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Review of J. W. Rogerson and John Vincent, The City in Biblical Perspective

J. W. Rogerson and John Vincent.
The City in Biblical Perspective
Biblical Challenges in the Contemporary World. London: Equinox, 2009. 132pp. $26.95.

The City in Biblical Perspective explores what the Bible has to say about cities and how that presentation can inform the practice of Christians with respect to cities. The book is divided into two parts, covering the city in the Old and New Testaments, followed by a brief epilogue.

J. W. Rogerson, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, wrote part 1. Rogerson’s brief introduction notes that one cannot simply transfer modern conceptions of the city to Israelite cities in the Bible, and the city in the OT is an “ambiguous symbol” (4).

In chapter 1, Rogerson uses biblical and archaeological data to describe the physical and social aspects of the Israelite city. He shows that the Israelite city was a place of power, control, and class distinctions. Thus, the city provided a platform for the OT writers to critique the abuses that arose from these aspects of the city.

Rogerson shifts to the biblical perspectives on cities in chapter 2, showing that the OT does not present a unified view of the city. He uses the stories of Cain as the first city builder, the Tower of Babel, and Sodom and Gomorrah. He also draws on the Song of Songs, Psalms 12 and 55, and Lamentations. In all these texts the portrayal is generally negative or ambiguous. But with Micah 4:1-4 and Isaiah 2:2-4, he shows the city can represent future hope of peace and justice for all.

In chapter 3, Rogerson wants to show how we can make connections between cities in the OT and our own cities. The OT helps us both critique the failures and injustices of the city while offering images of hope, and, so, “issuing a call for creative thought and action” (43).

Rogerson is strongest when he shows how understanding the Israelite city illuminates the biblical text and when he draws out the ambiguous portrayal of the city. However, his presentation is clearly weighted toward the negatives of the city, and his sample of texts is so narrow that it is not clear that this is a fair representation. In addition, some of Rogerson’s choices of texts are questionable. For example, nothing in Psalm 12 indicates a city setting or problems unique to cities. He also makes leaps that are not warranted by the text and then draws conclusions from them; for example, that slave labor was used for the Tower of Babel. Finally, the brevity (two pages) of the “connections” section and its lack of concrete suggestions may leave those interested in this book for missional purposes disappointed.

John Vincent, a Methodist minister and founder of the Urban Theology Unit in Sheffield, wrote part 2. Vincent begins with an introduction (chapter 4) of the historical setting for the New Testament, and focuses on Greco-Roman cities as centers of power and control over the surrounding countryside. He also notes a shift in perspective that accompanies the transition from the OT to the NT. In the OT, those in power in Israelite cities were presumed to be God’s people and, hence, subject to him. But, in the NT, foreigners controlled Israel from the cities. The concept of the kingdom of God presented a challenge to those powers, but only to those with “the Gospel-informed eye” (51).

In chapter 5, Vincent discusses the city in the context of Jesus’ world, including cities within Galilee, Capernaum, and Jerusalem. He examines the various social classes, as well as the place of women and outsiders in ancient cities, and he highlights how the “Jesus movement” created an alternative community that subverted the traditional roles and expectations. Vincent also presents the unique perspective of each Gospel account on the city, and shows how each can provide resources for “making connections” to the city in our day.

Vincent shifts to the followers of Jesus and the mission to the cities in chapter 6. He discusses the social structures of the cities, the social makeup of the early church, and, again, how the Christian community subverts the traditional view of community.

In chapter 7, Vincent argues for an embrace of the alternative vision of community presented by Jesus and Paul in light of the challenges of today’s “global city.” He notes ways disciples today have sought to connect “God’s Project” of the NT to today’s society: embodiment (Jesus), subversion (Jesus), compliance (Paul in Rom 13:1-2), and replacement (Revelation). He finds the last two troublesome.

Vincent also wrote the epilogue, which offers guidance on “making connections” between the biblical text and our contemporary situation. He presents three movements in this process: (1) from our situation to the text; (2) movement within the text; (3) movement back to our situation. This process is designed to imaginatively draw us into “God’s Project”: what God is doing and how that calls us to respond, especially in light of Jesus as the embodiment of the kingdom of God.

Vincent’s discussion of the social world of the NT is helpful, and he rightly reminds us that the four Gospels offer different perspectives, and hence, different resources for engaging the contemporary city. He also helpfully highlights the alternative community created by Jesus and his followers. However, much of his discussion of the social realities of the period would not have been specific to the ancient cities. That is fine, and these general social issues can have relevance for addressing issues of the contemporary city. But in a book on the “biblical perspective” on the city, I would expect a more focused treatment. Also, in places, he needs a more careful, nuanced look at texts that he appears willing to dismiss as largely irrelevant to connecting to the modern city. This is particularly true of his treatments of Romans 13:1-2 and Revelation. Surely there are creative and imaginative ways to see these texts as working in concert with texts pointing to embodiment and subversion.

Phillip Camp

Associate Professor of Old Testament

Lipscomb University

Nashville, Tennessee, USA

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Review of Warren R. Copeland, Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland

Warren R. Copeland.
Doing Justice in Our Cities: Lessons in Public Policy from America’s Heartland
Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009. 138pp. $20.00.

There has been a recent spike in literature that aims to inform Christians and churches how to engage in ministries of justice. To that corpus Warren Copeland contributes an easy-to-read, compelling exposition of his triumphs and struggles to implement justice in the public square. Copeland is Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University (PhD in social ethics from the University of Chicago) but more importantly has served several terms as mayor of Springfield, Ohio. He writes with raw honesty about his Christian commitment and public service, and how he wrestled throughout his career as a public servant to maintain integrity between the two. Copeland sees the challenges that cities face as fundamental moral issues not to be ignored by Christians. Politics, for the author, is a way both to express faith and also to test it.

Copeland first narrates his journey as a local politician and then mayor of his city. In his retelling he delivers to the reader an education in urban sociology, planning, and politics; thus, he helps his audience understand the interdisciplinary agility a public official must exercise and the inherent difficulties in attempting to act for the good of all. As a social ethicist employed by the civitas, Copeland strove for a principled approach in his service, but he admits that rare was the occasion when a decision was clear cut. Indeed, his nuanced discussion of political realities and the disparate values involved is a significant reminder that justice-seeking in a pluralist society often requires careful discernment.

In a second section he offers a four-pronged ethical framework for understanding cities, again illustrating the complexity and different values inherent in the administration of justice in city life. Copeland names three principles that guided his civic service and decision making: respect for the integrity of all people, concern for the disadvantaged, and commitment to the common good. These three principles feed into the larger goal of increasing freedom and diversity in the city, two components Copeland regards as crucial for just cities.

In his third and final section, the author outlines a political agenda for creating equity in the city. He advocates for the “3 A’s”: access to good jobs, high quality amenities, and affordable housing. He follows this discussion by detailing “3 S’s” for preserving the diversity within cities: space, safety, and quality schools. Copeland is impressive in the ease and scope of laying out his reasons for his policy proposals and demonstrating measurable results from his experience in Springfield. Time and again his discussion interacts with urban and political theory, providing valuable insight from a policy perspective on issues that will be familiar to anyone working among the disadvantaged in urban America.

One walks away from this book appreciating both the possibilities and problems of working for justice as a Christian in the public sphere. In an age when many seem to have lost faith in the political process, Copeland provides imagination and inspiration for a way forward for people of faith. Furthermore, he is quite realistic about the limits of church or any volunteer organization to tackle effectively the large scale issues in urban America: “Voluntary organizations provide a human touch and often a spiritual dimension that may be missing from government programs. However, we are not about to meet the huge needs of our urban communities through volunteerism. The decimal point is simply in the wrong place” (124). For Copeland, love of neighbor means some level of commitment to those structures that direct public life. Insofar as the reader agrees with Copeland’s faith in the goodness of public life, he or she will find this book a candid but hopeful portrayal of justice seeking at the crossroads of urban politics, sociology, planning, and Christian activism. It is a welcome primer for any Christian considering political activism in an urban context.

Nathan Bills

Doctor of Theology Student

Duke Divinity School

Durham, North Carolina, USA

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Review of Viv Grigg, The Spirit of Christ and The Postmodern City

Viv Grigg.
The Spirit of Christ and The Postmodern City
Asbury Theological Seminary Series in World Christian Revitalization Movements 2. Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2009. 256 pp. $34.00.

As a theologian, church planter, and urban missionary, Viv Grigg explores the question, “What is the relationship of the Spirit of Christ to the transformation of a postmodern city?” (10). The resulting work is of more than theoretical value: it ultimately introduces us to new and challenging conversations that will activate “transformational revival” in individuals and ultimately in groups great and small, public and private.

