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Jay Pathak: Learning to Love Our Cities (Part One)

Justin Juntunen

Justin Juntunen

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Jeff Heidkamp

I want to make sure we’re all paying attention to what just happened. The mayor of our city asked a group of pastors if we might consider obeying the Great Commandments in the most practical way possible.”

Jeff Heidkamp: I’d like you to start by talking about some of the community things you’ve been doing in the city of Arvada.

Jay Pathak: We had the idea to join up with a group of city pastors, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be good if we got to know one another?” We realized that there had never really been a real network of churches. A friend of mine got a heart for unity in the city, which helped bring more of us together. He didn’t want to have just another prayer meeting, because those typically die after a certain period of time. Instead we wanted it to be around serving; connecting with some of the needs of our city.

JH: How many pastors?

JP: I think we started with maybe 10 or 15. At first the motive was just to get to know one another. But then the mayor came to a gathering and the initial group interviewed him. That’s when everything began to coalesce and get more focused. My friend, Dave Runyon, interviewed him: “What are your greatest hopes and dreams? What are the greatest needs you think the city has?” He started to share a bunch of things, everything from elderly shut-ins to the quality of the local newspaper.

But when he finished with the list, he put it down and said, “But you know, honestly, I was talking with my wife on the way here, and it occurred to me that the thing that would change our community the most is if we became a community of great neighbors. And if we could really learn to take care of one another, I think we could solve nearly every sort of social problem that we experience as a city.”

The mayor then told a story about noticing a neighbor of his. Her lawn was really overgrown, the garage door was coming off the hinges and there were a couple of beat-up cars in the driveway. He called the code enforcement, and they came to write up a ticket. But another neighbor told him that the lady who owned the place was taking care of her dying mom day and night. She had lost her job. Her electricity was cut.

That really hit the mayor, so he rallied the neighbors. They all went and fixed up her property and helped her sell the cars, which created a little income. And they created a system to help her out.

He said, “It was in that moment it occurred to me that this is really important, to find a way that we can help people know the others around them and care for them.” And it was one of the things that you could feel in the room… This is a God moment.

The mayor left the meeting afterward. And Dave knows me; he knows my story. I kind of like to push the envelope with my own church, and Danielle and I try to have a ministry of knowing our neighbors and being part of our neighborhoods. So Dave said, “Okay, Jay. I know you want to say something. Just say it.”

I said, “I want to make sure we’re all paying attention to what just happened. The mayor of our city asked a group of pastors if we might consider obeying the Great Commandments in the most practical way possible.”

That started a whole new initiative. We tried a couple of different things and eventually landed on all preaching the same sermons on loving God, loving our neighbors and teaching our people to know their names. The ultimate goal would be to throw the ultimate block party with our neighbors.

I think it was around 28 churches – Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, Pentecostal – that preached the same sermon that first year. Dave and I wrote the sermon. From there, the initiative kind of blew up. The police got involved. They sent their beat cops to talk about different neighborhoods in town.

The whole thing introduced me to a lot of things about our community. There are all kinds of different language about this, but I think of it in terms of the different fears and domains of a city. I always knew of government and civil service and businesses, but it hadn’t occurred to me to reflect on how these things interact with one another to care about the peace and the good of a city.

JH: So what have been some of the results?

JP: That was the first time around. The second time we started the cycle over, a lot more churches participated, and the city was really encouraged. Now we’re involved in all kinds of city dynamics. We’ve hosted city meetings in our building. There are a number of things that the city knows is going on, but when they’re not sure how to solve them, or they don’t know who could help, we get involved. We built a website called ArtofNeighboring.com. On it you can see other people participating, so it’s a chance to join up with them and serve your specific neighborhood. Some of the code enforcement agencies check the site and notify neighbors when they see something going on with a specific person.

JH: Kind of like the mayor’s initial goal?

JP: Exactly. So it’s kind of been a church initiative, but it’s worked on behalf of the government. Instead of fining people immediately, they’ll say, “Why don’t we find people that might care nearby and see if they’ll get involved?”

Ultimately, what I’ve seen is that most city government people care about our city more than almost any pastor I know does. That can be pretty shocking. And when I mean our city I mean the actual dynamics of the city – the economic pressure, the pressures on the elderly, those that are sick, those suffering drug addictions. People in government work really know what’s going on and care about it.

I realized there is a whole other sphere of authority in my city thinking about the same things, trying to figure out where those different spheres between business and government and education overlap. Other pastors and I can help to orchestrate some of that, because I have the lowest agenda.

