By the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is overthrown. – Prov 11:11
Is there anything cooler than being “for” the city? Inside and outside the church, anyone who is young, hip, and idealistic is involved in some sort of city renewal project. Or, what is more often the case, they are excited to talk about city renewal, go to indie coffee shops, and buy t shirts of their city’s skyline. One almost gets the impression that if you’re not living in a city, then you’re lazy, selfish, consumeristic, and probably racist.
Being for the city is not bad, it’s Biblical. God wants us to care about our neighbors, which includes caring about our neighborhoods. The more people in one place, the more important a gospel presence is there. But how do you actually go about being “for the city?” What does that look like? As long as you pick the right cause, social activism is cool. However, activism can become an end in itself. People believe they are effecting change chiefly by demanding it loudly.
The truth is, once someone starts looking into real, active expressions of positive support which they can offer to the city, the grandiosity of the vision collapses. In its place, you see generational, foundation-laying work. You build personal relationships, work to meet family needs, contribute effort to educational support. You can find a thousand other daily, time-consuming micro-helps which all amount to cultivating an orchard by planting individual seeds and then watering them by hand.
This proverb tells us the single best way we can see a city exalted is through the blessing that comes to upright people. God blesses upright living. Conversely, the fastest way to see a city unravel is through the natural overflow (the actions and conversations) of wicked people, living wicked lives. That means that our single best program for building up, transforming, and renewing a city starts me and you getting right with God.
The reason why the subject of city transformation or cultural renewal will spawn an infinite number of books, articles, and resources, is because by God’s wisdom, the actual process is so hard to pin down. Blessing comes to an area through the lives of upright people. That’s a pretty indirect route. It’s like saying that the best teachers are the ones who love their students. Where does love or uprightness come from? What does an upright person do which then blesses his neighbors and city? There are plenty of ways to answer those questions. But the problem is, we spend all our effort and energy trying to answer those secondary questions – what programs or administrative changes do we need? We forget the fact that if you had Putin running the Salvation Army, it wouldn’t matter how great their mission was.
The real gem of wisdom here is that God works through people. It’s people who work through programs. It’s not as if the programs don’t matter, but the programs can, indeed must, change and adapt. They must do so quickly and often. People do not change so quickly. That fact in itself, the slowness of character change, should grab out attention: this is what really matters, and this is also why positive change takes so long, and seems so difficult. If we care about our city, we need to care most about living uprightly, in good connection with God, and helping others to do the same.