The book is divided into three parts: Framing the Conversation; Goals of Postmodern City Transformation; and Processes of Citywide Transforming Revival. The overall organization of the book is good. Each chapter builds easily upon the one prior and gives a sense of closure while also inviting the reader to further reflection.

The first section develops a theological framework for the study and introduces the “transformational conversation hermeneutic.” Several questions are posed, including:

  • Is God a rationalist philosopher or creative storyteller?
  • Is God or was God? . . .
  • Is God incarnate or cosmic? Immanent or transcendent? Local or global?
  • Is God or does God? . . . (21)

Books could be filled with analysis and dissection of these questions (and many have been), but this book does not indulge the intrigued. The author’s hermeneutics regarding the nature of God, per these guiding questions, set the course for this study, though mostly as guides, not as the destination. This section closes by providing additional framework, which is spent defining terminology and outlining the cultural and structural setting of the study’s case city—Auckland, New Zealand.

The middle section outlines the results that one can expect of a postmodern city touched with transformational revival. A second, “ideal,” city is introduced in this section. If transformational revival is the goal, then the socio-economic structure of a city that drinks of the river of life flowing through it will resemble another city of Scripture—the City of God. With “universal affirmation of the metanarratives portrayed” (62) in Genesis 1-11 the author explores several characteristics that any city transformed by the Spirit will possess. Drawing upon the nature of God, any city of God will then reflect these divine qualities: urban development marked by linear process and new growth; creativity produced by innovation and design; media and learning as cities liberated with communication; good[ness] as cities filled with value and aesthetics; community reflecting both authority and equality; structure as cities founded with purpose and justice. Posing the question of “transformation into what?” it is with these preceding characteristics that conversational engagement can take place within the postmodern city.

The third and final section of the book deals with the process through which transformational revival can be realized. Grigg first explores characteristics of past revivals in Auckland and then extrapolates them for the postmodern city. He gives nineteen transforming revival principles, beginning with the precondition of transforming revival, all the way to cultural revitalization. In between lies a progressive course of transforming revival that must move from individual to small group, from small group to wider structure, and from wider structure to whole culture. This final section is the heart of the study, as Grigg provides not just action steps but actual illustrations of these transformational revival principles in practice.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about this work is how the author donates a fresh perspective of missional thought and praxis to the growing number of homogeneous contributions on the subject. As our cities, cultures, and languages evolve, it is essential that our conversation does as well. While the church has a unique responsibility in the process of urban revival and transformation, I find it rejuvenating that the author emphasizes a highly pro-outward response. Incarnate and missional principles apply at every level of transformative revival; the church is to bring the conversation to the source of stagnated life. This book not only presumes an incarnational (“living theology”) approach to missions, it leaves little room for an alternative way forward in a postmodern society.

As a mission leader in Auckland, I feel particularly kindred to the direction and scope of this book. Where I cannot speak with certainty that the principles in this book will translate fully in every postmodern city, I do sense they are well measured and finely tuned to Auckland.

Though relevant, this scholarly book could be shorter, as some of the points could have been made just as effectively with more conciseness. I did not find the graphs and figures very helpful, nor the author’s numerous (54) injections of cameos into the body of text. Regarding the former, I felt they aided my understanding of the subject matter very little, and a few of the figures did not seem to correspond to the outline of text very precisely. Concerning the latter, they were disruptive to the flow.

I wanted to dance after finally finishing the book (and I did brag of this accomplishment to my colleagues), but over time I found myself more challenged and introspective, and perhaps a little fatigued. Even still, this book is a worthy addition to the conversation about world missions in postmodern cities, and though it may represent just a sliver of the pie, it has whetted my appetite and has me craving more of this beautiful and challenging dialogue.

Elijah Peters


Auckland, New Zealand

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Review of Stanley H. Skreslet, Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology

Stanley H. Skreslet.
Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and Prospects of Missiology
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012. 240 pp. $30.00.

The American Society of Missiology has just completed the second year of a three-year evaluation of the future of missiology as a discipline. The publication of Stanley Skreslet’s Comprehending Mission could not come at a more opportune time. His book is published as part of the prestigious American Society of Missiology Series.

Skreslet, Dean of the Faculty of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, was asked in 2001 by editor Jonathan Bonk to survey a decade’s worth of dissertation research in English for the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. The result is this volume, which one reviewer predicted would be “the standard introduction to the field of missiology for the next decade, and every student ought to begin right here” (back cover).

Chapter one poses the question, “Who studies Christian mission, and why?” Missiology is defined by the author as “the systematic study of all aspects of mission” (12), and he notes that those who study mission include those who do mission (practitioners) and the university academics. He posits the following constants that distinguish missiological study from other academic activities: (1) the processes of religious change; (2) the reality of the faith; and (3) an integrative, multidisciplinary approach (13–14).

The bulk of the book is a survey of the literature through history in which the author notes various trends and directions. Skreslet identifies six themes and devotes a chapter to each: Bible and Mission; History of Mission; Theology, Mission, and Culture; Christian Mission in a World of Religions; The Means of Mission; and Missionary Vocation.

Through the past century, mission theology stopped at numerous way stations: missio Dei, shalom, liberation, reconciliation, and universalism. Mission in the postmodern era needs to be multidimensional and has to embrace “witness, service, justice, healing, reconciliation, liberation, peace, evangelism, fellowship, church planting, contextualization, and much more” (36, quoting David Bosch).

The History of Mission chapter is not intended to provide a summary of mission history, but a discussion of the subject from the point of view of historiography—“how history has been and could be studied or portrayed” (43). The section on Critical Ethnography is illuminating. These mission historians use “the techniques of microhistory, interpretative anthropology, historical anthropology, and sociology of religion. Ideas and influences from semiotics, feminist studies, and postcolonial literary criticism permeate these approaches to mission history” (59). Past mission history has to be deconstructed and then rewritten since much of mission history was written from the point of view of the male missionary, as if the local believers—and his wife—made little contribution.

The use of the social sciences in mission history is the subject of chapter four. Some of the headings include linguistics, cultural analysis, and religious and cultural change. How the social sciences are used in mission studies is informing and being informed by theology: “missiology poses to theology an implicit cross-cultural challenge that is getting harder and harder to ignore” (95).

One of the key themes in missiology over the past thirty years has been the reality of pluralism. How does Christianity interface with other religions? Is dialogue a valid approach? Does it lead to syncretism? Is prophetic dialogue possible? Some have suggested that the interreligious issues bearing on mission indicate that the theology of religions has become the “essential integrating principle” or “hub” of missiology (123).

If the “why” of missions must be discerned, then the “how” of missions is also deserving of study. Skreslet treats The Means of Mission under the headings of Tactics and Strategies, Methods and Modes of Mission, Organizational Structures for Mission, and Financing Mission Endeavors. He concludes that “today, it appears that the means of mission is no longer the dominating subject that it once was within missiology” (166).

Regarding the missionary vocation, the author highlights several themes: (1) professional missionaries and the work they do; (2) missionary spirituality and the call to mission; and (3) probing how the missionary has been, and is, depicted. Within this third approach the missionary is seen in history writing, in biography, in fiction, and in film.

Skreslet brings his research together in his final pages, entitled “Missiology Reconfigured.” We are reminded that it was his intention “to present a representative sample of such research, in order to indicate the broad scholarly landscape [he believes] the field of missiology now encompasses” (195). He claims that missiology does not have a central concern comparable to that of theology of mission. His final conclusion is that the field is distinctive in its foci of “study on religious change, respect for the vocation of mission, and a desire to integrate knowledge about mission gathered from many sources and viewpoints” (197).

Comprehending Mission is much more than a survey or review of the literature. Yes, many authors and their contributions are noted (itself worth the price of the book). But where Skreslet shines is in the way he elicits themes before providing the outlines for the vast body of material he has studied. Any serious student of mission should have this book.

Doug Priest

Executive Director

CMF International

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Review of Susan S. Baker, ed., Globalization and its Effects on Urban Ministry in the 21st Century

Susan S. Baker, ed.
Globalization and Its Effects on Urban Ministry in the 21st Century
Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2009. 358 pp. $15.99.

Globalization and its Effects on Urban Ministry in the 21st Century is a festschrift honoring the life and contributions of academician and urban ministry practitioner Dr. Manuel (Manny) Ortiz. In tribute to his areas of passion, and in hopes of addressing “issues that are at the forefront of mission dialogue in the 21st century” (1), the book examines four overarching themes: globalization, reconciliation, church planting, and leadership development. Many scholars and practitioners from around the world (including Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe, and North America) are included in this work, making it a truly global contribution.

