Book Review: Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God by Conn & Ortiz

Book Review

Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City & the People of God

By Harvie M. Conn & Manuel Ortiz

Reviewed by Michael R. Jones

There is no main thesis to this book as the author says explicitly that the book is designed to be used sequentially or as a reference (13). The closest thing to a thesis is on p. 13: “This book aims to address today’s urban reality in all its complex and interrelated facts.” This book is a thorough and remarkably helpful overview of urban ministry, apology for urban ministry, and sourcebook for urban ministry. While some of the theological foundations are tenuous at best, it is a helpful resource for anyone attempting urban ministry and has a unique distinction in addressing issues around the world, not just in an urban North American setting.

I at first resisted buying this book, thinking it was one I would never use again; but I am tempted to pick a copy up to re-read, see what I can apply to my ministry, and to recommend to anyone the Lord might let me mentor to encourage them to urban ministry. I can also see a professor using this in a class, though were I that prof, I would probably qualify much of the biblical theology contained in it.

The introduction begins with some thoughts from the story of the ten spies sent to spy out the cities of the Promised Land. One can’t help but wonder what this has to do with urban mission. Is Numbers 13:28 really relevant for urban ministry simply because it mentions “cities” (13)? I don’t think so.

This book comes at urban ministry from a Church Growth Movement (CGM) perspective, emphasizing a social science approach in the tradition of Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner 914). One should find this odd considering that Manuel Ortiz was educated at a premiere Reformed institution (Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia) begun precisely to answer the liberalism appearing in evangelicalism at the time, most notably at Princeton. Fuller has long since gone the way Princeton had in the 1930’s when Machen and eight other professors left to start Westminster. Sadly, Westminster Philadelphia has embraced wholeheartedly the Church Growth Movement with its pragmatic techniques and philosophies. It is also odd considering that Wagner writes from a neo-Pentecostal perspective and McGavern from a Disciples of Christ background. Wagner’s and Mcgavern’s backgrounds are each markedly opposed to Reformed soteriology and each has embraced pragmatic use of means for ministry and church growth. In embracing this philosophy of ministry, Ortiz (who is CRC) has departed from his Reformed roots. Conn, also has departed though this is hardly news since he is one instrumental in moving Westminster further away from the orthopraxic ideals of the Reformation since his coming there in 1972. Geoffrey Thomas, in his obituary in Banner of Truth, wrote of Conn, “I felt he was a man whose sympathies were more with the Anabaptists and men like Ronald Sider than any Presbyterian I knew in the USA. That was good for me as it indicated that radicalism had nothing to do with the subjects of baptism or any form of church government.”[1]

Conn and Ortiz (hereafter CO) do emphasize “the whole counsel of God” and make liberal use of biblical theology (no pun intended) but his warning against reductionism is a straw man in that he is implicitly saying that anyone who does not agree with his views on church growth and social justice is reductionist. While he right to counsel against “sociology without biblical theology,” he goes on to say that “justification without social justice will not be the divine salt that the penetrates and preserves our God’s world.” While I do not know Conn’s or Ortiz’s eschatological positions, this sentence reads like a postmillennialist wrote it.

Chapters 3 thru 13 give a helpful overview of the city from a social science perspective and it was eye-opening to say the least. Conn is known for pointing out the world is no longer a global village but a global city. Chapter three states that the world is really one immense city; by 2000, more than 50% of the world’s population was urban. This move began in the 1950’s and will continue unabated in the coming century (64). I never found a clear definition of urban, however. Since I minister in a North American suburban context, I’m curious for an explanation of how to categorize suburban ministry. CO come close when they explain that the suburbs grew out of Victorian “ideals of domestic purity” (69-70) and that the US followed the pattern (a conclusion I would dispute, I think the American pattern stems from different reasons). But doesn’t this validate suburban ministry as well?

Though it is outside the purview of this book, I would also be interested in seeing how Ortiz thinks these principles would adapt (or not) to suburban ministry. Also, the evidence seems to overlook that Paul ministered in small towns as well as big cities (e.g., Lystra). Doesn’t that validate rural and suburban mission as well? The book seems to imply (though I’m sure CO do not intend to imply) that God’s concern is only for the urban areas.