JH: What do you mean by that?

JP: In my mind, we all have some kind of agenda. I don’t know many pastors who don’t want their churches to grow. I don’t know many pastors who couldn’t do something with another $20,000. We all have things that we want. But ultimately, our motivating factor is the spiritual desire. We actually believe that God has asked us to do something. Our job security is pretty high, whereas government people are always motivated by the next election cycle or their constituency. That means they can’t go off on a limb often, and they’re limited by way of budget. And businesses are really ultimately designed to make money, but that’s also contingent on the health of the city.

So everybody wants the city to be a healthy, safe, kind, mutually beneficial environment. It’s been an interesting ride learning how these dynamics work together.

JH: How does what you’re talking about fit in with evangelism?

JP: There is a world of people thinking about this, pastors like Tim Keller talking about these things and doing city initiatives. I’ve gleaned a lot from different people.

One of the guys I really appreciated and gotten to know over the years is a guy named Eric Swanson. He wrote The Externally Focused Church back in the day. In his book To Transform a City, he has a section that deals with ultimate vs. ulterior motives. It’s a helpful thought for evangelicals, because what people are afraid of about evangelicals – and government people or businesspeople, for that matter – is that they have ulterior motives: “I’m going to do this thing simply so that I can get you to do this other thing.”

But what’s interesting is that all of us can still move from ulterior motives to ultimate motives, because the thing we’re participating in is a good act in and of itself.

That is the tension we all live in as we interact with people from other faiths or persuasions or motivations. I’m increasingly convinced each of these domains brings something to the table the other ones don’t – and that God has probably made this in a way where we’re all supposed to work together.

Now, of course, I’m not a government leader or a businessman. I’m a pastor. So I believe ultimately Jesus is going to reconcile all things to himself. And as I try to be a participant in the city as it is right now, I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus will make himself known. I suppose it’s sort of like the government person who hopes people will realize they should get involved in local politics so that they will finally vote for him, or the business guy hoping people will realize everything boils down to economic factors.

There was one man who was against some of our initiatives into the school system. He accused us: “Really your motive is that you want to see people know Jesus – that’s really what’s driving you.” I said, “You’re exactly 100 percent correct.”

He was shocked. He slapped the table and said, “See, I knew it. I knew it.” And I said, “Well, yes. It’s an ultimate goal, but it’s not an ulterior motive. I’m not trying to trick anybody. That’s who I am and what I’m about. But I think what we’re doing in the schools is worthwhile in and of itself.”

He said, “Yeah, well, you’re compromising,” and gave a couple of examples. I said, “You’ve run this term. Are you planning on getting reelected?” He said, “Well, yes.”

I said, “See? You’re only trying to help the school so that you can get reelected. That’s your motive.”

He paused and said, “Well, no.” And I said, “Really? If the schools did better or tested better, that would not increase your odds of getting reelected?”

He said, “It would, but that’s not why I’m doing it.”

And I said, “Exactly. You got it. Now you see where I’m at.”

Now, if we wanted to be dark hearted, tricky people, we could do that, but we have to believe the best about each other until proven otherwise. I’m not lying about what really motivates me underneath it, but I still think this is worthwhile. It’s its own end. I tell people this a lot: “I do this because I’m converted, not because I want to convert people.”

JH: It strikes me that there is actually a theological assumption there which is really the Kingdom of God; that this is part of something bigger. We’re not doing something isolated.

JP: That’s exactly right. And I think that runs throughout the Bible. You see how God has worked out His plan with even evil authorities in place. Think about Joseph or Daniel. Think about how Esther interacts within the king’s court. People are given favor as His people to interact within authority as it exists, not in spite of it – for the sake of what God wants to do in order to redeem and save and transform things.

So in my mind, the Vineyard theology of “the now and the not yet” enables us to see that God can be active in this present age with what he wants to do, but it won’t be perfectly fulfilled. I don’t have some “city on a hill” puritanical stance where we’re trying to make every social change immediately. But I do think God can give favor for things to be changed, and that the gospel should have social implications without having to let go of my eschatological convictions. I really do think this. The story is going to go a certain way. And that enables me to participate in the world as it is, for real change, with those that God has given authority.

All authority has been given by God, according to the Bible. I want to interact within that in a way that honors but that also pushes forward the things that are obviously important in the Kingdom.

Jay Pathak is the pastor of Mile High Vineyard in Arvada, Colorado.

Read Part Two of “Learning to Love Our Cities.”

 

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