Why Cities Matter by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard

why-cities-matterHow should Christians approach cities?

Some approach the city as an enemy at worst or something to be exploited at best—its resources have value, but beyond that, it’s best left alone. Others give the qualities of a city little thought whatsoever, blending into its surrounding culture, but not really engaging it in a way that confronts its idols.

But is it possible to see the city as an opportunity for furthering the gospel?

Pastors Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard believe the answer is an emphatic yes. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, Christians need to think rightly about the city—to recognize the power cities have to shape culture and spread ideas. Why Cities Matter is their effort to help Christians think biblically and strategically about the city and cultivate “a deep vision for a global movement of the gospel in cities” (20).

Um and Buzzard set themselves up with a tremendous challenge in Why Cities Matter. Over the course of six chapters, the authors explain:

  • the importance of cities (chapter one);
  • the characteristics of cities (chapter two);
  • what the Bible says about cities (chapter three);
  • the necessity of contextualization (chapter four);
  • the storyline of the city (chapter five); and
  • developing a ministry vision for the city (chapter six).

Among the most helpful aspects of these chapters is the breakdown of the makings of a city—that cities are centers of power, of culture and of worship. Cities represent safety, government and economic opportunity. They serve as the cultural engines for our nations and our world—their greatest export is ideas. And cities “are built upon the things from which humanity attempts to derive its ultimate significance” (32)—cities reveal what we worship.

This idea of worship, in fact, comes up again and again. Um and Buzzard show readers how worship impacts everything in a city—its history, its values, its hopes and dreams—and how only the gospel can truly change its story.

As an urban dweller myself, it’s easy to take this for granted. But looking around my own city, it’s equally easy to see them at play. Our city is one that worships the idea of “success.” We desperately want to be a player on the international stage (both economically and culturally). We want our university and college to be considered among the best of the best. But our long history of political corruption (a tradition carried on by our current mayor and his colleagues), our college being little more than a diploma mill and City Hall’s short-term view of reality (what’s convenient and makes sense at the moment) prevent these dreams from being more than that—dreams.

Um and Buzzard’s reminders to be looking at what our cities worship, their values and desires, is important, especially as we consider how to best serve a city that has a lot of churches, but little meaningful gospel witness. “If ministry in the city is not contextualized to challenge a city’s unique idolatry, then our ministry will be shallow and unsubstantial” (113).

The practical framework Um and Buzzard provide for assessing the idols of our communities is arguably the greatest strength of Why Cities Matter. If readers apply this to their ministry efforts and find it beneficial, I suspect the authors will be elated.

As much as I appreciate the book, I was left with two concerns and one lingering question.

The first concern is one of bias. Both Um and Buzzard are urban pastors, serving people in two of America’s cultural and creative hubs—Um as senior minister at CityLife Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA., and Buzzard as founding pastor of Garden City Church in San José, CA (Silicon Valley). They have a vested interest in seeing Christians truly get behind the vision of urban ministry they put forward.

Even as we see the western world’s trajectory moving toward massive urbanization, we have to be careful that we don’t oversell the strategic value of reaching the cities. Why?

Because the gospel is for people. 

Regardless of the size and apparent influence, every community needs a passionate and faithful gospel witness. Forgetting this or overstating the importance of cities risks causing undue harm to our rural brothers and sisters in Christ who are serving where God has called them. Cities definitely matter; smaller communities do, too.

The second issue is one that may not seem like much of a problem to some readers: a difficulty to balance synthesis vs. regurgitation of influences.

Tim Keller, senior minister of Redeemer Presbyterian, New York, and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, provides the foreword to Why Cities Matter and, as co-author Um rightly says, his fingerprints are all over the book.

This is no exaggeration.

Now, I love Keller’s work. Center Church is among the most helpful books on local church ministry available today. But, especially in the latter chapters of Why Cities Matter, his influence is almost too heavy. The contextualization chapter, for example, echoes much of his work and the ministry vision chapter reads almost as a summary of the final third of Center Church.

There are far too few Christian leaders able to identify the gospel entry points in urban society and do so faithfully. Keller is among the best, so it’s only fitting that his influence would be felt. However, sometimes his influence overshadows the insights of the authors more than is necessary.

The lingering question: What happens if (or when) urbanization becomes unsustainable? Growing cities need enhanced infrastructures, but we may not have people with the skills to build it. Younger people are gravitating more and more to information-based work and the elder generation is preparing to retire in the next decade. In my city, there is a serious effort to get people into trades, but it may be too little, too late.

This, again, provides an important opportunity for the church in the city. We need to remind our congregations that, from programming to plumbing, all work glorifies God. We need to help them see that a degree doesn’t make one’s work better or more godly. The hard work ahead of us is putting the cultural idol of the degree to death for the good of the city and the people in it.

To produce a compelling—and compact—apologetic for city ministry isn’t easy, and Um and Buzzard ably accomplish the task. Nevertheless, I’m not sure how effective it’s actually going to be in engaging those that most need to read it.

Here’s what I mean: the audience that will likely gravitate toward this book are those who are more or less already convinced of the importance of cities. They’re avid readers of Tim Keller. They’re tracking with the urban-oriented networks like Redeemer City-to-City, Mars Hill and Acts 29.

They’re already picking up what Um and Buzzard are putting down, which means they may not think it’s necessary for them to read—worse, they may read it and completely miss the practical helps the book does offer. The result is they may miss out on a few critical reminders and practical exercises that will add value to their ministries.

Why Cities Matter isn’t just (or even primarily) for the already convinced; it’s for the skeptic. Those who are uncomfortable with the city will benefit from the book. Those who actively dislike the city will greatly benefit from it. I can only hope it will make its way into their hands.

Title: Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church
Authors: Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard
Publisher: Crossway (2013)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Books

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