Book Review: Why Cities Matter

Why cities matter book coverYou’ll find a number of posts on this site that attest to how I’ve grappled with the issue of cities as prominent leaders called for greater resources to the cities of the world. I felt it somehow sidelined the ministry of those in the backwaters, rural or suburban.

The irony wasn’t lost on me then, when around five years ago, with my wife and young family we moved from a medium-sized town of 80-100,000 people in the west of England to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden to plant Grace Church. The greater Stockholm area has around 2.2 million inhabitants and is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. Every three years it grows by the size of our old town.

The shift from an estate church among the white suburban poor to the multicultural world of a capital city has been a significant one, albeit one we’ve greatly enjoyed. As a result I’ve dug deeper into thinking about ministry and specifically church planting in the city and it was with that in mind that I read Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church by Stephen Um and Justin Blizzard.

The book owes a great deal to Tim Keller who writes the foreword to this book and that debt is apparent throughout. In many ways it is an attempt to make a work like Center Church more accessible to a wider audience.

The first two chapters deal with the importance and character of cities. The third is essentially a theology of the city. From this central chapter, the authors move into contextualization, understanding your city and developing a ministry vision for the cities.

I don’t believe there can be too much debate about the opening chapters. Cities are incredibly important and we’re moving into the age of the mega-city. An ever-increasing percentage of the world now live in cities and that trend seems only likely to continue. Cities are where culture, power & money is to be found and are magnets to the aspirational, the marginalized and the explorational.

God cares about cities simply on the basis that vast numbers of people live in them. There 2.2 million people in the city I call home, 2 million of whom are likely lost. In my old town if you wanted a church for every 3000 people you’d need 26. In Stockholm you’d need 730 and in Karachi (a city of some 19 million) you’ll need 6300. Greater resources are needed for the greater need.

The final three chapters are excellent and have given much to think about and some new resources for casting a vision for the city and to continue to learn how to cast the aspirations and hopes of a city like Stockholm in the light of the Gospel.

Ironically though, it was the central chapter on the Bible and the city that I felt was the weakest chapter in the book. Not because I felt they had mistold the Gospel, not at all, or their view of the Bible but of their view of the city.

The only way I’ve been able to imagine it is like this: It is as if you’ve been to the best play in the world, the actors are incredible, the dialogue is out of this world, the direction is masterful, the atmosphere moving, powerful, inspirational and the story so beautiful, so compelling it changed your life. At the end of the play you leave and you hear people enthralled by the scenery. Now it’s not that the scenery wasn’t important and significant – it played a vital role but surely not a pivotal role.

This is how the central chapter seemed to me, an important part had become the central part, something that forms a backdrop had become a central actor in the play. I love cities, I’m in one and deeply desire it to be changed by the Gospel yet I was unconvinced by their case. They asked it to bear too much weight.

There are minor faults, the authors are apologists for cities and occasionally overplay their hand but notwithstanding those things, this is useful book to read and to give to those who feel the call to ministry in the city. May there be many of those.

Photo by jaumescar

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