Before I tell you a bit of why I wrote a three post series on city transformation and how I got (back) to Evansville, can we start by taking a minute to recognize our “cultural moment?” We are a city with momentum, entrepreneurial positivity, a robust charitable human service engine, and plans to connect, enliven, and accentuate our most exciting assets: the riverfront, the city core, our green space, complete streets, trails, better transportation, Haynie’s Corner and Franklin Street, a new elementary school, and of course, the development of the remarkably collaborative IU Med School.That’s a lot, and that’s probably not even half of it. Does it surprise you to learn that Evansville is such a progressive place? I learned about all of that and a lot more in just 3 months.
But that’s not the Evansville I had in my mind before I moved our family back.
I love cities. Bigger ones. To say that I didn’t plan to move back to Evansville might be an understatement.
I spent two years at Castle High School after living all of my life in Indianapolis; then, I was off to college (Taylor University) and seminary in Chicago (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). After Candace and I got married, we spent a brief time in Bloomington, then we headed east to booming Charlotte, NC, which is where we lived for over 5 years. Charlotte gave me a dream job in a dream city, so Evansville was not on my list of potential cities to live.
That was until I met a local business owner named Tom Gabe. You may not know Tom, but you probably have heard of I Am Second. Tom’s the reason you have. Tom and I met in 2014 when I shared about a collaborative non-profit ministry I was leading in Charlotte, and 7 months later he called to ask me about moving back to Evansville. No was my first thought. But after months of prayer, soul-searching, and what appeared to us as clear confirmation from God, we moved our two-year-old and two-week-old back to the great Midwest with a confidence that God had work for us to do.
Evansville has a lot of good things going for it, but the thing that Tom and others identified was the reality that no one had much time to think about the big picture of Evansville. People have important and good responsibilities to steward in their careers and volunteer leadership roles. Tom’s ask was about making it possible for someone to have the capacity and opportunity to wake up every day dreaming about collaboration across private, public, and social sectors, with special attention to the unity and mission of the Church, all in an effort to make Evansville a better city—the city God would want it to be. A simpler way to say that might be “city transformation.”
A city is transformed when the whole Church brings the whole Gospel to the whole city. In other words, church leaders and followers of Christ in their cultural channel are working together to ensure the entire city experiences the contextualized proclamation (sharing) and demonstration (showing) of the good news of Jesus Christ. Both spiritual and societal transformation is needed in Evansville (and in every city). Spiritual transformation happens when people love God. Societal transformation happens when people love others.
After a short time here, and as someone who had not lived here for 13 years, I have good news. Evansville is at a crossroads, a precipice. It is as if a tidal wave of forward progress and momentum are about to unleash positive change. A year ago I could not have imagined writing these words: I’m excited about Evansville’s future. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, especially when we think about evangelism, discipleship, and restoring shalom (shä-ˈlōm; see below).
This is Evansville’s next chapter. It’s not if it’s going to happen. It’s about when and how. The how is where the Church has a unique opportunity. That’s the topic of my next post. I hope you’ll follow along.
*This series on city transformation was originally written for Community One, the organization acting as my fiscal agent and making a huge difference in our city by helping people love their neighbors through home improvement and redevelopment.
For the biblical foundation of city transformation, keep reading. I chose to keep this separate so you could choose to dive in a little deeper theologically, or if you’d rather not dive in right now, that’s ok. Come back later. But dive in at some point.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom as “the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight.” God is a social Trinity lacking nothing in relational fulfillment. He is the perfect example of shalom, and out of this perfection, He created. When God created, there was shalom. More simply, it is “the way things are supposed to be.”
God’s original intent then was for humanity to experience perfect, harmonious relationships with creation, others, himself, and the Triune God. This creates flourishing for all of creation (Genesis 1-2). But sin destroys shalom early in the biblical story and brokenness enters the world (Genesis. 3). The rest of Scripture is the story of God’s restoration of shalom—what we call the greatest story ever told (Genesis 4 – Revelation 22).