In the first section, the challenges and benefits of globalization are examined, with specific attention being given to economics, technology, politics, and culture. Susan Baker (ch. 1) argues that the continuing shift of Christianity to the south, in combination with globalization, requires new kinds of partnerships to be formed. Because globalization results in increased “interconnectedness,” “compression,” and “deterritorialization” (21), the global church must join together in order to reach the world for Christ (58). This is particularly evidenced by the chapters from I. W. (Naas) Ferreira (ch. 3) and Michael Eastman (ch. 4). Where Ferreira excellently assesses the difficulties globalization has introduced to the African continent, Eastman shows the renewing benefits globalization has brought to the church in London.

Because globalization brings peoples into closer contact and produces a number of economic, social, and political inequalities, a significant topic to address in relation to globalization is reconciliation. Mark Gornick (ch. 7) argues that “justice, mercy, and reconciliation” are “at the heart of ministry in a global world” and thus, “If you want peace, work for justice” (146). Though the section opens with a reprint of Ortiz’s 1995 lecture, “Commitment to Reconciliation,” an article that seems a bit dated, it concludes with more contemporary (and helpful) evaluations of reconciliation efforts among Chinese Americans and Protestant Christianity, ethnic factions in Northern Ireland, and those in the Balkans (particularly Serbia).

The final two sections provide the most practical and helpful information in this book. Kyuboem Lee says church planting is “the strategy of choice” (193) to reach the increased numbers in the city, as well as the increased number of cultural groups that are found in cities. The church should be a place of personal and cultural renewal for immigrants coming to urban centers (191) and church planting provides a means by which new people can be brought into contextual churches, bringing renewal to the universal church, while also seeing organic growth among specific people groups. Among the areas of church planting examined are the power dynamics of cross-cultural church planting teams, the importance of house church movements in the city (as demonstrated through examples from South America), and new forms of church planting that include “hybrid” strategies which draw multiple churches from a variety of theological backgrounds together in collaborative partnerships for the sake of the ethnic communities they wish to reach.

Rounding out the book is a concluding section on leadership development. This section opens with an evaluation of current “emergent” leadership patterns. Timothy Witmer (ch. 14) praises emergent leadership styles for bringing renewed emphasis on servant and team leadership, but he cautions us as well. Emergents often seek to “flatten and remove structure” (i.e., hierarchy), and the result of this might “compromise the biblical principles of authoritative leadership and office” (265). In chapter 15, Jonathan Iorkighir reframes the way contemporary African theological education should be formed so that it remains biblically-based, while also being “theologically valid and contextualized to the realities of Africa” (277). The final chapter of the book highlights the key components of mentoring. To win our cities, Pedro Aviles argues, leaders “must fully adopt . . . the missional mandate to raise young indigenous leaders for local churches and for the city” (304). His chapter offers a mini-manual for developing these indigenous leaders, beginning with a summary of the biblical and theological basis for mentoring as a means of leadership development and ending with practical steps for raising and releasing indigenous leaders.

Among the strengths of this book are its global authorship and its assessment of each specific theme (each of which could be its own book). Many of the chapters provide rich case studies of the topics at hand, and the global scope of these chapters enrich the reader’s understanding in both profound and practical ways.

My biggest critique of this book is its lack of cohesion. While the chapters provide keen insights and helpful data, very few of the chapters address urban ministry specifically. Most are bifurcated, focusing solely on globalization or solely on urbanization; few combine the two. The inclusion of a reprinted article from Harvey Conn (1990) on contextual theologies seems out of place, and nowhere did I find the thesis of the book adequately addressed. After reading the book, I am still wondering what effects globalization specifically has on urban ministry. In light of this, I am not convinced that this book can be used as “a stand-alone textbook” (1) on the effects globalization has on urban ministry. (Perhaps a change in title might help resolve some of the confusion I feel.) That said, this book does provide helpful information and contemporary case studies on issues relevant to ministry in today’s world; thus, as a festschrift for Ortiz, I believe this books succeeds in honoring Ortiz’s legacy and expanding our understanding on topics close to his heart.

Rochelle Cathcart

Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies

Lincoln Christian University

Lincoln, Illinois, USA

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Review of David W. Smith, Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World

David W. Smith.
Seeking a City With Foundations: Theology for an Urban World
Nottingham, England: IVP, 2011. $37.50.

David Smith challenges preconceptions about city dwelling versus country living in this excellent work. He traces the history of urbanization from ancient Babylonia to cities of the Industrial Revolution. In a broad sweep the author describes such varied cities as Babylon, Jerusalem, Rome, Glasgow, Dubai, and more recent rapid growth of vast conurbations in Africa. This section of the book contains interesting information on the process of urbanization and its acceleration in the past hundred years. The subtitle of the book points to the development of a theology for an urban world. This historical information is introductory in nature. It merely prepares us to consider the theological thesis yet to be revealed in the denouement of a more radical theological statement.

Smith organises his material into two main sections. The first deals with the urban world. Here he traces the birth and growth of cities and discusses the various visions behind the formation of urban communities. He asks us to consider the fundamental questions which lie at the heart of these communities. Many cities were founded on sacred philosophies and sacred sites formed the urban landscape. Smith points out that sacred sites and sacred philosophies were important in the formation and ultimately in the social cohesion of these communities.

The second section of the book deals with biblical and theological perspectives. Smith challenges us to see through the emptiness of a godless philosophy of life and its inability to sustain a community of men made in the image of God.

What is the ideology which is at the heart of the city? Smith points out:

The tragic experience of Hosea demonstrates in the most deeply moving way what happens to life in the city when a community loses contact with the ultimate source of love, turns sex into a false sacred, and abandons moral and ethical norms beyond a concern for self-interest and self-fulfilment. (155)

Surely the book considers the underlying vision which is the foundation stone on which the city is built.

We may conclude then that cities reflect the true greatness of human beings, but they also display the disastrous consequences of human greed, selfishness, and propensity to violence. Which is why, according to the Jonah story, God looks upon the most corrupt of urban societies and asks his worshippers; “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jon 4:11) (170)

Those who were raised in a major city often are tempted to think of the city as a place of anonymity and violence. The world is in the midst of an unprecedented level of urbanization, with higher and higher percentages of the world’s population congregating in cities, sometimes compelled to live in ghettos of desperate poverty and deprivation. Yet we see that the Bible tells the story of a journey from a garden to a great city, New Jerusalem.

In the Old Testament Jerusalem and Babylon contrast sharply. One is the city of God and the other is the embodiment of all that stands against God. Babylon is characterized by an ideology steeped in idolatry and opposed to all that the covenants of God stand for. Jerusalem is God’s covenant city. Ideologically, life in Jerusalem is based on the covenant.

Some of Smith’s observations are based on the city of Glasgow, Scotland where he currently lives and works. It happens to be my native city. I also have spent forty years in ministry in three of Scotland’s most populous cities. Hence it was intriguing to read the analysis in this book which identifies the city’s vital central ideology as the heart of the matter. What is the ideological soul of the city? What is it that identifies the fundamental nature of the city? And once we have understood that, what does that mean for the sense of identity of the citizen?

Is a city just a collection of people who are bound together by the motive of exploiting one another economically? In so many instances cities revolve around the principle of exploitation, leading to huge differences in economic standing and resources. The rich and the poor exist in close proximity to one another, separated by distrust and resentment. The ideological basis of many urban centers consists of “the pursuit of wealth at the expense of others, without regard for the destructive impact of that quest on other creatures. . .” (224).

Smith suggests that a greater hope might be found in the worship of the God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and made possible in Christ a new citizenship in the New Jerusalem of God.

Jerusalem of old abandoned the covenant of God and as a result became a pagan city full of idolatry and every form of corruption. And thus from the outset of the new covenant of God, New Jerusalem came into being on that momentous Pentecost feast. New life became possible for the first time in Christ Jesus, through the preaching of the gospel. There was something foundational about this new life, and the new community that resulted from it. There was a real sense of community. They met together, ate together, broke bread together. They shared resources as any had need. This was real community. This community constitutes the city of God, New Jerusalem.

There is a sense of identity which derives from belonging to the city which has foundations. It is arrived at through transformational faith. This reviewer is stimulated to conclude that once this fundamental philosophy is understood it allows us to move towards a mission philosophy for the urban environments of the twenty-first century. What people are searching for today is an authentic Christian experience, realness in the place of counterfeit community. For community based on the idolatry of consumerism, the worship of sex, the devotion to mammon, is empty. It is a void and cannot answer any of man’s deepest needs.

Smith quotes Tim Keller: “Believers are called to be an alternate city within every earthly city, an alternate human culture within every human culture to show how money, sex and power can be used in non-destructive ways” (234). The challenging thesis of this book is for the church to be the authentic New Jerusalem of God, the city of God. If as the author explains we are living in an increasingly urbanized world, and we are to be effective in sharing the gospel in these urban contexts, then it will be by the church being the authentic city which has foundations.

