Review: Why Cities Matter by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard

Why Cities Matter by Um and Buzzard

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.”

Link: Paperback and Kindle versions.

In Honor of Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King, Jr

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” 

– Martin Luther King Jr.

The Passion Facade at Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

UPDATE: If you would like to expand your horizons on the subject of race relations and how the gospel effects us in the area of our biases, let me recommend the following books:

Keep Your Head Up: America’s New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation  edited by Anthony Bradley

Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf

Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian by John Piper

Can God do something about evil? He better!

John Stewart's take on Jerry Sandusky and Our Warped Sense of Morality

Can God do something about all the wicked, evil and depraved ways we hurt one another?  He sure can.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that He better do something about it.  Because if it is left up to us, I fear we will keep turning a blind eye to the injustices happening around us, or worse yet, we’ll let ourselves get upset over the wrong things.

Take the recent Jerry Sandusky/Penn State sexual scandal in recent history.  One of the best critiques of the whole thing came from a guy who makes his living as a comedian. Using satire and irony, John Stewart exposes both the need for accountability (responsibility) within organizations and even “sacred” institutions (like the sex scandals plaguing religious institutions and Penn State Football program), as well as the dangerously deceptive lie of an entitlement mindset.


This is one of his more serious sketches, but he is spot on about identifying the colossal experience of Penn State rioters missing the point in weaping more over Joe Paterno being fired (entitlement) then the welfare and pursuit of justice and accountability for those young boys who were molested under his watch and with his awareness of the situation.

This is a good step.  We need to take responsibility for our actions, and that includes stepping into the messy, scary and sometimes dangerous situations we find ourselves.  Like when we are passing by a door and notice a grown man abusing a little boy.

But time and time again, we prove our utter inability to rise to the occassion.  Our nobility loses out to our lust – for sex, for comfort, for security, for approval – and things just keep going the way they’ve always gone before.

What we most desperately need is not a “Lets do better next time.”  What we need is a Savior who comes into “our can’t” and promises that “He will!”  That’s the great promise of Genesis 3:15:

The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
– Genesis 3:14-15 (ESV)

And its also the great and awaited fulfilment He promises at His second coming:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away…And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”        -Revelation 21:3-5 (ESV)

As great as John Stewart’s commentary is, I think its rather this video that gives me great hope for the future:

A Dream of Heaven from the Jesus Story Book Bible

Peace & Peacemaking in a Broken World: Series Wrap-Up and Link

This past Sunday, I wrapped up a 5-part series on Peace and Peacemaking in a Broken World.  The time spent exploring that topic from Scripture was quote challenging and helpful to me personally.

If you would like, we have posted 4 of the 5 audio recordings of the class with the teaching notes for all who are interested.

If you do listen in or scan the notes, tell me what you thought either here or on Facebook.

Peace and Peacemaking (1) – What is “peace”?

Peace:  What is it?

When we say we want to pursue peace, what do we mean?  What is it we are really after?

Is it absence of conflict?  Cease-fire?  Everybody getting along?

Surely, we can say that these are all well and good things to pursue, strive for and live out.  But is it enough?

Take the first idea: absence of conflict.  This presupposes that all conflict is in and of itself, bad.  We can all think of countless examples where this is true.  Take the cycle of world news, over just the past 100 years, and we can see all the damage and irreparable harm done by conflict.  This nation provokes that nation, and off to war we go.  If only we could get rid of conflict all-together.

In our very own SF Reporterthis week, you can read numerous accounts of how people have suffered in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime, in horrendous ways.  It could be argued that conflict was the reason why such a regime was able to come to power – the conflicting ideologies of an agricultural, self-sufficient communism over against the prevailing ideology of the indigenous Buddhism and growing capitalism of Cambodia.  Yet, it could also be argued that it took another conflict, eventually with the Vietnamese that was able to stop and overthrow the totalitarian regime.

Which “conflict” was wrong?  The starting of the Khmer Rouge, or the stopping by the Vietnamese?

Or take the idea of peace being a “cease-fire”.  If only we could take all the military industriousness away from making bombers and bullets, the world would be a better place.  We need to mandate an international “cease-fire”; no more war so that the world can be a better place. “Make love, not war.”

Technically, there was never a declaration of war, or outright battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War of the late 20th century, but would anyone who was alive during that time say that they felt “at peace”?

Is “peace” really a simple choosing not to pull the trigger?

Well if its not the absence of conflict, or a cease-fire, then surely it has to be “everybody getting along.”