The reasons given for the decline of the city into a place primarily populated by the poor, underemployed, and the ethnic outsider and a place primarily underdeveloped because of this population demographic (70f.) are helpful because informative, but I they seem to be reasons over which the minister has little control. CO do, however, point out the challenge (74f.) since the growth of urban population has been primarily in areas non-Christian and evangelical churches seem to have grown primarily in rural areas, town and smaller cities (74). Africa (75) provides a good example where most mission agencies are rural and have a rural outlook and so are not equipped to minister to cities. Sadly, most cities have no evangelistic witness and the decline of Christianity in much of the Western world means an even greater decline in Christian witness and a resurgence of paganism. The numbers given here are staggering and frightening. The city should now be the hub for the evangelization of the world.

Most of the concerns I had about this book are focused on chapters 4-7 and the biblical theology regarding the city employed by CO. In chapter four, “God & the Old Testament City: Love or Hate?” the authors intend to show God’s heart for the city but they make too much of the occurrence of the word “city” (and “cities”) and the concept. Some references clearly demonstrate a mandate to seek the urban centers; others are neutral or are simply a reflection of reality.

For example, though the first cities were built by those fleeing from God, I see in Scripture a clear intention from God to build a city (Heb. 11:13; Rev. 21:2), the final redemption of the city is in the consummation of all things; it will not happen in this age through the spreading of the gospel. Only a postmillennialist can fit such a goal into his theology. I did find much to commend the examples of the 48 cities of the Levites and Jerusalem as the center of “geocentric universalism” (90). The example of the cities of the Levites (89) is helpful but I don’t know if I buy completely that these cities represent “models for God’s new urban society” (and CO do qualify that “hints suggest this possibility” rather than certainty). I rather see the cities as part of the “geocentric universalism” seen of later with regard to Jerusalem. The Levites were to teach the people the law of God. They were centered in the city not to the neglect of the rural villages and settlements, but as spokes on a wheel (the “centripetal force” on p. 90) so that the fear of the Lord would radiate out to all society. CO get close to this but seem to miss the mark (90). This is the model Jerusalem was to represent. Israel was to be a light to the nations because one day the fear of the Lord would lead all nations into Jerusalem to worship the one true God (Isa.2:1-5) and that prophecy will still be fulfilled (Rev. 21-22). Our evangelism of the cities must reflect a view that embraces this promise by faith. Pragmatic and demographic concerns aside, we should embrace urban ministry as a statement of faith and hope in this promise.

The rest of chapter four and chapter five, “Temptation, Testing, Promise, and Fulfillment” seem to impose this interpretive grid on the passages cited. For example, the pairing of justice and righteousness with hesed on page 98 reads modern and New Heaven / New Earth perspectives into Israel’s mission (which is fine if one is a postmillennialist). And on p. 107, why does urbanization have to be demonstrative of a theological advocacy of city building? Could it be that urbanization was simply the result of prosperity? Also, the statements made on 114-115 about the fulfillment of God’s urban commission could equally be made regarding rural areas and the suburbs, not just cities.

Chapter six, dealing with the ministry of Jesus and the early church, continues imposing this interpretive grid on the Scriptures. It is true (120-121) that Jesus entered Tyre (why does CO make so much of the preposition eis?) but his mission also had a focus on the towns and villages. If anything this shows not so much a commitment to urban ministry but a well-rounded ministry with intention to go into city, town, and village. If Jesus was only concerned about cities, why did he avoid the larger Gentile cities in the region? The interpretive grid of the authors leads them to ignore or purposely overlook the ethnic distinctive of Jesus’ ministry.

Throughout the rest of the chapter I see the same problem. The discussion about Jerusalem and the temple (129f.) fails to demonstrate how exactly the Bible “invests theological significance in the city.” The “centrality of Jerusalem” is significant, but not because of any priority of urban centers over other populated areas. Indeed, as noted above, Paul ministered in Lystra as well as Athens. Once again, what is said of the urban ministry can be said of rural ministry or suburban history, or any historical, ethnic, or societal construct: “the end time has broken into urban history” (137). A similar criticism may be leveled against chapter seven’s section about the agenda for urban mission: Urban mission should follow the same agenda as any other mission.

