The pastoral staff of Tenth Presbyterian Church recently received a copy of a report entitled “The State of Center City.” The report was prepared by the “Center City District,” a civic organization of which Tenth is a member.

Like most organizations these days, the Center City District has a mission statement: “The mission of the Center City District (CCD) is to insure that Philadelphia’s central business district is known widely as a clean, safe and attractive place to work, visit, shop and dine.”

The main thrust of the report is that “The State of Center City” is very, very good. Office occupancy is up, retail occupancy is up, hotel room occupancy is up, and attendance at the Pennsylvania Convention Center is way up. Altogether, Philadelphia entertained 8 million visitors last year.

In addition to keeping the city prosperous, the primary objective of the Center City District is to strengthen what it calls “quality of life.” That means keeping Center City clean and safe, and the news is good in these departments, too. The District oversees a regular schedule of sweeping, vacuuming, and power washing our sidewalks. This means that the use of 30-gallon bags of trash is also up. District grafitti patrols have managed to reduce new grafitti by 80%. Major crime is still a problem, but it is down by 23%, and Philadelphia now has one of the safest urban downtown areas in the whole country.

With all of this good news it is not surprising that 77% of residents think that the “General Atmosphere in Center City” is “Much Better/ Somewhat Better than before.”

Is that an opinion that we share at Tenth Church? Does the theology of the Bible have anything to contribute to a proper assessment of “The State of Center City?”

The first thing to be said is that good news for the city is good news for the people of God. That was the message Jeremiah had for the people of Jerusalem when they were in exile. You may remember that the people of Jerusalem were carried off to Babylon in 586 B.C. I suppose ancient Babylon was a lot like modern Philadelphia. It was a big city with a large population, including international residents from all over the world. It had its fair share of tall buildings, including a ziggurat for pagan worship. It even had a world-renowned tourist attraction: Nebuchadnezzar’s fabulous “Hanging Gardens.”

Although Babylon was a world-class city, the people of Israel were not there to sight-see. They did not want to be there and they certainly had no great affection for the Babylonians. It may have been tempting for them to hope for the downfall of Babylon. But listen to what Jeremiah told them to do instead: Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jer. 29:7).

This is the biblical version of the principle that a rising tide lifts all boats. When Babylon prospered, Israel prospered. And so the people of God were to pray that Babylon would have a strong economy and safe neighborhoods.

If that was true in Babylon, it is true in Philadelphia as well. When the city of Philadelphia prospers, those of us who live and/or worship here prosper too. That is why we pray for the financial well-being, and the cleanliness, and the safety of the city of Philadelphia. We pray about such things not simply out of self-interest, but also because we love the people of this city and we rejoice to see them do well.

While it is true that a city can be a blessing to a church, it is also true that a church can be a blessing to a city. Do you know these proverbs (Prov. 11:10a, 11a)?

When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices…

Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted.

These proverbs teach us that the welfare of a city depends upon the spiritual vitality of the people of God.

The spiritual dimension of urban life is what is missing from “The State of Center City” report. There are no charts or graphs about church attendance, or evangelism, or commitment to biblical authority. No account is given of the extent to which Center City is being brought under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Yet it seems to me that the true condition of Center City depends upon more than just tourist dollars and street sweepers.

Last week I heard Mayor Ed Rendell say much the same thing. The Mayor met with a group of pastors at the Philadelphia Urban Coalition to tell us what we ought to be doing in Philadelphia. The first thing he said is that we need to be doing everything we can for the moral and spiritual development of the young people of the city. Mr. Rendell said other things with which I did not agree—like when he said that Jesus wants us to be realistic about riverboat gambling, to name one—but he was absolutely right about children and the church. We ought to be doing as much as we can to strengthen the families of this church, and also to draw non-Christian families within the orbit of our ministry.

That is because most of the real problems that confront Philadelphia—and I am talking about the whole city now, not just Center City—are spiritual problems. Our difficulties with poverty, education, chemical dependency, violence, crime, broken homes, and so on, all flow from the sinfulness of the human heart. That means that they all require the grace of God for their ultimate solution. The flourishing of the children of Philadelphia in years to come depends upon the obedience and prayers of the church of Jesus Christ. By the grace of God, the State of Center City depends on us.

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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