Let’s take a bulleted, chronological look at redemptive history with this idea of shalom in mind:
- God creates the world and everything in it
- He creates man and woman in His image to be in union with Him, perfectly
- Everything was as it should be (shalom)
- “Shalom is the webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight—universal wholeness and flourishing”
- The way things are supposed to be (how God intended it)
- Adam and Eve rebel against God, betraying their relationship with him and all of creation
- Because of this, sin infects all aspects of God’s creation
- All of humanity’s relationships suffer brokenness: with God, each other, self, and creation
- It’s not the way it’s supposed to be (shalom is broken)
- Out of love, God intervenes to restore shalom, to make things right again.
- He makes a covenant with Abraham to form a people
- He makes a covenant with Moses and calls a nation to Himself, to live among them
- That nation, Israel, is to be a light for the world to reflect His character and pursue His mission: justice and mercy, union with His people
- God shows that He is about grace and redemption as He pursues His shalom
- But Israel is unfaithful, disobedient, and turns her back on God and His covenant with them repeatedly
- Out of love, God intervenes again:
- The prophets foretell of a new covenant, a time when God’s people would reflect His character
- So, God He sends His very own Son, Jesus, who is perfectly one with Him, as a human being, and who is faithful to live out God’s character perfectly
- He preaches, performs miracles, claims to be ONE with God, dies and is raised from the dead
- It is through Christ that ALL creation can experience redemption
- But, instead of unleashing that redemption completely on humanity and creation, Jesus leaves and sends the Holy Spirit for His followers.
- And now we come to our role.
- Before Jesus dies, he spends most of his final three years with 12 disciples, followers, and through those 12 ordinary guys, he inaugurates His Church—a group of people who can reflect God’s character to the world.
From the beginning, God’s plan was to invite His people to fulfill His mission with Him. What began with Jesus and his 12 ordinary disciples was the turning point that became the greatest revolution and upheaval of all time (2.1 billion).
That explains the grand story of redemption and the reason we pursue the individual’s personal transformation out of brokenness and into shalom and union with God through Christ, and it explains the reason we pursue society’s transformation out of injustice, corruption, poverty, and into shalom and flourishing.
But why city transformation?
Did you know the Bible uses the word city 1,250 times? In addition, cities are regularly addressed directly in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. There were two times Jesus wept: once over the death of his close friend, and the other over the city of Jerusalem.
Apart from those uses, if we look at the progressive revelation of Scripture, we begin with a garden in Genesis 1, and we end with a city coming down out of heaven in Revelation 21.
Meredith Kline states in his book Kingdom Prologue: “The city is not to be regarded as an evil invention of ungodly fallen man… The ultimate goal set before humanity at the very beginning was that human-culture should take cityform…there should be an urban structuring of human historical existence… The cultural mandate given at creation was a mandate to build the city.”
Building on this, Tim Keller says, “It is widely understood that when God tells Adam and Eve to ‘have dominion’ and ‘fill the earth’ he is directing them to build a God-honoring civilization. They are to bring forth the riches that God put into creation by developing science, art, architecture, human society. Kline reveals, however, that since Revelation reveals that the ‘end’ of creation (the climax of the work of the ‘Second Adam’ Jesus Christ) is a city – that therefore God was calling Adam and Eve to be city builders. City building is an ordinance of God just like work and marriage. And indeed, cities draw together human talent and resources and tap the human potential for cultural development as nothing else does.”
So, cities are important to God. But they are also important in our world today.
Since 2007, over half the world’s population lives in cities. And it is only going to increase. The nations have come to the cities, to our city, Evansville. Cities shape culture. Regional initiatives work where there is a thriving city.
Evansville’s next chapter can look more like the city God would want it to be, or it can look less like it. That includes morality, of course, but it includes much more: diversity and reconciliation, opportunity to work and make enough money, justice and mercy, servant leadership, love and hope.
The work of people who follow Christ is more than going to church, reading the Bible, and maybe one day sharing your faith with someone. It is also about city building, restoring shalom in the city where God has placed us.
“To make cities—that is what we are here for. To make good cities—that is for the present hour the main work of Christianity. For the city is strategic. It makes the towns; the towns make the villages; the villages make the country. He who makes the city makes the world. After all, though men make cities, it is the cities which make men.” Henry Drummond, Scottish Pastor, 1893.