We're a mobile culture. We pack our bags and hit the road - on average - every six years. With the realities that demographic studies project that in the year 2050 75% of the world population will reside in big cities. Because of this growing astronomical trend, small towns will eventually be a non-factor in shaping the global marketplace. Small towns, however have one thing that make them great and different than the transient city is: people who stay around, and people who get involved. The spirit is strongest in places like Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where people stay on the same bowling teams for decades; in Greenville, Alabama, where churches are packed; and in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where everybody knows your name in the neighborhood taverns.
Sheboygan, for instance, sounds like a promising place to put down roots. Once known as the "City of 4 Cs" (churches, chairs, children and cheese) Sheboygan now boasts a Riverfront Boardwalk, state park, county museum, and children's museum.
So is their power in Podunk communities or in establishing parish religious communities for the growth of the city which is increasing before our very eyes?
In Jeremiah chapter 29 he sends a letter to the homesick Jewish exiles in Babylon. The northern kingdom of Israel had disappeared at the hands of the Assyrians 200 years earlier, and now Babylon has successfully subjugated the smaller kingdom of Judea. Many of Jerusalem's best and brightest have been carried off to Babylon, where the new Jewish population isn't quite sure what to do. They feel stuck in an unfamiliar small place, so far from their holy city.
That's why Jeremiah writes a letter to these exiles, telling them what makes for a good hometown: "Thus says the Lord ... Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters ... multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (28:4-7).
This is a revolutionary message. The Jews who expect a speedy return to Jerusalem are told to stay put, establish homes in Babylon, and even assist in the welfare of the state. Jeremiah is saying that God's people shouldn't resist, resent, or reject their current location. They shouldn't pack up and move, nor should they dig foxholes and fight. Instead, they should put down roots in a foreign land, live productive lives in exile, and even pray for the welfare of their new hometown.
For the prophet Jeremiah, parish collective power means sticking around, putting down roots, and getting involved. It means turning a small, isolated and common community into a City of God.
But how do we do it?
We engage in this in building parish communities such as developed by me and other constituents in the Transformative Atlanta Parish (TAP) consisting in a vision statement from Acts 2:44 "all who believed were together and had all things in common." This parish is not theological in nature but is based on relationships in congregational life of worship, Bible study, the sharing of our buildings and facilities through worship, bible study and transparent conversation for the purposes of reconciliation with three of the major Lutheran denominational bodies, namely NALC (North American Lutheran Church), LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the Atlanta area.
TAP (Transformative Atlanta Parish) challenges like the prophet Jeremiah denominations at every level to think and act together and share resources rather in Podunk towns or thriving metropolis such as Atlanta to engage in the study of social issues and community concerns with a view to action where appropriate. Churches should act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately.
There is real value in this approach, for one of our great challenges today is to find ways to nurture distinctive Christian language and life-style in the middle of an increasingly secular society. It is only within the Christian colony that we resident aliens can learn what it means to follow Jesus, to practice nonviolence, to tell God's story and to mentor one another.
But this approach, as valuable as it is, misses the revolutionary challenge of Jeremiah's words. Seek "the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile," says God through the prophet, "for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (v. 7). Seek the welfare of towns where neighbors down the street may be Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim. Seek the welfare of workplaces where colleagues may be agnostics or New Age seekers, folks who think of themselves as spiritual but certainly not religious. Seek the welfare of communities where activists may be trying to separate everything church from everything state, or to inject some righteousness and religion into the laws of our secular society.
In short, we are to seek the well-being of a diverse, confusing and often conflicted culture. Engage it, says Jeremiah, don't escape it. For in its welfare you will find your welfare.
As Christians in a post-Christian culture, our challenge is to work and pray for the wholesomeness of the society with which our own well-being is inextricably linked. This doesn't mean that we abandon the spiritual life and fellowship of our congregation and become social service agencies or public policy centers - no, it's essential that we remain devoted to the nurture of distinctive Christian language and lifestyle. But it does mean that we recommit ourselves to working for the physical, moral and spiritual welfare of the world around us. It means that we see our hometown as a mission field: The very place God calls us to put down roots, grow in faith, and reach out in love.
The prophet calls us to get involved in the welfare of the city, for the city's welfare is ours. There's no way around it. There's no escaping this connection. Our hometown should have no better citizens than we!
A great town is a place with deep roots, according to ePodunk.com. It's a place where people like us work hard to support active churches, lively meeting places, and lots of locally owned businesses. It's where we devote ourselves to the Power of Place - whether that place is a city or a town, a Sheboygan or a Greenville. We should never think that the size of a hometown matters when we are talking about the power of Podunk - after all, Jesus spent most his ministry in the town of Galilee, and only a short amount of time in the great city of Jerusalem.
Any small insignificant town good enough for Jesus should be good enough for us.
Wherever you put down roots, God has plans for you - "plans for your welfare and not for harm," he promises through Jeremiah, "to give you a future with hope" (v. 11). The Lord promises to hear you when you call upon him and pray to him; God pledges to let you find him whenever you search for him and seek him with all your heart (vv. 12-14).
Like the expatriated Jews camped along the banks of the Chedar River in Babylon, we think of our citizenship as located in another kingdom, a kingdom not of this world. But until we see the new Jerusalem, God calls us to roll up our sleeves and build better parks, better homes and better schools.
That's not just parish collective power - it's our divine mandate