Lesson 2 - Shaping Cultures

Seeking the Welfare of the City

In Jeremiah 29, the prophet casts a vision for God’s people who are in exile in Babylon: “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” (29:7). In other words, in whatever place we find ourselves—even if we’re “exiles and aliens” in a hostile culture (1 Peter 1:1)—we are to seek the welfare of our neighbors.

Don Coleman is “seeking the welfare of his city” and reflecting the image of God through the inglorious work of local government in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. As Don advocates for his local community, which has been beset by economic depression and population decline, he acts as a “living eikon,” bearing witness to God’s faithful presence in this place. As Don explains, serving our communities “is just part of our DNA” as believers.

Reflect

One of the most practical ways to serve our neighbors is to be responsible and engaged citizens, because the policies and laws of our communities affect all of us.

  • How might Don’s story inspire you to responsible citizenship in your context?

Redeeming Real Estate

Like many real estate developers, Walter Crutchfield found himself at ground zero of the collapse of the real estate market in 2008. As he reflected on what had happened, he came to recognize that the reasons for the crash were complex, and many factors were endemic to the real estate industry itself: predatory lending practices and hasty mortgages approved to support massive, rapid, sprawling development.

But there was a deeper, theological reason. Developers had lost sight of the intrinsic value of their work and of the communities they were building. “We were trying to service demand,” Walter explains. “Rather than asking whether demand was reasonable, we just serviced it.”

For Walter, a rediscovery of his work as a calling represented a way forward. Once he recognized that God cares deeply about how we practice business, he and his colleagues started to find creative ways to act as “living eikons” by repurposing derelict buildings and redemptive approaches to real estate development that are both beautiful and profitable.

Reflect

Walter expresses an experience that is common to many Christians working in business: he knew that his faith should impact his business life, but he didn’t know how.

  • Have you ever experienced this frustration? Why is it difficult to connect our faith life to our professional life?

  • Think about your own industry. What is one dimension that is badly broken and in need of redemption? Where is there an opportunity for you to reflect God’s faithful presence and character in your professional context? How might you go about it?

Setting the Captives Free

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus announces his public ministry by making a scandalous claim. In the synagogue at Nazareth, he opened the Hebrew Scriptures to Isaiah 61:1–2 and suggested that this ancient prophecy was coming to pass in his own ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and to recover the sight of the blind, to set at liberty all those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:16–19).

After his exaltation to the right hand of the Father, Jesus commissioned his people to continue his work, empowered by the Holy Spirit. And that’s where Shoshon Tama-Sweet picks up his place in the plot of God’s grand story of redemption. “Setting free the captives is something that is at the heart of the purpose of the Christian community,” as he says.

Shoshon struggles for the liberation of the captives through the slow, arduous, and often discouraging work of political lobbying as he tries to chip away at the sex trafficking industry in Oregon. As he explains, our culture prefers technical quick-fixes to deep moral change, but sex trafficking is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. As a “living eikon,” Shashon illustrates what it looks like to bear faithful witness to the Light, as frail and faint as it may seem, even as the darkness tries to overcome it (John 1:5).

Reflect

As Shoshon’s story illustrates, the struggle for redemption is not glamorous. Much of his work is done behind the scenes in legislative chambers and city courthouses—not storming brothels.

  • Think of a systemic evil that plagues your community. These systems are not likely to be overthrown all at once (if at all), but in the steady work of faithful eikons. What is something that you can do “behind the scenes” in your context to join in God’s redemptive purposes?

  • As Helmut Thielicke reminded us in the previous lesson, the image of God is a gift, yes, but it’s also a task. We’re responsible for it. Part of this responsibility is to testify to God’s presence and power even in the midst of darkness. Where do you see bondage and darkness in your community? What might God be calling you to do in this context?

Respons-ible Creatures

As we have seen, the most fundamental meaning of the imago Dei is a special connection to God and a reflection of God’s presence and character. One way we inhabit the image of God is by realizing our capacities to use information to form and shape cultures and communities.

In their own unique ways, Don, Walter, and Shoshon are fulfilling their vocations as “cultural eikons” in their communities. Although they are reflecting the image of God in different ways, they are drawn together by a common response to the call of God to bear witness to his presence and reflect his character.

In this book The Responsible Self, H. Richard Niebuhr argues that humans are the only creatures who have the ability to respond to God. We are are the only respons-ible creatures:

God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to his action.

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self

In other words, every encounter with a neighbor and every experience in our community is God’s summons to us to respond.

  • As you reflect on Don’s service in local government, Walter’s redemptive real estate development, or Shoshon’s steady fight against human trafficking, how might God be calling you to respond to a challenge, issue, or problem in your context?

  • How can you use your knowledge, experience, or expertise to join in God’s redemptive purposes in your cultural context or professional situation?

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This course is provided in partnership with Christianity Today.