One big problem with the book from a traditional Reformed perspective relates to pp. 147 f. where CO touch on issues that most certainly will affect the practical outworkings of the gospel in terms of evangelism and church planting. Take for example, the statement on 148: “Not all divine activity is saving activity.” Who decides what is and what isn’t divine activity? What about the use of secondary causes, such a distinctive of Reformed theology of the past? Even if we accept this statement as true, isn’t saving activity the primary divine activity in this age? This coupled with the emphasis on social justice (153f.) again confuses the two kingdoms such that we should be looking for something resembling a heaven on earth.

Chapters 8-13, which make up “Part 3: Understanding the City” give an excellent overview of the phenomenon. The book would have been helpful for this section alone without the artificial theological grid imposed on it in chapters 4-7. Some statements seem a little absurd, however. For example, on p. 241, could it be that the city has figured prominently in mass evangelism simply because that’s where all the people are? In connection with this, CO’s approving statement regarding Finney and Moody demonstrate how far they have come from their Reformed roots. Finney was rejected by his Reformed brethren and was even prosecuted in church court for abandoning his ordination vows by his theology and practice. It was here when he revealed that he lied at his ordination and had not even bothered to read the Westminster Confession to which he subscribed in order to be ordained. In fact, most of chapter 13 drips with a CGM perspective and pragmatic approach. CO uncritically cite Willow Creek and others and falls into the same trap: accepting methods and results for pragmatic means without asking if these things should be done or if the methods are biblical.

Chapter 16 provides a helpful study of demographics with regard to urban mission and showing how demographics can help in urban mission (or in any mission). The section on Shalom is helpful but again confuses the two kingdoms and seems to imply that the missionary or minister must discover needs (290) and meet them though one wonders how far one should go in meeting these needs and fails to help the missionary set boundaries to keep those needs from becoming paramount rather than the gospel. This abandonment of theology in favor of felt needs was part of what led to the social gospel. The warning against the danger of felt needs (291) is good but rings hollow coming as it does between two sections on needs, the one about discovering needs (290) and the other about helping the poor and economic development (292-294). Missions is not about economic development.

The section on systemic needs is also helpful, though it presupposes an ability to transform society without transforming the individual. CO seem to prove the point they are denying (“more racism but fewer racists” 295).

The section following on Church growth and decline is helpful but simplistic and assumes that the minister or missionary will be able to do anything about the societal causes that lead to growth or decline.

The section on community analysis is perhaps the most helpful in the book in that it gives suggestions that could be implemented in any context, urban or suburban and in any theological context, Reformed, evangelical, Pentecostal, etc. This reviewer thought it blamed racism too much, but as a white, middle-class male, such criticism might not get any mileage.

Chapters 17 through 19 are titled “Promoting Kingdom Signs in the City” and is a mixed bag as well. Chapter 17 provides helpful strategies for ministry to the poor but the difficulties faced are faced by those in rural ministry as well. The same may be said of many of the problems addressed in chapter 18. This chapter also fails to establish boundaries for community transformation. I admit that I have no easy answers for this dilemma. One the one hand, if a missionary gives people clean drinking water, certainly they will be more receptive the gospel the missionary will preach, but on the other hand, is that really what the missionary should be doing? My point is not to dispute this (I’m on the side of giving them water), but to say that one must ask the question and determine how far one is willing to go in this.

Chapter 19 would require ten pages in itself. Overall the pattern for spiritual warfare rings true despite the approving reference to C. Peter Wagner’s book on spiritual warfare though it is written from a Pentecostal perspective. CO do acknowledge in their conclusion that there needs to be additional study and rethinking and this attitude of humility is imperative for any minister or missionary. This reviewer will certainly be thinking through this chapter and its implications as well.

The final chapter I want to review is Chapter 24: “Equipping the Laity for Ministry.” This is something often overlooked in the last few decades as the megachurch phenomenon has led the average churchgoer to assume that the paid minister will do the work of ministry. This chapter would serve as a good introduction to laity training in any context and encourages the minister or missionary to use their best assets, those already in the community, to accomplish much of the outreach and ministry. There may be growing pains and boundaries may need to be redrawn, but such a ministry will be rewarding to the ministry volunteer and helpful to the minister while growing the kingdom.

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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