When I first became a Christian in the city of Glasgow, I was led to faith by members of the Castlemilk church of Christ. I found myself in a community of faith. The girl who was to become my wife some years later lost her mother to cancer when she was twelve years of age. What I saw was a community of love and support: women helping to look after three motherless girls, spending the night with them whilst their father worked nightshift as a fire-fighter. To me this was authentic community. This was the city whose builder and maker is God.

Smith does an excellent and intriguing job of painting the story of the city from the dawn of time to the present day. There is an interesting discussion on the shape of cities, the important role of sacred sites within the city, and how in this age of secularism the nature of the significant buildings in our cities has changed. However, the most significant contribution that this book makes to those of us who are concerned with the business of mission is to remind us of the significance of realness in the community, as an evidence of the realness of conversion. Further, this realness must of necessity contribute to the new identity of the people of God. It is unfair to try to summarize his 240 pages in one sentence but to me this is the heart of this book: realness of conversion leads to realness of community. If we are to be successful in the mission to reach out to the lost in an increasingly urban world, it must be by demonstrating the real city which has foundations.

Alastair Ferrie


Dundee, Scotland

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Review of Sean Benesh, View from the Urban Loft: Developing a Theological Framework for Understanding the City

Sean Benesh.
View from the Urban Loft: Developing a Theological Framework for Understanding the City
Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2011. 190pp. $20.49.

In the heart of a world city, surrounded by multiple nationalities and the hiss of an espresso machine, Sean Benesh shares his theological reflections on urbanization and the church. He writes from Burnaby, Canada, a landing point for many first-generation immigrants in the greater Vancouver area. His book, View from the Urban Loft, is a mix of personal storytelling, biblical and historical examination, urban studies, and theological consideration on all of the above. The book is an introduction to concepts that might form a theology for the city. His goal is that the church would begin to embrace the city, understand the city, and eventually take part in transforming the city.

A theme that runs through the entire book is that the church often falls victim to several false lenses when it looks at the city. First is the dichotomy between spiritual and physical ministry that puts the focus on soul winning and church planting to the neglect of urban planning, development, and concern for the poor. Benesh advocates for a broader soteriology that includes the redemption of place. He asks us to consider, What makes a city great? If it is simply the number of churches and Christians, would not cities like Dallas and Atlanta (his examples) be the greatest cities in the US? No, the greatness of a city goes beyond the number of Christian residents or even church plants.

A second lens Benesh critiques is the view that rural wilderness areas are spiritually good, whereas man-made cities are spiritually evil. He argues that Western Christianity developed a negative view of cities after the Industrial Revolution that remains embedded in our subconscious. However, cities are actually a gift of common grace from God, and God has set humankind on an urban trajectory to experience this grace. This may be one of the more controversial statements of the book.

Benesh approaches Scripture as the source for this theological perspective. He argues that Genesis 1:28 implies urbanization and that the promise of the heavenly city in Revelation shows God’s favor towards an urban movement. In the Old Testament, the Israelites certainly embraced a worldview involving a holy place and a holy city. Yet there is a significant shift in the New Testament as the physical temple is replaced by the spiritual reality of the church. Place, however, remains important as an aspect of God’s mission. The church is sent into the world as part of the missio Dei. Benesh says that any theology for the city must be rooted in missiology. He also explores incarnational theology, drawing insights from Irenaeus’s theory of recapitulation. Eschatology plays an important role as well. Is the earth going to be destroyed or renewed in the end? Benesh believes that the earth (i.e., “place”) is redeemable. Many readers will agree that a call for a more positive and hopeful view of the city is certainly necessary. But Benesh’s shotgun approach to Scripture and theology leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

The best chapter of the book steps away from worldview questions and turns to Nehemiah for a “template for community development and urban renewal” (84). Benesh draws ten principles of community transformation that are quite helpful and sometimes surprising. A few highlights include: funding will often come from outside the church (Neh 2:7-9); Christians should take responsibility for the sins of the city (Neh 1:6-7); and agents of transformation should expect push back from others in the church (Neh 3:5).

Scattered throughout the book are helpful snippets that urge church planters toward theological reflection as to where and how they will plant. He criticizes a trend he sees of church planters moving to the hip areas of the city, always claiming they have been “called” to those neighborhoods. Planters should examine their motives when choosing a location to see if they are in line with the values of the kingdom of God. He fears that if church planters continue making decisions based on their preferences and commonalities with their target group, then many neighborhoods will continue to be unreached.

One of Benesh’s unique contributions may be his inclusion of urban studies. The church needs an up-to-date understanding of the city if it is to develop a theology of cities. Several chapters in the book are dedicated to understanding what a city really is. The problem, which Benesh admits, is that no definition really suffices. He issues this challenge to churches: urbanization is not going to stop and we can no longer run away from the fact that cities are our mission field.

The book ends with several chapters reflecting on a theology of the built environment of a city. The built environment “refers to the human-made surroundings that provide the setting for human activity” (141). One can see underlying values at work in a city’s built environment. “Fences,” for example, can communicate warmth and charm in a rural area. But in high density urban zones they more often communicate a socio-economic distinction between the “have’s” and “have not’s.” Benesh encourages Christians to be at work in urban planning and development. An urban planner may have a more potent impact for God’s kingdom than a church in some communities. Church planters may want to consider an idea like Benesh’s “pedestrian-oriented church planting” (162 ff.) as they reflect on a theology of the built environment.

View from the Urban Loft introduces a significant topic for our time—a theology of place related to the city. Unfortunately, the book only skims the surface of its various points. I fear that those with a negative view of the city will not be swayed. As a church planter in Vancouver, BC, I can relate to Benesh’s setting, but the book leaves me wanting more. His argument that the city should be viewed as a good gift from God is weak and overstated. He touches on incarnational theology, which has much to offer in constructing a theology of place, but he leaves it underdeveloped. While there are some helpful insights in the book, I think most readers will want to keep looking for something with a bit more meat.

Paul McMullen

Church Planter

Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

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Review of Mark R. Gornik, Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City

Mark R. Gornik.
Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. 368pp. $30.00.

Diaspora missiology represents a discipline of increasing significance in a world where populations are constantly shifting. The need for creative strategies, dynamic theological reflection, and ethnographic research is not only apparent but imperative if we are to engage our world as it is today.

In Word Made Global, Mark Gornik effectively responds to that need. He offers a rich ethnography that brings together a dynamic convergence of globalization, urban ministry, and immigrant studies. He approaches the city as an anthropologist, displaying a portrait of churches representing New York City’s most recent African diaspora. Gornik conducted a number of interviews while visiting these churches, and nearly every chapter offers a “thick description” of church activity reflecting his experiences as a participant observer. He includes photographs connecting the reader visually with the churches he studied. For the average ministry leader or seminary student who has limited contact with New York’s immigrant communities, the added visual illustrations provides additional texture.

Throughout the study, Gornik follows three African congregations in New York City. By studying a mainline congregation, Presbyterian Church of Ghana in Harlem, a congregation from the Pentecostal tradition, Redeemed Christian Church of God in Brooklyn, and a congregation from the newly emerging African Independent Churches, Church of the Lord (Aladura), he provides a sweeping profile of African Christianity on the North American landscape. However, by focusing on only these three, he also is able to provide for the reader an in-depth description of their faith practices.

In his introductory chapter, Gornik points out the significance of the global city and its dynamic relationship to African Christianity as a transnational movement of faith. Since there has been such little work done in the way of studying African Christianity in North America, his work makes a marked contribution to both missiological and anthropological studies. In addition, his emphasis on the global city as a signpost for both present and future movement of the church cannot be overemphasized. The movement of African Christianity is important to understand not only for the student of New York City or of globalization; African churches are being established in Providence, Atlanta, Houston, Washington DC, and beyond. Gornik correctly points out that New York City is the global hub, but African Christianity is getting a foothold all over North America.

Gornik organizes his reporting into three sections. In the first section, “Formations,” he discusses the pastoral leadership and the liturgy of these three African churches. Reading the chapter profiling their pastoral leadership, I was not surprised to find that the pastor of each of these churches carries a significant authoritative position, but I was also encouraged to read how ministry is distributed amongst the members in these churches. Because leaders are so busy with the demands of urban life and ministry, delegation is imperative and results in an active congregation. Gornik’s description of the pastor as a cultural broker or mediator is compelling. In a diaspora community, leadership moves beyond simple clerical duties to address all aspects of life including immigration concerns.

In the second section, “Engagements,” Gornik describes the prayer life, the Bible reading, and the witness of these three congregations. It was these chapters that I found most encouraging and challenging. In my experiences interacting with African friends in New York City, I am constantly struck by their understanding of prayer as our complete dependence on God in every aspect of life. I was reminded of this reality again in Gornik’s description. If there is a gift that African Christianity has for the American church (and I think there are many), it is teaching us once again to pray. In addition, their all-of-life understanding of faith and dependence on God through prayer may pose a helpful challenge for Western believers.

