How to Transform Cities: Adopt, Abandon, or Affect Culture

At 7 City Church, we have said since our launch that our vision is to see cities transformed by inspiring community and influencing culture. Cities are extraordinarily influential in our world today. They are the cultural hubs of society. In fact, the 40 largest cities, or mega-regions, account for two-thirds of the world’s economic output.

Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard, authors of Why Cities Matter, observe that cities are a lot like factories. What is produced in the factory gets shipped outside the factory and distributed throughout the world. Cities are like factories shipping and shaping culture. So how do you transform cities?

In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, we read about two great cities…one that was destroyed (Jerusalem) and another that was culturally influential (Babylon). In Jeremiah 26, the prophet Jeremiah prophesies to the leaders and people of the city of Jerusalem. He tells them that unless they repent of their idolatry and rebellion, their city and their temple would be destroyed.

The people didn’t repent and Jeremiah’s prophesy came true. Between the years 597 and 582 BC, on three separate occasions, thousands of people from the city of Jerusalem were taken captive by King Nebuchadnezzar and deported to the city of Babylon. This captivity is known as the exile. And during the second exile, the Bible tells us that the city of Jerusalem falls. Here’s how 2 Kings describes it:

On August 14 of that year, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard and an official of the Babylonian king, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He destroyed all the important buildings in the city. Then he supervised the entire Babylonian army as they tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side. Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, then took as exiles the rest of the people who remained in the city, the defectors who had declared their allegiance to the king of Babylon, and the rest of the population. But the captain of the guard allowed some of the poorest people to stay behind in Judah to care for the vineyards and fields. (2 Kings 25:8-12)

When the Jews are taken captive to Babylon, they have to decide how they will respond to their new residence in the city of Babylon. In fact, not only is it a response to the city, it’s a response to the city’s culture. They had three options, and from their situation we learn three ways Christ followers respond to the city and culture today:

1.  Adopt the City’s Culture

Babylon was a powerful city with a very unique culture. Babylon was wealthy, controlling trade routes from east to west and north to south. Its military had the ability to siege entire cities (as it did with Jerusalem). It was known for it’s architecture, from the grandeur of its palace and temples to its walls, gates, and hanging gardens. And Babylon was known for worshipping many gods. It held festivals throughout the year to try to win favor from these gods.

For the Jews to adopt the city’s culture would mean adopting the city’s beliefs, norms, and practices. Compromising their commitment to God wasn’t an option (which is ironic considering they were sent into exile because of their idolatry and rebellion to God).

Unfortunately, adopting the city’s culture is what happens among many Christ followers today. Because of a desire to be accepted by others, we are tempted to conform to and adopt our culture’s norms, practices, and beliefs. Romans 12:2 says:

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

This is so important to understand. We are not called to “think” as society thinks. We are not called to “think” according to what seems right or acceptable. We are not called to “think” about money, sex, or relationships the way our culture does. We are called to conform our thinking to truth. Without the truth of Scripture, how we “think” will sound humanly right and yet be biblically wrong. Ultimately you have to be different from culture to make a difference in culture.

2.  Abandon the City’s Culture

The second option for the Jews was the complete opposite of adopting the city’s culture. As we continue reading Jeremiah’s story we discover that God tells Jeremiah to make a yoke of wood (like what you would put around an ox when plowing a field) to wear around his neck as a symbolic act of submissiveness to the nation of Babylon. He wasn’t saying to “be” like Babylon, but to submit to the authorities God had established in Babylon.

When Jeremiah makes this declaration, a false prophet named of Hananiah rises up with a different message. Hananiah prophesies that within two years king Nebuchadnezzar would be removed and the people could return to Jerusalem. Jeremiah doesn’t budge from his original prophesy, so Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke around Jeremiah’s neck. It was a symbolic act that within two years God would break Nebuchadnezzar’s yoke—or power—over the people, and they would no longer have to submit to the king of Babylon.

