothing wakes us up like an adrenaline rush and choosing courage over comfort can be the spiritual adrenaline rush we need to wake us up to the love and faithfulness of our Abba God.

We’ve made God small.  We’ve made Jesus tame.  We’ve made the Spirit a mute.

Wake up, sleep, climb out of your coffin; Christ will show you the light.

Let’s awaken, friends. Remember Jesus loves you as you are and not as you should be because you will never be as you should be. Let that Love awaken you and the journey won’t be a drudgery. It will be a love affair for the ages.

We don’t really believe Jesus is beautiful; otherwise, we wouldn’t describe our relationship with him as so much work.

Tom Melton

From Surviving to Thriving Spiritually

The following is my sermon from Sunday, January 31, 2016, at First Baptist Church, Jefferson City, Missouri.  We concluded a four week series on Overcoming Spiritual Burnout. You can read below or listen here.

Text: Acts 18:5-11; Romans 12:11-12

Survivor. It’s not just a reality show on television. Most of us today feel like we are trying to survive.  And to be honest, we feel like we’re failing at it.  One of my favorite Christian bloggers, Jen Hatmaker, tapped into this feeling a couple of years ago with a blog she wrote about being the worst end of school mom ever. I want to share a small part of that blog post with you this morning. Jen wrote this in late April near the end of a school year.

We are limping, limping across the finish line, folks. I tapped out somewhere in April and at this point, it is a miracle my kids are still even going to school. I haven’t checked homework folders in three weeks, because, well, I just can’t. Cannot. Can. Not. I can’t look at the homework in the folder. Is there homework in the folder? I don’t even know. Are other moms still looking in the homework folder? I don’t even care.

I feel like any sort of school energy required at this point is pure oppression, like the universe is trying to destroy me. I’m so tiiiiiiiiired and I have five kids and that is just too many to educate well. I can only handle around two, so I’m going with Sydney and Caleb because they both like to read and the other three are just going to have to enroll in Life Skills Class one day and develop a trade. We were awesome back in October; don’t you forget that. We used to care, and that counts for something. 

 Jen’s blog post went viral.  She ended up on the Good Morning, America show and a bunch of other things happened as a result of this little blog post that I imagine was written late at night in the throws of exhaustion and surrender.  It resonated with millions because they (like so many of us) were limping, exhausted and just trying to survive.