As a missiologist, I also approached the chapter on witness with a great deal of personal interest. From my own observations on the street, I wonder how effective these diaspora congregations are at connecting with the more indigenous North American culture; but while reading this chapter, I realized that I was applying the metric of my own American worldview. These African churches, Gornik points out, do not measure their success by how many non-Africans are in their assemblies. Rather they see their witness as an all-of-life experience and their workplace as their primary mission field. The emphasis is on their own act of witness rather than upon increased church attendance. While I wonder how their methodologies may adapt to the Western landscape, they are currently acting as bold witnesses. What I found conspicuously absent was any mention of their engagement or desire to engage with unreached people groups in New York City. These churches apparently have a desire and a bold vision to evangelize the United States—which should be applauded. However, there was little mention of interaction with other immigrant communities and especially any mention of engagement with unreached peoples, especially those arriving from other West African nations. I’m left wondering if such missional engagement is outside of the vision of these churches or was simply left out by the ethnographer.

In the final section, “Directions,” Gornik discusses the dynamics of relocating sacred space and the spiritual nurture of the second generation. African congregations stemming from movements within African Christianity recreate events they once held dear in their African homeland. These seem to be more an extension of the original events with ambassadors of their denomination in attendance rather than an imitation. I was surprised and encouraged by the chapter on the second generation in African churches. In my observations, immigrant churches often struggle with how to care for the spiritual formation of their youth who are caught between their parents’ home culture and their new host culture. Indeed, this theme is reoccurring in diaspora missiology. While the youth groups in Word Made Global represent small samples, their Christian identity is being forged despite enormous obstacles. I believe further research on the second generation in African churches would be a significant missiological contribution.

Overall, I found Word Made Global to be a great contribution both to missionary anthropology and to the body of Christ in general. The flow of Christianity in the global city offers a glimpse into the present and the future, and connecting this flow to African Christianity draws on a rich global history.

Jared Looney

Global City Mission Initiative

Bronx, New York, USA

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The Process of the Gospel

It is an inestimable privilege for me to “do God’s work” and to be a “fellow worker” with God (1 Cor 3:9).1 This high calling makes me very nervous, however, because I take doing God’s work very seriously, and I have always carried within me a deep fear of being counterproductive. Over the years, I have come to see that this fear has been beneficial, because it has motivated me to seek God more and has allowed me to become involved in very fruitful, multiply productive ministry.

One way of being hugely counterproductive is to do ministry in a programmatic manner. I am very convinced that ministry must not be carried out programmatically but rather through genuine relationships. The process of the gospel is not a program but a relational tool for doing God’s work. It creates a relational foundation for very effective ministry that will be multiply productive rather than counterproductive.

Earlier this summer, we took students from our Doctor of Ministry class on a tour of ministries in Greater Boston.2 We picked ministries that we felt demonstrated integrity, long-term practice, fruitfulness, and cooperative participation across the body of Christ. On our visits, I heard each ministry leader cite relationships as the most critical factor in their overall success.

Indeed, working through relationships is one of the primary ways God goes about his work. The Bible tells about one relationship after another that God established with individuals, families, cities, and nations.

God’s work of redemption requires that his message be planted among us, understood by us, and that it grow and bear fruit. This all comes through relationship. We know this is true, but I want to understand how God does it. What actions does he use to create relationships with his fallen children? How does he introduce, communicate, and affirm his message? And then, how does he go about planting his message in our hearts and nurturing that message to maturity? I believe that if we can get a handle on how God does his work, maybe we can learn to do our work in the same way. And if we learn to do things the way he does, I believe there is a stronger likelihood that our work as ministers of the gospel will bear the fruit God desires to see.

Consider what Jesus did during his ministry on earth and how he communicated the Father’s message to us. In other words, what is the process he used to bring us the gospel?

I identify six stages of the process of the gospel:

  1. Observation
  2. Positive Appreciation
  3. Relevant Communication
  4. Meeting Perceived Needs
  5. Meeting Basic Needs
  6. Multiplication

Here is what God did: God observed his fallen creation. Our sin condemned us to death. We were eternally lost without him. Because he knows us and loves us (positive appreciation), he sent his Son who communicated relevantly through his life, his parables, and his teaching. When Jesus walked among us, he identified and met our perceived needs with miracles, as he meets our needs today, and then he met our basic, core need through the atoning work of his death and resurrection. Finally, he prepared his disciples for his leaving, laying the groundwork for the multiplication of his kingdom through his church, made possible through the coming of the Holy Spirit.

These stages describe a pattern that God has designed to allow the power of redemption, working in and through living systems, to grow his kingdom. By definition, a living system is an orderly, highly complex, and highly interrelated arrangement of living components that work together to accomplish a high-level goal when in proper relationship to each other.3 When people come together, living systems like families, churches, cities, and nations are formed.

Because the process of the gospel helps us to align with and engage God’s living systems, it can be used not only for ministry with individuals, but with larger social systems, such as a local church or an entire city. This cycle can be repeated many times in ever-widening realms of influence, from an individual person to a neighborhood or a local community of faithful people, to the community of faith in an entire city, to many cities working together. It works in one-on-one relationships, in ministry development, in cross-cultural missions, in church planting, and in community organizing. With it, one can reach the poor and the rich. It can work in both sacred and secular settings. It can and has transformed entire cities and has allowed Christianity to grow throughout the world.

I call this six-stage pattern an archetype because these elements work together as a unit, an entire process that follows an enduring, stable pattern or model that transcends time and space across all human history.

For almost five decades through our work in Boston with the Emmanuel Gospel Center,4 we have found countless opportunities to use this approach, and it has helped us to avoid counterproductivity while consistently producing long-lasting fruit for the kingdom of God. The fruit we have seen God bring during this time is not insignificant. We have been privileged to experience an incredible revival in Boston that we call the Quiet Revival. In four decades, the number of churches in Boston has nearly doubled, from approximately 300 in 1970 to 575 in 2010. Also, the estimated percentage of the city’s population in churches has increased from about 3% to about 14% and has demonstrated many of the characteristics of healthy growth, including increased unity and prayer, trained leadership, and effective ministry that produces significant social change.5

It is an exciting place to be at work in God’s kingdom, and it is from this context of vibrant and sustained growth of Christianity that I write today. Let me first share with you how I stumbled across this pattern.


The process of the gospel evolved out of suggestions originally intended for short-term student participants in urban ministry. To guide the students in properly relating to people in the community, I reflected on what had worked well for Judy and me in the past. Several basic characteristics of our relationships with our neighbors surfaced over and over again and I wrote a short teaching paper to help my students navigate relationships with our urban neighbors. It eventually became evident that the relational approach we suggested to these students was the pattern Jesus had followed in his ministry. Therefore, in using it, we would be doing what Jesus did. The “process of the gospel” was born as I realized that what I had originally penned as “steps to short-term involvement” was really something deeper.

Definitions and Warnings

Because living systems are at issue, readers must resist the temptation to take the easy way out, to try to make the process of the gospel into a program, rather than allow it to become an integral part of who they are. Those who make it into a program will be missing the point entirely, and missing the opportunity for fruitfulness, which is the goal.

Defining “Process”

A simple definition of process would be “a series of actions directed to some end.” Although that captures the heart of it, I see it as so much more. It is important to make the distinction between process and procedure as we are not talking about a new procedure for ministry, but an age-old process.

I view procedures as isolated steps we need to do in order to complete a task in a systematic, orderly way. Process is different. The goal of process is not merely to complete some isolated task but to see transformation or change in something, to move toward a desired outcome that is much bigger than ourselves and is beyond our control. While procedures are people-driven, processes are driven by the larger living systems we engage. For example, to grow tomatoes, we work within the rules and powerful forces that already exist in the environment, including the weather, the presence or absence of pests or diseases, the need for nutrients in the soil, and so on. We might follow certain procedures for growing tomatoes, but the actual process is very complex, and the result of all we do is really up to God.6

The same holds true for the process of the gospel. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (1 Cor 3:6). So it is never about how well we follow the steps and do the task. Rather, it is about how well we work with the complex and interrelated processes God has already put in place. He is the Author of all life and the Lord of all living systems. In the end, he will get all the glory for all he has done.


I love the city. I love to be in an inner-city neighborhood with all the people sitting on their stoops, the children in the playground, the youth playing baseball, the neighborhoods that seem filled with baby carriages, poor people, or elderly folk. My city has a pulse, and I feel it beating.

The highest levels of observation are required to perceive social systems, large or small, as living realities. When we are able to do this, we do not simply see streets and buildings, but a complex social organism called Boston, Philadelphia, or New York, for example.

