There is much talk today about “seeking the welfare of the city.” To various people it means different things. As a Biblical phrase, it can have serious missional connotations. To have a biblically sound missiology, we should consider what the phrase means to us in the church today, and also tease out what it doesn’t mean.
First, let’s look at the Scripture which gives us this famous phrase. Jeremiah 29:4-7 says, “This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: ‘Build houses and live in them, Plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters. Take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there; do not decrease. Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.’”
Jeremiah was writing to a people who did not want to be where they were. Because of their idolatrous ways God had made them captives of their enemies. The prophet told them they would be in Babylon for 70 years so they should make themselves at home and thrive where they were. They should live as God’s blessed people and even seek God’s favor for the land of their captors.
But, how much?
While I think “seeking the welfare of the city” is a good and helpful phrase, the question people often ask is, “How do we do that?”
Seeking the welfare of the city is certainly an action to make the community better, both by being good citizens (as they were to be) and making the city a better place by being involved in its betterment (which they appeared to do).
We don't have an amazing amount of context here, but the idea seems to be that if God's people are addressing needs because of their presence and actions, moving city residents toward a better life situation, the city's inhabitants will see the hand of God at work through His people.
God's people should not be satisfied with personal blessing, but desire the blessing of a loving God throughout their host culture.
But how much of our life should be spent making things better for the community? Societal engagement and community activism are good things; they are part of the mission. But, how much?
Jesus Cared For His City
Our mission is to join Jesus on His mission. In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” We are sent as He was sent. So what does that mean for us? Did Jesus seek the welfare of His city? And if so, how?
In Luke 4 Jesus begins his public ministry by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on Me. He has anointed Me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then He rolls up the scroll and says, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.”
Jesus spent a lot of time serving the hurting—there’s no question about that. Part of that service was demonstrating His Messianic power over the brokenness of culture. He did this by working miracles. But I also think part of it was to demonstrate His character: His purpose as Messiah to deliver us from the bonds of sin.
If we join Jesus on His mission, I think that we too will serve those who are hurting. In fact, I think the world is often confused when they see a church that claims to follow Jesus but is not actually doing much of what Jesus did. They know He healed the sick and ministered to the hurting, and they wonder why a church would be unengaged in these areas. To paraphrase Ghandi, "Why do your Christians look so little like your Jesus?"
Luke wrote in Acts 10:38 that, “Jesus went about doing good and healing all who were under the tyranny of the Devil, because God was with Him.” There was eternal context for the good Jesus did. You see, Jesus didn’t just come to fix brokenness in the world. His mission wasn’t to make it a better place to live. He actually came to make it live.
Luke 19:10 quotes Jesus: “I have come to seek and save those who are lost.” Jesus came serving. But He also came saving. The Bible teaches us people are not only hurting, but are dead in their trespasses and sins.
When we talk about seeking the welfare of the city we must remember the people in the city are dead in trespasses and sins. Jesus looked over Jerusalem and wept because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Why? They needed the good news of the gospel.
If we’re going to serve the city, we should join Jesus in His full mission. We should go serving and saving. We do that by offering not just a meal or a touch, but offering them the Savior of the world.
A Legacy Of The Church
The idea of serving in our community is not a new one.
The greatest growth of the ancient church came in the late second and early third centuries when plagues swept through the Empire. In his book Cities of God Rodney Stark demonstrates, through some impressive historical analysis, how Christianity became an urban religion, conquering Rome in the process. When plague came, the pagans of Rome fled from the afflicted. They burned the bridges into their towns. Christians, however, remained behind caring for the sick and burying the dead.
Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, would even write,
These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests).
In seeing the care the believers showed for their communities, as they served the hurting, people were open to hear the good news of the gospel of the One who saves completely.
A few years ago, I was in Grand Rapids speaking at an RCA church called Fair Haven Ministries. The leaders of the church told me, “We can’t do everything. So we want to do one thing. We want to make sure that in our area, none of these children go to bed hungry at night.” It’s a large church. So they embarked on an endeavor to minister to hurting and hungry kids in their community. When I asked them why, they said they are "seeking the welfare of the city."
Service that leads to saving—that was the pattern of Christ. We can learn from—and even emulate—that pattern.
Robert Lewis, in his book, The Church of Irresistible Influence, puts it this way, “If your church were to disappear tomorrow, would anyone notice?” I think that’s a good question that reminds us all of the serving part of the mission of Jesus.
Jesus came serving and saving. And we join Jesus in His mission.
We didn’t come to die on the cross for the sins of mankind. But we are about the mission of Jesus: serving the hurting, seeking to save the lost. That ultimately is how we seek the welfare of the city.
In an attempt to cover up the first murder, Cain responded to God by asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Because of what Christ has done for us and the mission He has given us, we should look over the city in which He has placed us and say, “I am my city’s keeper.”