Why Cities Matter by Stephen T. Um & Justin Buzzard
The buzz of motors, the screech of the subway and the look of sharp dressed men and women all bring together the sights and sounds of the city. People flock to the city for new careers, for a new start and for a new lease on life. Yet, the question of how God relates to the city, how the church should view cities is often on the periphery of the discussion of cities. Pastors Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard, both familiar with life in the big city, Boston and Silicon Valley, seek to reveal the importance and necessity of cities in their new book, Why Cities Matter. Furthermore, this book also provides an answer as to how the gospel relates to the city? In other words, “The question is, will gospel churches and Christians be present when the world arrives in the city?” (29).
The first chapter, The Importance of Cities deals with the ever burgeoning influence of cities upon the culture as a whole in our society. The authors draw out three centers that help define how cities are to be understood: centers of power, centers of culture and centers of worship. Cities as centers of power relates to the economic output of metropolitan regions, their alluring affect at drawing the best and brightest, and the powerful sense of safety they provide for people. The primary shapers of culture are generally located in the city. Therefore, for a city to be a center of culture it must provide the cultural artifacts of that it make it great (arts, entertainment, technology, etc.). In the suburbs you get a tiny slice of what is up front and center in the city, including the great sporting and musical events of a culture. Lastly, cities are centers of worship because every single person in the world worships something (32). Although there are many different competing narratives in the city, the glitz and glamour of the city wear off and lead in to loneliness, often despair. Therefore, the city is a center to find places to worship rightly when the wheels come off the car.
The Bible is replete with verses describing the importance of cities. The authors point out that, “…God shows his love not only for his own holy city, Jerusalem, but also for a notoriously pagan city, Nineveh” (65). The potential for over 120,000 to turn to the living God away from idols was there. Rather than turning a nose up at the city, God continually invites his people to root themselves in the city, including Babylon so that they might seek the peace and prosperity of the city (66). The authors go on to describe how Jesus ministered in urban and suburban areas but set his face toward Jerusalem in a race toward the cross (especially in Mark’s Gospel). Even the mission strategy of the early church was devoted toward the evangelization of the city as a means of expanding the church (74-75). The authors end their discussion about the bible and the city with a return to the gospel story. As Jesus rewrites history, he calls us to dwell with him in the city, that God may dwell with man (Revelation 21-22). The Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city, thereby signaling that “God is committed to providing a city in which he can dwell with his people” (84).
The chapters on Contextualization and The Storyline of the City provide some good points about understanding your city, knowing its history and challenging the idols which fuel the cities worship of false gods. Yet, in order to challenge the prevailing idols of a city, we must know the idols that fuel worship and contextualize the fragmented plotlines that ensue from these idols (113). Believing in Jesus Christ is not an additional piece of topping on an otherwise good pizza but a whole new pie. Often, engaging in discerning the idols of a city and its people takes a strong willingness to listen and hear the stories that are reverberating on every street corner. Yet, the tough work of contextualization and gospel proclamation is worthy every effort in getting your fingers dirty.
This book was gospel centered, biblical focused and provided a great deal of encouragement for those investing in the city. I think this book will be used by many as a launching pad to understanding their own cities, and how God relates to them. My only criticism of the book was that at times I think the authors could have done better at describing how challenging the idols of a city is done. Furthermore, for someone like me in a suburban setting, how do these principles of the city translate to smaller areas? Yet, I think this book is a good resource for anyone wanting to follow Christ in the city.
Thanks to Crossway Books for the copy of this book in exchange for review.