The Old Testament prophets addressed entire cities and countries as though they had the characteristics of a living person. New Testament writers wrote to cities as though each city, represented by its one church, were persons who could receive a letter.7 They understood the “body of Christ” and the “kingdom of God” as living systems.

God himself models this skill of observation for us. Moses wrote, “God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Exod 2:25). God’s compassionate observation of the children of Israel in slavery under Pharaoh moved him to action. His observation is very thorough. Is there anything about us he does not see? The writer of Hebrews says no. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb 4:13). He knows every intimate detail about us. “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matt 10:30). He knows what we are thinking now and what we are going to think later. “Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely” (Ps 139:4).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a full thirty years went by before he began his ministry. What was he doing for thirty years? We know little about those days, but we can be sure he was observing and learning about the people who lived in Nazareth and the surrounding region. Most of Jesus’ earthly life was lived in the critical observation stage, through which his Father was preparing him for the day when he would begin to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Observation is a humble skill. Anyone can do it. No college degrees are needed. But it challenges the greatest intellect to assimilate and make sense of what one sees. We study the situation. We try to see real people in the way they really operate. We pray, “Lord, give us eyes to see!” And here, of course, we are not merely asking for physical eyes but for deep insights, revelations, intuitive understanding, and subconscious vision.

Since the mid-1970s, the Emmanuel Gospel Center has had a full-time researcher on staff. Over these many years, Rudy Mitchell has gathered information on Boston’s neighborhoods and churches to help us see and understand what God is doing in our city. Not only has our research informed our own ministry decisions, but we share what we learn with others to help them make wise decisions about their ministry objectives. Today, a lot of our research incorporates team learning. By engaging others in the learning process, we work with the community to deepen everyone’s understanding of the issues, obtain new information, clearly articulate the issues, and assist those affected to develop and implement an appropriate response.8 The conversations that emerge from this observation and research process lead everyone involved to deeper understandings and positive appreciation of the people and issues involved. This paves the way for practical responses that make sense both to those seeking to serve and those being served.

No matter where you find yourself in ministry, become a learner. Humble yourself to be open to what God will teach you as you look around. We do not start by doing. We start by observing. Take the time to do the research. The deep understanding we gain from keen observation will naturally flow into the next stage of the process of the gospel, a positive appreciation of the people around us and their unique environment.


The second stage, positive appreciation, means making room in our hearts to respect honestly and actively and care about people and their potentially foreign cultural context. There is a marked difference between respecting people for who they are and helping people merely because they have needs. In fact, if you jump in to help people because they have needs, without respecting and loving them first, you may be accomplishing nothing at all. Is that not what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor 13:3)?

If our relationship with someone is not based on affection that emerges from esteem, but is only built on our ability to give some service or thing to the receiver, there is danger that the relationship is paternalistic and dehumanizing. That kind of relationship produces short-term results or dependency or both, but not spiritual fruit. So, the rule of thumb is this: until you can first honestly appreciate people, do not try to reach them with your message or your acts of service.

Our model for positive appreciation is God himself. God’s unthinkably huge sacrifice, the selfless death of Jesus on our behalf, flows from his perfect love for us. Jesus expressed immense positive appreciation of people. He wept over them as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). John said of the cross, “Having loved his own, he showed them the full extent of his love” (John 13:1).

The person or group we want to engage may not be willing to engage, either because of fear, hostility, ignorance, brokenness, lack of self-esteem, or some other obstacle. Positive appreciation is not necessarily reciprocal at this point, nor does it need to be. Jesus loved us and died for us while we were yet sinners (1 John 4:19). His giving did not depend on our positive response to him.

If we really care about people, they will sense that, and even when we make mistakes—for we will make them—they will forgive us because they know we care about them. We will offend and be offended; we will misunderstand; we will act defensively, prejudicially, or chauvinistically. But most people will eventually forgive us if they know we have a genuine love for them. As the Apostle Peter says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

Positive appreciation may not come easily. But the more we practice it, the more it is going to be perfected in us, though there will always be a huge gap between the way God loves and the way we love. This gap is a reality, not a problem. This is what the fallen world is about. As we walk through the stages of the process of the gospel, we must always keep in mind that we are in a redemptive process, we are always confessing sin and always submitting to God, who will show us what to do.


I think the real goal of relevant communication is congruency—that what you think you are saying is what the other person is actually understanding you to be saying; and that what you are hearing is what the other person is really intending for you to hear.

Relevant communication creates a deep connection between people. Your words will connect, first to the matter at hand, but also to the heart of the listener. What you say will be practical and applicable. Your listener will have a sense of inner satisfaction that he or she is being heard, because what you say is congruent with their needs, their interests, their requests, and their worldview. At the same time, we carefully listen, hear, and receive from them.

God communicates through his “Word,” Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews makes this point clearly: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1–2). God spoke all of creation into being, and Job says, “God’s voice thunders” (Job 37:5a). When God spoke to Elijah, however, he spoke in a “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12). Our God is a God who speaks! And he is also a God who hears our cry, who is closer than a brother, whose Spirit intercedes and groans inexpressible words within us (Rom 8:26, 27).

From the beginning of our time in Boston, we would often have people living with us, whether they were people from the streets, ministry students, or fellow workers. The street people who lived with us taught us to be clear in what we said, because they were looking for honest love, and if we said something we did not mean from our hearts, they would pick it up immediately. They were our textbooks on developing integrity and transparency. If we said we would do something we really did not plan to do, we would see their hopes crushed, and distrust would creep back into their eyes. Many of the people we met had been injured in multiple ways, and trust was not easy for them.

Relevant communication goes beyond words. It goes into the depths of who we really are and how we are communicating who we are. Communication also involves nonverbal cues such as hand gestures and a listening posture. Relevant communication means knowing what people are saying and, to a degree, what they are thinking, and then carefully using stories and other ways to communicate clearly.

Are we listening well enough so that what we hear is really what people are intending to say? Are we speaking carefully, so that what we are saying is really what we intend to say, and our listeners are hearing what we intend them to hear?


The Gospels are full of stories about Jesus meeting the perceived needs of the people around him. You know the story of blind Bartimaeus. When at last he stood before Jesus, the Lord did something very unexpected. He looked at him and asked what seemed to be an odd question: “What do you want me to do for you?” The man was obviously blind! But it was important for Bartimaeus to verbalize his own perceived need. Jesus waited for relevant communication that revealed the man’s own perceived need before he took action.

Bartimaeus was very clear about what he wanted. “Rabbi, I want to see,” he said.

“ ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road” (Mark 10:46-52).

Jesus came to provide the answer for our most basic need, that we would be redeemed from sin and death, but on his three-year journey to the cross he responded to many, many perceived needs that people were concerned about. The gospel is not only what Jesus said, it is what he did.

God has created us to help others. Paul says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). Why does Paul say we are created to do good works? Surely it is not to earn our place in heaven. That work has been accomplished on the cross. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16; emphasis added). In a very real way, our good deeds, prompted by love, are the gospel message, without words. We do the gospel. At the same time, of course, we preach the gospel using words. God has given us his special revelation, and he wants everyone to hear and know what he has to say to us. The point is, we want the way we live to speak as loudly as our words.

Meeting felt needs is an important step, because it is incarnational ministry. For the recipient, it is spiritual reality experienced through practicality. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (Jam 2:15). James makes it clear that our words are not enough, and actions, including helping to meet perceived needs, spring from faith.

Those of us in ministry are always faced with the immensity of human need all around us. There is no escape from the press of need, and knowing that Jesus is the answer to all our problems, we want to help in his name.

When Judy and I first came to Boston, we felt our lives were coming apart because of the craziness of trying to respond to the needs around us. Judy clearly remembers how busy we would be meeting the needs of just one person: taking her to the outpatient clinic, to the grocery store, to the social security office, to apply for food stamps and fuel assistance, to the welfare office, typing up forms and applications for her, and helping her deal with her addiction and relational problems. And that was just one of scores of people at our door every day of the week.

Here are a few things we learned along the way: after carefully listening to what the person or group say they need, it is best to choose a need that can actually be met. For especially those people who have lost hope many times, we cannot afford to make promises we cannot keep. Choose something you have every reason to believe you may be able to accomplish with and through their participation, and then pull out all the stops to make sure it happens. Make room for the person or group to fully participate in meeting the need. This should not be a give-away program. Their participation in the process will build their confidence and ownership of the solution.

Change must come from within, not from without. It is through helping to address a felt need that hope is built in people, and that hope will help them begin to surface their more basic, core needs.


When we move from meeting perceived needs to meeting basic needs, you may think that this is no big deal—that we just go from a focus on surface needs to deeper needs. But in reality, a seismic shift takes place as we move between these two. If you miss the importance of this transition, you will miss the power that comes from the process of the gospel. Your ministry may very well stay on the surface, and you may not see the abundant life you want to see take root and grow in the life of your friend.

