Friday, November 30, 2012

Conn the Optimist

More on Harvie Conn's last published work - written with Manuel Ortiz - Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God  (Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 2001). 

There is much that is very helpful in this book. Part 2 contains a number of insights into the biblical persepcitves of the city. In complete contrast to Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), however, Conn is at pains to point out the positive of city building in the Bible. He asserts that the cultural mandate may just as well be termed an ‘urban mandate’ (p. 87). “...the founding of the first city will be one of the first achievements of this enduring mandate to expand the borders of the garden (Gen 4:17,” says Conn, rather than the act of rebellion as Ellul sees it as. But he is not completely optimistic; the city can symbolize contrasting attitudes: “So the heart builds a city either in defiance of God (Gen 11:4) or out of covenant obedience” (p. 93).

In Part 3, Understanding the City, Conn wants to repudiate a negative view of the city that sees it purely as a place of chaos. So he reports the finding of the classic 1968 study of Taylor Street in Chicago by Gerald Suttles: “He noted a social order structured around ecologically settled ethnic areas” that produced a “stable moral order” in which “graffiti at the strategic corners was a means for youth gangs to mark off their territoriality and zones of safety” (p. 171). One wonders whether the graffiti also marked off the territory of gangs and their control of the drugs trade but Conn doesn’t even suggest that as a possibility. Is Conn being naive here? I think so. The city is a place of order that we often may not be able to discern. That reflects on our prejudice and lack of careful observation and reflection. But, as Conn would no doubt have acknowledged, it is not a sinless order. Where there is order, there is also disorder, the inevitable consequence of rebellion against the ordered Creator. While not being unremittingly down on the city, we must avoid the other extreme of urban naivete.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review of Make the World Your Parish

I was asked by Evangelical Times to do a book review for them. It was in the September issue I think. Here it is for those who don't read that paper. I find it hard to write a review of a missions book for a wide readership. On the one hand there will be plenty of readers who have no interest in missions. These people need desperately to read almost any book on missions.

Make the World Your Parish: Increasing Your Global Influence for Christ by Reggie Weems (Leominster: DayOne, 2012; 112 pages; £6).

Reggie Weems,  pastor of Heritage Baptist Church, Johnson City, Tennessee, USA has written this book to “help pastors understand the full ramifications of applied grace (practical theology), and in so doing increase their global influence for Christ” (p. 20). He has a heart for getting pastors involved in mission and helping them lead their congregations in mission just as he has during his twenty year ministry. 

Weems explains the difference between the terms ‘mission’, ‘missions’, ‘missio Dei’ and ‘missional’ as they are used in contemporary missiology and is keen to disabuse his readers of the idea that mission is just something that people do in far-flung places. His emphasis is on discipleship which leads to mission, wherever people are. Weems argues, rigthly, that foreign mission is an extension of this and the author includes a number of case studies of people who are living ‘missionally’ as examples of what he is teaching. I think this is all good stuff. 

I am not especially keen on the book, however, because, although he does include some choice phrases and statements (e.g. “Mission is God’s grace-based global initiative” [p. 19]) sometimes his writing seems to lack originality and can even be quite obscure. The book could have done with a more careful edit.

Having said that I hope Weems’ book is read widely among his fellow pastors in Tennessee. I am sure for many it will increase their passion for God and their appreciation for world mission  today, and will encourage them to be senders, supporters and goers themselves.

Friday, November 16, 2012

How Christopher Wren Wrecked Our Economy

One thing I want to do with this blog is to share some of my reading with you. I don’t do nearly as much reading as I would like but I did manage to read a few books during the summer. Some of these are on the topic of urban ministry – a hot issue in mission today. A few years ago, for the first time in human history, the world became majority urban. We live in that time. That is significant. We need to take seriously the character of our urban environments and the challenges they present. We need to seek to understand the city and reflect on that phenomenon theologically, forming a missiology for the city. So in the coming weeks I hope to share some of my thoughts as I seek to do that.

The first book I want to share is Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God by Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz (Leicester, Inter-Varsity, 2001). This tome is Harvie Conn’s last book before he went home to be with his Lord in 1999. In the Preface Manuel Ortiz, Conn’s associate in urban mission at Westminster Theological Seminary, tells us that, a few days before his death, Conn was disappointed with how much he had managed to achieve. The resulting book is mostly Conn’s work as can be seen from the style, deeply theological and somewhat dense as some of his other works are (e.g. Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue, Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984). Ortiz’s contribution, though, is clearly significant, as will be seen in the different style of parts 4 to 6.

The book is divided into 6 parts:
1.      The City Past and Present
2.      Biblical Perspectives
3.      Understanding the City
4.      Developing Urban Church Growth Eyes
5.      Promoting Kingdom Signs in the City
6.      Leadership and Discipleship for the Urban Church

This is a significant book, representing the mature reflections of seasoned missionaries and theological educators who advocated a special place for urban ministry for decades. The question the authors seek to address is “How does God see the mission of his people in this world of cities” (p. 29)?

In tracing the history of urban development Conn and Ortiz argue that the Reformation (itself a ‘uniquely urban event’) formed an interlude in the process, a ‘parenthetical interruption’ (p. 43). It did not prevent the growing pressure for the secularization of the city. “A new urban order was taking over. Christopher Wren’s plan for the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire of 1666 symbolized it. The dominating site did not go to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Wren planned the new avenues so as to give this honor to the Royal Stock Exchange.” That plan on the grand Baroque style (imitating Paris) was not accepted and the city was rebuilt on the existing street layout. But the values that were expressed in that plan nevertheless did in fact result in the Bank of England being given pride of place at the junction of a number of major roads through the City (you can see it here:,-0.0879595,634m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1). 

Now it might seem idiotic to point out that the global financial crisis of the last four years could not have happened during the Middle Ages, and I am no advocate for the building of grand cathedrals in the centre of cities (or anywhere else for that matter), but it is significant to reflect on the way we plan our cities and what that says about us. (In Nepal I spent quite a bit of time researching the development of the City of Lalitpur and that formed a chapter in my dissertation, which I am told is ready for proof reading, seven years after I sent it for publication!) Our cities are the stages for our civic performances. The way we lay those cities out affects those performances hugely. To a certain extent, then, we can say, I think, that Wren was the architect of our present crisis. “No one can serve two masters,” said Jesus. “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24).