Not so fast.  Who decides what “getting along” means?  What are the criteria for establishing who is getting along with whom, or the other way around, who is not getting along with whomever?

What if my way of thinking, my lifestyle, my understanding of what is right, comes into opposition with yours?  What if I think it was right that we sent a team of six Navy Seals to capture (or kill) Osama Bin Laden in a foreign country, and you don’t.  Can we really get along if I uphold a national exclusivism to my country’s aims, goals and actions, but not to yours?

Or what if I happen to say that there is such a thing as moral truth – of independent right and wrong – that everyone is bound by, but you say that even moral truth is relative to the individual and no one can impose on another a moral obligation they do not share?

Can we really get along if there is no basis of justification of executing justice in the face of criminal, harmful and destructive behavior?

John Lennon famously asked the world to “Imagine” a world with no religion.  And then in the chorus he pleads with his listeners to “You might say that I’m a dreamer/but I’m not the only one/I hope someday you will join us/and the world will be as one.”

In asking the world to imagine a world with “no religion”, one is left only to replace the vacuum with their own version of “acceptable”, “appropriate” religion.

Will we really be “at peace” if my freedom to believe as I do comes under the judgment of yours?  Isn’t this just another power play, of your world-view, perspective, ideology, dominating mine that is different?

None of these – absence of conflict, cease-fire, or just getting along – can be the final end of what we mean when we say “peace.”

In Matthew 5-7, Jesus is teaching his disciples what it means to be his followers.  At one point, he makes an interesting statement:

“Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called children of God.”– Matt. 5:9 (ESV)

Obviously, Jesus had something for us to consider when talking about “peace”.  And not only consider, but actively pursue, seek out, or “make”.

 But what is that?

Next we’ll look at the biblical portrait of “peace” and see that maybe its not what we normally think it is.

What would a Black person have to do to live in your neighborhood?

Chris Rock

"The the black man has to fly to get to something the white man has to walk to." - Chris Rock

I’ve been sitting here watching a Chris Rock special on Comedy Central.  I like the guy.  I think he’s hilarious on so many fronts.

I also find him thought provoking.

There was a minute long sketch where he goes into talking about his neighbors.  You can watch it below if you want (Disclaimer: I make no judgments on use of language, so if you do, don’t watch.  Or watch. Just don’t be offended and tell me about it later.  This is your warning.)

Here’s the gist.

Chris Rock has three well-known and widely recognized as pinnacles of success in their respective careers black neighbors:  Mary J. Blige (R&B Singer), Jay-Z (Hip-Hop, entertainment mogul), and Eddie Murphy (actor who specializes in talking, animated donkeys).  Of course, he includes himself, a very successful comedian.  The other neighbor, who is white, is a dentist.

And not a famous dentist.  Not a “top-in-his-field” dentist.  Just an ordinary dentist.

His next statement I latched onto as something worth sharing:

“The black man has to fly to get to something the white man has to walk to.” – Chris Rock

His logic is reasonable for sure.  You have award winning artists.  Entertainment trail blazers.  People who have hosted the Grammy’s.  And then you have a regular dentist.

I’m not into suggesting that all “white” people are to blame for this disparity, but I do think that Chris Rock is identifying something that everybody may take for granted:  What does somebody have to do to be able to live in your neighborhood?

This happens in myriad of ways.  For example.  I live in a part of Santa Fe, NM known as Eldorado.  It is very much a granola neighborhood.  In fact, it was developed as the first solar energy community in the country back in the 70’s.  Now its a typically nice place to live in Santa Fe.  The school is quite good.  Its only a 15 minute drive into town.  It takes a certain income level to live out here (but that’s true of any neighborhood).  But it also requires an All-Wheel or 4-Wheel drive vehicle.  Or a monstrously huge truck with a snow plow latched on the front…because we get snow.

Lots of it.  I’ve been shoveling it all day.  Why?

Because I’m one of those guys who don’t own a Subaru with All-Wheel/4-Wheel drive.  Nor am I the guy with a big truck and snow plow attachment.  So that means I shovel, and stay stuck regardless.

Every neighborhood…every city…every culture and sub-culture…has this aspect.  There are certain things that make it viable, or not viable, to live, work, play and be a part of the culture. That is the ever present problem of context – we all live, work, play in a context.

And unfortunately, we all breathe in the air of the context to such an extent that we may be “nose-def” to the problems, concnerns and interests of others who may or may not share that same context.