Here is the best way to tell the difference. Perceived needs are identified by tangible solutions where the meeting of the need is finite. The solution does not internally transform the person, though it certainly brings a measure of hope and relief. The change is additive. But on the other hand, you know basic needs are met when the solution brings an ever-widening range of other needs also being met simultaneously and spontaneously. There is an explosion of life as one door after another opens in the person’s life. The change is multiplicative. When, for example, a long-term alcoholic becomes sober, a whole series of needs begins to be met at the same time. These may be physical needs, employment, family issues, a sense of self-worth and value, and gaining a purposeful life.

In meeting basic needs, the transaction is between God and the individual, and unless the individual participates with God in his or her restoration through willingness, obedience, and dependence on God, nothing of any lasting significance happens. We cannot force this. We cannot make it happen. God must do the heavy lifting. “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain,” Solomon wrote (Ps 127:1). My role is to support and nurture the individual and make sure he or she is connecting to the broader body of Christ as God is at work doing things I cannot do and as he brings redemption and restoration. The basic need is only fully met when my new believer friend is nurtured within a new family of supportive believers that is part of the larger extended family of the body of Christ. Nurturing these family relationships is a good way to “engage God’s living systems” and is the heart of Living System Ministry.9

There are some basic needs common to all humankind that have arisen because of the fall, such as sinfulness, our fallen human nature, separation from God, and rebellion against him. Paul puts this matter very strongly. “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior” (Col 1:21). Our most universal, core spiritual need, then, is for reconciliation with our Creator and the subsequent transformation of our sin nature.

We might think that the end goal of the process of the gospel is to see someone come to faith in Christ. But there is one more step beyond that. The sixth stage of the process of the gospel is multiplication.


Living systems thrive on their own as they receive the sustenance they need. Judy remembers that when our baby daughter was just two months old, a friend said to her, “Rebecca seems to be thriving!” Judy was beaming, very proud to be a new, successfully nursing mother. “And you probably did not have a thing to do with it!” he concluded, with a laugh. This took the wind out of her sails, until she realized our friend was really saying that our daughter was experiencing the natural tendency of living things to thrive when they receive normal care and sustenance. Naturally, there came a time when Rebecca moved out to be on her own and a time when our son, Ken, left home to start a family of his own. This is a normal part of nurturing a living system. We expect to release maturing systems to grow apart from us.

Multiplication in an organic system requires that we let go. Must I empty myself of short-term goals and focus on long-term goals? Must I release the future into the hands of other people when it is easier to organize and do it myself with my group in my way? These things are hard to do but they are necessary. We must empty ourselves of the short-term goals and individualism, both of which will hinder multiplication.

In multiplication, we want to envision those we have walked beside to do the “greater things” that Jesus talks about in John 14. “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). A goal in this is leaving in such a way that life flows from the people that we are working with, so they start reaching people we could never reach. Then we have been a part of a birthing process. We want to make disciples who will make disciples. As we follow the process of the gospel, we will, indeed, participate with God in the way he builds his kingdom. We experience what it means to be a co-laborer with God!

Completing the Circle

We started out wondering how God goes about creating relationships with us, planting the message of the gospel in our hearts and nurturing it to fruitfulness. Now, as we have come full circle, the effective engagement we sought for is complete. “The fruit that remains” is the goal, and multiplication is the fruit. The recipient now becomes the giver. The point of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to redeem a lost people who will then actually and zealously join him in his work. This is the gospel: “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14). Yet, even now, multiplication points us back to where we started. Because the gospel is alive, this living cycle of redemption starts up again in ever-widening circles.

From multiplication to system-wide balance

The process of the gospel restores relational balance to society. Rather than drawing from flawed or self-serving institutions which rely on technological, financial, intellectual, or organizational capital, the process of the gospel both draws from and builds up what I call “relational capital.”10 While the process of the gospel effectively meets real human needs on every level, this process is not needs based, but asset driven,11 because it works out from a positive appreciation of everyone involved, liberally uses the assets that flow from healthy living systems, and, throughout the process, develops reservoirs of internal relational capital that nurture the growth and development of living systems.

Dr. Douglas Hall is the President of Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston, where he has served with his wife, Judy, since 1964, and an adjunct professor with Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. Hall holds a diploma from Moody Bible Institute (1960), a BA Degree in Sociology and Anthropology (1962) and Master of Arts Degree in Counseling and Guidance from Michigan State University (1966). He graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1968 with the equivalent of a Master of Divinity Degree, and was granted an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree from that institution in 1981 for his pioneering work in urban ministry.

The Halls with Steve Daman published The Cat and the Toaster: Living System Ministry In A Technological Age in 2010 (Wipf and Stock). Since then, the three of them and Rema Cheng have been a four-person writing team dedicated to developing Living System Ministry as a school of thought. Steve has a BA Degree in Psychology from Gordon College (1973) and a Master of Arts in Communication (television and journalism) from Regent University (1986). He has served as a missionary with the Emmanuel Gospel Center for the past 25 years. Rema has a BA in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley (2005) and is currently working on her Master of Social Work.

1 Scripture quotations in this paper, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New International Version.

2 This course is offered through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary:

3 We introduce the idea of living system ministry in our book: Douglas Hall, Judy Hall, and Steve Daman, The Cat and the Toaster: Living System Ministry in a Technological Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010).

4 For more on the Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC), visit Judy and I have served at EGC since 1964.

5 See the research articles available at

6 Isa 26:12 says, “Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us” (emphasis added).

7 For example, see 1 Cor 1:2, “To the church of God in Corinth . . .”; Eph 1:1, “To the saints in
Ephesus . . .”; Gal 3:1, “You foolish Galatians!” (here referring to a group identified by a geographical region).

8 Learn more about EGC’s applied research at

9 To learn more about Living System Ministry, visit

10 We will soon be publishing more on this idea of “relational capital.”

11 For more on asset-based community development as compared to needs-based efforts, see, for example, the Asset-Based Community Development Institute,

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Life Outside the Box

Life Outside of the Box

(Luke 23:32–33; Hebrews 13:3)

Before reading, listen to “Boxxed In” by Yaves
(used with permission):

I love hip hop music. I love the rhythm and the rhyme. I love the way an emcee’s voice interacts with the instruments on the beat. I love the word play, the metaphors, the allusions, and the double entendres. Most of all, however, I love the way hip hop narrates the gritty, tragic, and lamentable realities of life, about which some of us are honestly ignorant and which others purposely ignore. Now, to be sure, not all hip hop music functions in this way, but there are definitely artists through whom God is speaking to arouse our moral consciousness. There are rappers—yes, rappers—through whom God is speaking to expand our social and theological imaginations. If we listen closely enough, we will hear voices within hip hop that expose sin and evil—as well as any preacher—and speak truth to power—as well as any prophet.

Consider the song “Boxxed In” by a hip hop artist named Yaves. Dubbed “the Street Pastor,” Yaves aims to create music rooted in the word of God that speaks to contemporary social issues. In “Boxxed In,” he reflects on the dark realities of urban life in the United States.

They’re bringing them boxed in. Locked in.

Make more then do it over again.

They’re bringing them boxed in. Locked in.

Make more then do it over again.

My homies are boxed in. My brothers are boxed in.

My cousins are boxed in. My homies are boxed in. Boxed in.

Might we hear a message from God in Yaves’s lyrics? What does being “boxed in” mean and what does it reveal about life in the city? Might being “boxed in” have something to do with Jesus, the cross, and the gospel?

As a clever songwriter, Yaves presents “boxed in” as a term that contains multiple meanings. The most explicit of these he makes evident in the first two verses of the song, where images of violence, murder, and death pervade the lyrics.

Everyday drill, kill or be killed,

the ghetto is a box where they’re boxing over bills.

To be boxed in is to be bound by death. In a literal sense, it is to be boxed in a casket, to be physically dead. Figuratively, to be boxed in means to live with the fear of losing one’s life. This fear creates a psychological box that traps the soul. Being boxed in distorts the way one sees the world and severely limits the possibility of living the good life. I have heard young black men question why they should go to school if they will die before they can use their education. When this morbid perception meets the criminalization of discipline found in some districts, schools no longer function as life-giving communities but rather as perpetuators of the “box.” I remember when a close friend turned 25 years old. He remarked that he felt so blessed to see that day because growing up he was unsure of whether or not he would ever make it there alive. Unfortunately, rather than imagining themselves as college—or even high school—graduates, many young people of color who grow up in marginalized communities hold to the conviction that by 25 they will either be dead or in prison.

