In New York City, creative-class workers are often “short-termers.” They come to the city seeking a quick path to success and adventure before leaving for some other part of the country. Short-termers want to enjoy and take everything they can from the city—money, culture, education, entertainment, and career advancement—and ultimately settle down elsewhere.
Redeemer’s pastor, Tim Keller, uses Jeremiah 29 to challenge this consumptive posture toward the city. In Jeremiah’s letter to the Jewish exiles (who thought they were “short-termers” in Babylon), the prophet exhorts them to settle down, build houses, plant gardens, and “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I [God] have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (29:7).
Using this text, Keller argues that the gospel reorients more than workers’ hearts and relationships; it also reorients their posture toward their city. The gospel shifts the workers’ mindset away from exploiting the city to that of praying, serving, and working for its shalom. Investing in the flourishing of the city can take many forms, such as charitable giving, volunteering, and political action. However, at Redeemer’s CFW we focus on how Christians can love and serve their city through their daily work.
But how exactly does this happen? How should committed Christian workers actually engage the brokenness and beauty of this complex and pluralistic city? In closing, I highlight two Reformed concepts that have been pivotal in helping our workers serve their neighbors and glorify God in the New York marketplace: common grace and vocation.
Common Grace: Loving and Working in Babylon
Working faithfully and sustainably in “Babylon” raises lots of questions and challenges for Christian workers. One is loneliness: many of them feel isolated and alone, lamenting that they don’t know of any other Christians at their workplace. That raises a second question: How can committed Christians work alongside, learn from, and collaborate with colleagues who are very different from them in terms of their faith and values?
It is here that the Reformed doctrine of common grace has proved to be especially helpful. In the power and pervasive presence of the Holy Spirit, these workers are never alone. They are connected to a great cloud of witnesses, and their God is present and active, working before and beside them. Moreover, through the common-grace workings of the Holy Spirit, their non-Christian coworkers are the graced recipients of many blessings from God. These non-Christian workers have received the gifts of creativity, education, virtue, generosity, wisdom, and insight from the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, Christian workers not only can but also must collaborate with, learn from, and celebrate the good work done by their non-Christian colleagues. God has blessed all humanity with gifts of morality, aesthetics, and craftsmanship. Christian workers can appeal to their coworkers’ kindness, ethics, and excellence because—by the grace of God—these good gifts are within them as well.
On multiple occasions Tim Keller has said that because of common grace, the works—the thoughts, contributions, cultural creations, science—of non-believers are never as bad as their wrong beliefs should make them. Likewise, because of total depravity, the works—the thoughts, contributions, cultural creations, science—of believers are never as good as their right beliefs should make them.
Understanding that the work of all people can participate in the work of God enables the Christian worker to place a high value on the good work being done in “Babylon.” Despite the ever-apparent presence of sin and brokenness, God is always at work in the city and the world, holding it together, beautifying it, providing for its renewal. Our task is to observe and discern where and how God is at work—even through our coworkers—and to join our labors to God’s working.