Now, what I’m left pondering after watching Chris Rock, is not just so mono-lithic as to say that the cultural plight of black america is still subject to the whims of white america (What about Asian, Hispanic, or dare I say it, Native American cultures?  In other words, there is a history for sure, but its also broader than any one culture or ethnicity over/against another singular culture or ethnicity?).  Nor am I trying to be self-absorbed and say “I feel it too!  Look here..”

But these issues are more indicative of how we live and relate as human beings, that has ethnic, cultural, socio-economic implications.  We  tend to never  think about what it would take to let someone else live in our neighborhood, because, well, that’s their problem, not mine?  I can’t be concerned about someone else’s needs, that’s their responsibility?

And all the while we just recycle the same sad, sorry and pathetic excuses at the expense of developing a more gospel-centered mindset – a mindset that embraces and embodies all that Jesus has done for us.  In a nutshell, this is taking on the interests of another upon himself (cf. Philippians 2), and so bridging the way for two opposing groups to be reconciled and live in relationship with one another.  That would be God and man, by the way.

So, the gospel, if we truly embrace all of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us, makes Chris Rock’s insight something we should consider.

What would somebody else – somebody who is not like you, somebody who is maybe antagonistic toward you, or someone who has been truly hurt by you or someone like you – have to do, to be able to move into your neighborhood?

Or live in your city?

Or your group of friends?

Or visit and connect with your church?

If we don’t wrestle with this issue, nothing will ever change.  And that’s something the gospel is all about.

Thoughts on Thursday – How do you share the gospel with someone who hates you?

Watch this to get an idea of how the gospel can transform the way we retaliate towards others.

Former Ku Klux Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary (Youtube – Watch this in its entirety)

How does the gospel transform the way we relate to those who would be our enemies?

This is enmity towards enmity at its best.

Must Learn to Live As Missionary Citizens

Great thoughts by Timmy Brister over at Provocations and Paintings on Obama’s win and what it means for American evangelicals.  Read the whole thing here.  Here’s a quote:

On the other hand, I can’t help but think that the Obama presidency will help Christians who happen to be American to open our eyes to our syncretistic views of American Christianity.  While the fundamentalist impulse is to retreat into the ghetto, pull out the dispensationalism charts, and check the rapture ready index as a morning devotional, perhaps for the first time Christians will no longer seek to Christianize America but speak prophetically and live missionally in our growingly secular world.  Our greatest need is not to fight the battle against the culture but to fight against the battle against unbelief.  It is safe to live as functional atheists when we’ve got God in our constitution, on our coins, in the White House, but when the props are removed from us, how shall we then live?

We must learn to live as missionary citizens.

Justice Problems in Prison

Does the Gospel, really, bear on every aspect of the world? Does this include prison, and criminals? Should we care about prison rape?


But by and large, we seem to find more humor than outrage in these crimes. In part, this simply reflects the nature of our criminal justice system, which has become decreasingly rehabilitative and increasingly retributive.

Here are some other interesting quotes.

“In the 1970s, as economist Glenn Loury has written, “the corrections system was commonly seen as a way to prepare offenders to rejoin society. Since then, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to punishment and stayed there.”

“Morally, our tacit acceptance of violence within prisons is grotesque. But it’s also counterproductive. Research by economists Jesse Shapiro and Keith Chen suggests that violent prisons make prisoners more violent after they leave. When your choice is between the trauma of hardening yourself so no one will touch you or the trauma of prostituting yourself so you’re protected from attack, either path leads away from rehabilitation and psychological adjustment. And we, as a society, endure the consequences — both because it leads ex-cons to commit more crime on the streets and because more of them end up back to jail. A recent report released by the Pew Center on the States revealed that more than one in 100 Americans is now behind bars. California alone spends $8.8 billion a year on its imprisoned population — a 216% increase over what it paid 20 years ago, even after adjusting for inflation. That’s money, of course, that can’t be spent on schools, on job training, on wage supports and drug treatment. Money, in other words, that can’t be spent on all the priorities that keep people out of prison. Money that’s spent instead on housing prisoners in a violent, brutal and counterproductive atmosphere. And there’s nothing funny about that.

Ok, so anybody have any thoughts on this?

Should the gospel have an impact on the way we allow prisoners to be treated?

Should the church have and take responsibility for this?

What did Jesus really mean?

I’m tired of hearing myself, as well as others, ask the above question as an attempt to soften the blow of what the Bible often tells us to do.

Case in point:  How many of us would actually do this?

Could it be that there actually is a way to live that is counter-cultural – that cuts across our unevaluated biases that we possess?

Maybe Jesus was on to something, and we would be wise to take Him at His word.

Fellas: what keeps us from doing this ourselves?  Thoughts, comments or other provocations…please.