Getting Something Done for the City with God

September 12th, 2013

On July 18, Detroit, Michigan became the largest United States city to file for bankruptcy protection. Having suffered decades of industrial decline and dwindling population, and unable to pay over $14 billion of debts (including the pensions owed to civil servants, who will likely now receive pennies on the dollar), the city is, in Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s words, “basically broke.” Filing for bankruptcy “conserves cash so the city can operate,” reports the Associated Press, “but it will hurt Detroit’s image for years.”

Even in these very tough times, however, signs of a positive future can be seen—including among Detroit’s youth. For example, USA Today recently posted online a video interview with high school senior DeQuan O’Neal, who says that he feels good about the city’s prospects: “What’s special about Detroit is the youth . . . .They have so much passion and heart.” O’Neal shows his passion as a leader in the “Hugs Not Bullets” campaign against gun violence in Detroit.

In late July the MTV series True Life episode “I’m Saving Detroit” featured three teenage girls “doing all they can to rescue the place they love,” such as boarding up abandoned houses and working to remove illegally dumped tires from neighborhoods. One of the girls, Alyssia Akers, told the Detroit News she “hopes viewers will see that young Detroiters aren’t letting the city’s troubled outlook get in the way of making positive changes . . . ‘[T]he youth are the ones really experiencing all this stuff. . . . But they’re not complaining, they’re saying, ‘How about you help us, and let’s get something done.’”

“We Need . . . Different Ideas”

You don’t have to be a financial or political expert to know cities everywhere face real challenges. Earlier this summer, Living Cities, a philanthropic network of foundations and financial institutions, released a report identifying inadequate infrastructure, poor educational outcomes, and struggling housing markets as the most pressing problems facing our cities today (especially their lower-income residents), solutions to which mean letting “go of the old ways of working.”

Fortunately today’s youth are often eager to work in new ways. The Youth Justice Board in New York City, for instance, is composed of twenty teenagers who spend two years studying, suggesting, and implementing strategies to address such issues as youth crime and school truancy. “To just find one solution, that’s not going to work,” says one member. “We need . . . different ideas.”

Whether you and your youth live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, your local community faces its own challenges. Young people can—and, given the opportunity, will—respond with their “different ideas” for positive change.

Christians in the Cities

Christian congregations have a special interest in nurturing teens’ desire to effect change for their cities. Jesus’ call for his church to live as a metaphorical “city on top of a hill” (Matthew 5:14) means serving the actual cities where we live with deeds of Christlike love. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told Jewish exiles in Babylon to “promote the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7) where they had been sent. The early church began its public life in that city, where Christians “demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone” (Acts 2:47). Throughout Scripture we find God’s people working to help their cities.

Youth may not understand all the factors in Detroit’s bankruptcy, but they can understand the needs of their own cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Help them envision and plan for ways to love their neighbors and seek their community’s good. God may be at work already saving your city through them!

This article is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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