What does Jeremiah do? He puts an iron yoke around his neck, a symbolic statement that Judah would not escape submission to Babylon. In fact, God warns the kings of several nations, that if they don’t submit to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, they would be punished by sword, famine, and plague. As a result of the false prophet Hananiah’s disobedience, two months later he died, a common penalty for false prophets.

In essence, Hananiah was saying, “Hang tight. God’s going to deliver you from this mess. No need to get comfy in Babylon because God is sending you home.” The Jews could ADOPT the city’s culture, but Hananiah’s false prophecy assumed the opposite view: ABANDON the culture.

The idea of abandoning culture is very common today in Christian circles. When we “abandon culture” we end up creating a separate culture. It’s a lot like a “Christian Mall.” In the Christian mall we find a Christian version of everything we find in society: Christians schools, colleges, t-shirts, music, movies, organizations, retirement centers, art, and yes, breath mints. It’s increasingly easy to live, work, and play in the Christian mall. I’m not suggesting these things are bad, but I am suggesting we keep front and center the words Jesus prayed for his followers:   

“They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world.” (John 17:16-18)

Jesus doesn’t want us to adopt our culture, living no different than our society. But he doesn’t want us to have a knee jerk reaction to culture either where we completely abandon it. So if we’re not suppose to ADOPT the culture of the city, and we’re not suppose to ABANDON the culture of the city, then what do we do? Jeremiah offers a third option.

3.  Affect the City’s Culture

Around the year 597 BC, Jeremiah writes a letter to the leaders and people who have survived the exile to Babylon. The contents of the letter were not exactly what the people had in mind. Jeremiah informs the Jews that they’re in Babylon to stay (for 70 years). So Jeremiah offers a third option on how to respond to the city of Babylon’s culture: AFFECT the culture. How?

This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4-7)

How are cities transformed? Cities are transformed when followers of Christ no longer adopt the culture or abandon the culture. Instead, they affect the culture by doing three things:

  • Working for the PEACE of the city
  • Working for the PROSPERITY of the city
  • PRAYING for the city

I recently received an email from Gabby Randle, a member of our congregation at 7 City Church, inviting me to tour a non-profit organization in our city called H.O.P.E. Farm (Helping Other People Excel). The founder, Gary Randle (Gabby’s father), told me his story.

In 1989, Gary was a police office. While visiting a state prison, he felt helpless by the immense need he saw in the men behind bars. Gary told me that the Lord spoke to him: “You might not be able to do anything about these men, but you can do something before they ever get here.”

Currently 72% of kids born in the African American community are born out of wedlock (and more than 80% in some parts of the country). This epidemic of fatherlessness results in increased suicides, homelessness, school drop-outs, and drug abuse. In Tarrant County alone (where Fort Worth is located), 140,000 children do not live with their father.

In 1995, HOPE Farm purchased a couple of crack houses on East Ramsey Street in Fort Worth. They transformed these houses into sanctuaries of hope where boys could be mentored, taught the Bible, fed, tutored, and learn important life skills. They work with parents and teachers to create accountability and a “life plan” for each boy.

Boys enter the HOPE Farm program between the ages of five and seven, and it’s designed to nurture them all the way through high school. While I was touring their campus, Gary proudly pointed to the pictures of some of their very first graduates.

HOPE Farm doesn’t accept any government money and today they have a beautiful, thriving campus on East Ramsey and a second campus in Como. They have an incredible team of staff and volunteers who invest in more than 50 fatherless boys each day.

What is Gary and his team doing? They are working for the peace and prosperity of our city. They are praying for young fatherless boys who need hope. And that’s how we transform cities? By praying and by working for the peace and prosperity of the city. After giving the Babylonian captives very specific instructs about affecting the city, Jeremiah makes a promise:

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

One day we will celebrate in our heavenly home. Our future is bright. But until that times comes, we cannot adopt or abandon the culture of our cities. Instead, we are called to affect our city. We are called to affect culture. We are called to pray. And we are called to work for the peace and prosperity of cities.

Question: How are you seeing cities transformed?