Book Review: Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture and the Church by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard (Crossway, 2013)
Acknowledgment: I would like to express my gratitude to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book to review.
Why do cities matter?
This is the question that drives the book as a whole. Both Dr. Um and Mr. Buzzard are well versed and equipped to address such a question, as they both live and minister in world-class cities (Boston and Palo Alto), and are part of church planting movements that focus on ministry in a wide variety of contexts (Acts 29 and Redeemer City to City).
What is more, this particular book is a clarion call for effective ministry in any context, not just cities. The focus on cities is certainly present throughout the book, but filled within it’s pages is a wealth of material to help any pastor, church planter or lay leader effective engage, reach and ultimately disciple people wherever they are. One premise that I particularly benefited from in this book though, was that ministry is not just for individuals, it’s for cities themselves. Each city (as defined by centers of density and diversity most generally by the authors) has a personality, and if we want to minister the gospel effectively to people in cities, we must know, engage and seek to influence the structures of the city with the message of the gospel.
The authors spend a great deal of time expressing what it is that makes cities what they are. They do emphasize that they are primarily places of density and diversity (lots of people of different backgrounds and varieties), but in addition, they talk about the ideal of the city. A city was a place where anyone could find safety, security and promise of hope. This was true of cities in antiquity as they were known for their fortified walls and economic prospects, and it still hold true today. People come to cities looking to belong (safety, security) and become (hopeful of a better future). The authors address this in a winsome and comprehensive, yet still accessible way. They also talk about what you find inside cities; centers of power, culture and ultimately, worship. It is because of these centers that cities often attract what the authors label the “aspirational”, the “marginal” and the “explorational.” Each group is looking for life, meaning and happiness, and cities provide the context for finding it – whether directed towards God (as Creature and Sustainer) or other false gods (the creation and psuedo-saviors). For this reason, cities matter as a strategic place to proclaim by word and deed the message of the gospel.
In addition, their chapter on Bible and the City (ch. 3) is a masterful sweep of the Biblical portrait of cities. Every aspect of Scripture is combed for an understanding of cities – their importance, their promise and even their dangers – and what one is left with is a biblically convincing case that cities are to be places that reflect God’s will and intention for all humanity. Cities matter to God and it is evident throughout the pages of Scripture.
I also greatly appreciated their chapters on Contextualization in the City (ch. 4) and Ministry Vision for the City (ch. 5). Both are treasure troves for anyone looking to make an impact in their context for the gospel. Perhaps I was drawn to these as I am an aspiring church planter, but I believe anyone could take the principles and apply them wherever they are. Perhaps the biggest single helpful item in these chapters is the principle that in order to reach and engage people and cities with the gospel, you must first take an interest in establishing the relationship to be able to speak intelligently into their lives. In other words, listen, then speak. Anyone can go anywhere and just start preaching; but to preach against the false gods and psudeo-saviors of a city as well as a neighbor, one has to take the time to think through and get to know what are the hopes, dreams, aspirations and fears held by those we’re talking with. Both chapters provide plenty of helpful insights and questions for doing just that.
The one weakness of the book as I read it was the somewhat cavalier attitude towards non-cities. Now, in all fairness, the scope of the book was focused on cities, and no author should ever be expected to say everything and everything. They had a focus, and overall I think they did an excellent job covering that focus. But throughout the book, mention was made of cities as opposed to suburbs, exurbs and rural areas. I don’t like the contemporary debate about which is more important to God and therefore ministry – cities or other places – as I think it misses the point. God cares about every place and is redeeming all things to Himself. There’s plenty of room under that umbrella for both cities (who granted have a greater concentration of imago Dei‘s than rural areas) and rural communities.
What I would have liked to have seen though, is mention and discussion of the relationship between cities and suburbs, exurbs and rural areas. These divisions make for great sociological studies and discussion topics, but in real life, they are more integrated and related than we might like to believe. Are you only reaching, engaging and discipling a “city” if you are located in the “city-center” part of that city? Or are there ways of reading, engaging and discipling a “city” if you go to where the people live, work and play? I think that these questions might lend towards greater nuance of the relationship between cities and other aspects of cities (suburbs, exurbs, rural) and provide a more holistic approach to ministry in our cities.
Despite this one weakness, I whole-heartedly recommend this book. In fact, it would be a go-to resource to anyone wanting to minister in a city context as it distills a ton of information in a clear, straightforward way, and has plenty of applicable and helpful points for anyone in ministry. To end the review on the note the book ended:
“Cities matter. Let’s get to it.”