In the last verse, Yaves speaks to the connection between death and prison saying:

For homies locked down upstate, I had to graduate from O-State,

you feel me? I had to break the cycle of the prison pipeline,

for young black bodies buried in boxes made of pine.

If being boxed in means being bound by death, then prison is a social expression of the box. In honor of those who have been boxed in by physical death, Yaves proclaims that we must work towards dismantling the box of incarceration. The tragedy is that too many young people are either being boxed in a casket or boxed in a prison cell. In fact, research tells us that young black men have higher death rates by homicide than any other US demographic1 and that African-Americans, in general, are incarcerated at a rate almost six times higher than whites.2 While my friend’s feeling of relief at turning 25 shocked me, the sad and unsettling truth is that his feelings were not without warrant. Incarceration has become so prevalent in some communities that going to prison has become a rite of passage for many young men, a social marker defining their manhood. Yet, this is not a passage into life but rather a passage into death; it is the social marker of someone who is boxed in.

So what does it mean to be boxed in? To be boxed in means not only to live with the premonition that your life will end prematurely, either in a casket or in a prison cell, but also actually to experience the horrors of death and imprisonment. To be boxed in means to live a life bound by death and, therefore, to live a life full of despair.

How would God have God’s people respond? Does the church have a word for those who feel boxed in? The first response is actually no word at all, but coming to the critical realization—and subsequent lamentation—of the fact that being boxed in is a reality that many in the United States face daily. Scripture’s poets help lead such a response:

The cords of death encompassed me . . . the snares of death confronted me (Ps 18:4-5).3

Let the groans of the prisoners come before you; according to your great power preserve those doomed to die (Ps 79:11).

My eyes flow with rivers of tears because of the destruction of my people.

My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees (Lam 3:48-50).

Although acknowledging and lamenting the reality of being boxed in is important, that is not all the church has to offer. Through the gospel, the church has more to say; namely that despite the despair, there is hope. God offers “boxed in” humanity a great redemption in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the hope for those who suffer from being boxed in because Jesus himself was tested by the powers of the box and overcame them (Heb 2:18).

Jesus knew what it meant to be boxed in. Throughout his ministry, he bore the burden of knowing that he would be incarcerated, an incarceration that would lead to his death. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples three times, “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (Mark 10:33-34; cf. 8:31; 9:31). Even before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah prophesied about him, saying that he would be “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Isa 53:3). In the Garden of Gethsemane, as the hour of his arrest approached, Jesus was struck to the core with grief. In his anguish, he began to sweat heavily and threw himself on the ground in prayer. In one of the clearest examples of his humanity, Jesus asked God if it was possible not to have to die in order to fulfill God’s plan. Ultimately, although the burden of death weighed heavily on his heart, Jesus did not succumb to fear or despair but rather trusted God, saying, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Beyond the psychological sense of being boxed in, Jesus also experienced the horrors of incarceration and physical death. After being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken before the high priest. During the trial, the Jewish elders and the chief priests mocked him, spat in his face, slapped him, and beat him, just as he knew they would. Since the high priest could not enact any legal punishment, Jesus was sent before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Persuaded by fear of the masses and the threat of a riot, Pilate unjustly sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion (Matt 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15). Jesus was not only a victim of state violence but also of legal corruption. Immediately, the governor’s soldiers humiliated Jesus by stripping him of his clothes and placing a crown of twisted thorns on his head. They also mocked him by kneeling before him and proclaiming, “Hail, King of the Jews” (Matt 27:29). Finally, before taking him to be crucified, they beat and flogged him. Thus, not only did Jesus live with the emotional burden of expecting the terrors of prison and death, he experienced those terrors as the reality of his life. In short, Jesus’ journey towards the cross betrays the experience of being boxed in.

What is the significance of Jesus’ incarceration and state execution—of his suffering as a “common criminal”? Theologian Karl Barth cleverly turns the question around: what is the significance of common criminals sharing the same suffering as Jesus? The Gospel of Luke narrates Jesus’ crucifixion this way: “Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:32-33). In a 1957 Good Friday sermon entitled, “The Criminals with Him,” Barth asserts that in the crucifixion, the criminals “find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with [Jesus]. They are linked in a common bondage that is never again to be broken.”4 One cannot imagine the crucifixion of Christ without imagining the crucifixion of the criminals with him. God forever places the image of a criminal at the center of history by placing one to the right and one to the left of Jesus during his execution.

To be at his right and left as he prepared to enter his glory is something of which Jesus’ disciples could have only dreamed. Two of them, James and John, boldly requested to have this honor, but Jesus responded by saying that only “those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (Matt 20:23) can sit at his right and left. While the two criminals are not exactly sitting with Christ on the cross, they are hanging with him. The imagery is striking. Might there be a connection? Could it be that God has prepared for criminals to sit at the right and left hand of Christ in his glory? Is this a foreshadowing of the communion to be shared in the kingdom of God? Later in his sermon, Barth describes the crucifixion scene as the first Christian community: “Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance.”5 If this is true, then maybe it is no coincidence that as Jesus breathes his last—in order that humanity may receive a new breath of life—the two people at his side are criminals. Perhaps it is by God’s design that the first person to receive the promise and assurance of entering into the kingdom of God is the criminal to whom Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

By sharing in the suffering of those who are boxed in, Christ is able to offer humanity life outside of the box. Consequently, those who are called to follow this Christ should seek to stand in solidarity and proclaim unity with those who suffer in the same way—the way of their Savior. For this reason the author of Hebrews admonishes his readers to “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb 13:3). This is not a call to sign up for a bid at Sing Sing or San Quentin, nor is it a call to sign up for water boarding sessions at Guantanamo Bay. Rather it is a call to remember that those who are boxed in share in the same suffering as Christ, and that if we do not stand in solidarity with them, we do not stand in solidarity with Christ (Matt 25:41-45). Christ suffered and died, “once for all” (Rom 6:10), so that being boxed in would no longer be a lived reality. Christ became human and experienced for himself what it means to be boxed in so that humans could live life outside of the box.

This life that Christ gives, this life outside of the box, this is the life of the resurrection. After dying on the cross, Jesus remained in the tomb for two days. Trapped in a “box” carved out of rock, it seemed that death had won. But early in the morning on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit! Christ burst forth from the tomb, shattering the box and defeating death. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. By trusting in God and believing that God raised Jesus from the dead, we can rest assured that God will raise us as well. No longer do we have to live in fear of death. No longer do we have to be boxed in. In Christ, God has displaced the despair of the box with the hope of the resurrection. This resurrected reality is the reality of God’s kingdom, a kingdom Jesus described as being in our midst (Luke 17:21).

As the body of Christ, the church is charged to live as if the kingdom is our present reality. Although the fullness of the kingdom will not be fulfilled until Christ returns again, we bear faithful witness to that return by living as if Christ has already come back. This means imagining and creating a world where death no longer reigns. This means imagining and creating a world where the fear of death no longer distorts our vision of life. This means imagining and creating a world where every human being can live life outside of the box. For the good news of the kingdom of God is not simply hope for a future and eternal life with God beginning in heaven. The good news of the kingdom of God is hope for eternal life with God that begins on earth—right here and right now. The good news of the kingdom of God is heaven breaking in on earth and blowing to bits the boxes that entrap our souls.

Speaking as Israel’s prophets once did, to shake God’s people from their apathetic slumber, Yaves speaks to God’s people in urban communities across the United States. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—young people who live with a daily fear of death and imprisonment. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—men and women coming home from prison who are not being given a second chance. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—failing public schools that create communities lacking the social and economic capital necessary to thrive and flourish. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—racially biased media that demonize and vilify particular members of society. “They’re bringing them boxed in”—those who hang on the right and those who hang on the left of the cross of Christ.

Today, people of God, we must awake, rise from our slumber, and allow the light of Christ to shine on and through his body—the church. And may the Christ, who on the cross fellowshipped and communed with criminals, grant his church the same ability he granted them, the ability to live life outside of the box!

Brandon J. Hudson is a third year Master of Divinity student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. He is interested in the intersection of Christian ethics, the mission of the church, and urban community development. Brandon is a lover of hip hop, makes his own music, and has a particular passion for using popular culture to reach young people of color in poor, marginalized and underresourced neighborhoods. He wants to see the church become a community of moral virtue that can provide an alternative formation to the individualistic, materialistic, and nihilistic ethos of contemporary US culture. You can reach Brandon at

Listen to some of Brandon’s own hip hop here:

“By Your Side”

“Living Water”

“The Pianist”

1 Alexia Cooper and Erica Smith, “Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008: Annual Rates for 2009 and 2010,” US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (November 2011), 15,

2 Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, “Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity,” The Sentencing Project (July 2007), 3,

3 Scripture citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

4 Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives: Sermons and Prayers by Karl Barth (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961), 76-77.

5 Ibid.