Forbes Magazine recently named America’s Most Miserable Cities for 2013. Three major cities in Michigan are in the top ten (#7 Warren, #2 Flint, #1 Detroit). Each of these cities are within 30 miles of where I sit.
The criteria used by Forbes in making its determinations included “violent crime, unemployment rates, foreclosures, taxes (income and property), home prices and political corruption.”
Forbes cites a “four decade decline” in the Detroit economy (including the city’s debt rating being cut to junk by Moody’s in 1992), the highest violent crime rate in America, net migration leading to dismal revenues, cuts to essential city services, and plummeting home values. Forbes summed up their justification for naming Detroit it’s number one miserable city in America by saying, “…declining tax revenues from a shrinking city will soon make Detroit a ward of the state.”
The response from Detroit’s political leadership is predictable. Mayor Dave Bing protested that “Detroit is in the midst of a transformation.” City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown said, “The perception doesn’t really meet the reality.” He then cited the new restaurant offerings in the city as evidence that Detroit isn’t really all that miserable.
At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, there is an answer to this crisis. The church of Jesus Christ in the city is uniquely positioned to reach the one constituency within the city that is key to its thriving: the urban poor. The solution is not top down (government and community leaders), but rather bottom up. The solution is not more programs funded by non-existent tax revenue. The solution is individual followers of Jesus Christ with skills and passion, taking those skills and passion without cost to the city’s poor and personally mentoring them and discipling them in the name of Jesus Christ.
The church of Jesus Christ serves a Savior of whom it was said, “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The ministry of Jesus appealed to and attracted the poor more than any other economic class. Jesus blessed the poor, and in blessing them he gave them encouragement to move toward a life of productive labor which provided a way out of poverty.
The church of Jesus Christ must reclaim the mission of Jesus by taking the gospel to the poor. Not a ‘social gospel’ focused simply on feeding and clothing, but the actual gospel of the Word made flesh, identifying with us in “the likeness of sinful flesh, condemning sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:1-3); the gospel that calls for an abandonment of sinful indulgence, placing hope in what Jesus accomplished in his death and resurrection for us and for our salvation; the gospel that ends racism, because it causes us to esteem others better than ourselves; the gospel that renews that which has been corrupted and makes it new in the image of its Creator. When the gospel transform the individuals who comprise a community, then and only then will the community experience cultural transformation.
The external transformation of street lights and blight follows the internal transformation of the heart by the gospel. When the internal transformation takes place, there is a greater chance that the poor will begin to take personal responsibility for and delight in their communities, with greater care for each other – because that’s what the gospel produces.
Much more on this subject could be said and needs to be said. The misery index in our cities provides an opportunity for the church. Will the church seize the opportunity?
Tim Keller: The Gospel and the Poor
Mack Avenue Community Church