A Book Review
Linda Bergquist and Michael D. Crane. (2018). City Shaped Churches: Planting Churches in the Global Era. Skyforest, CA: Urban Loft Publishers.
Living in Buenos Aires and having taught and served in other megacities like Caracas, Bogotá, Lima and Santiago de Chile, I must agree with Bergquist and Crane: suburban models will not suffice in ever-expanding urban centers. Their book, City Shaped Churches is a valiant effort to encourage fresh thinking and practice in urban church planting.
City Shaped Churches begins with a chapter by Michael Crane about cities in the biblical narrative and then gives way to practical considerations about urban church planting. I was especially interested in two of their chapters as they focused on two main areas of our ministry here in Buenos Aires: “Church Planting Across Socioeconomic Groups” and “Diversity Central: Reaching Immigrants” (chapters four and five, both by Linda Bergquist).
The book has many virtues which numerous authors have written about in their endorsements of the book. I will limit myself here to mentioning a few things that I find to be problematic.
It is a great temptation in the missiological community to allow missionary conferences, academic journals, the blogsphere and small networks of academics and practitioners to form the walls of an echo chamber that limit the scope and nature of meaningful dialogue about global church planting. The two chapters I focus on in this review cite a great number of statistics yet deal superficially with profound biblical themes and interact very little with the social sciences. This does not, however, keep the authors from making broad and sweeping statements on the topic at hand.
In the book’s bibliography (pgs. 383-398), the only missiological text cited that was written by a non-Western author published outside of the West is J.N. Manokaran’s book, Christ & Cities: Transformation of Urban Centers (Cheenai, Tamil Nadu: Missional Education Books). Nevertheless, Manokaran’s work is not employed as a partner in dialogue about Christ-centered change in the transformation of urban centers (at least in chapter four) but is merely used to cite the number of city dwellers in slums in India.
Why are there not more global thinkers involved in this conversation about church planting in the “global” era? Are North Americans and Anglo-speaking Europeans the only ones writing about church planting in urban centers? Why is the entire bibliography in English?
One of the subtitles of chapter four is “Jesus Loved Rich People and Poor People” (pg. 81). This section opens with several disturbing and somewhat ambiguous statements that reveal a non-critical understanding of socioeconomic dynamics in urban centers as well as an underdeveloped biblical theology of poverty.
One such statement is “Jesus seemed to respect the status of poverty” (pg. 81). What does this mean? Is poverty a status or a lack of status? Does poverty as status fit into an anthropology of honor/shame?
This is prefaced by another uncritical statement about a first-century understanding of wealth and poverty: “[f]or Jewish people of the day, wealth was synonymous with the blessing of God”. This might have been the common misconception of the day, yet the Old Testament gives us sufficient reason to believe that this is not true. A brief glance through the Hebrew scriptures challenges this very notion with great power. In the Hebrew Bible, we see that wealth and an abundance of possessions were actually the fruit of exploitation and injustice.
Bergquist spends one paragraph describing the teachings and ministry of Jesus among the poor followed by two paragraphs of Jesus’ work among the rich. Quoting the often misunderstood saying of Jesus in Mark 14:7, “you always have the poor with you” (ESV), Berquist proceeds to enumerate the rich and faithful disciples of Jesus without offering a biblical analysis of the Rabbi’s words. Jesus saying is once again, due to the context within this particular chapter of the book, misinterpreted and used to alleviate would be church planters of their responsibility to the poor.
After quoting the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report and painting a bleak picture of global inequality, Berquist cites an apparently random blogger from India, D. Muthukrishnan, a.k.a. “Muthu”. After giving statistics about the rich in India in 2015, Muthu gives the following advice, “[c]ount your blessings. Help and give opportunity to the less privileged” (pg. 83). Bergquist gives a hearty amen writing, “we agree, Muthu” (ibid.) as somehow saying, “after a meager analysis of Jesus’ interaction with the poor and mostly the rich, we think this Indian blogger has a great idea about how to deal with income inequality across the globe – thank your lucky stars and be charitable with the less fortunate”.
First of all, the “less privileged” of India and other urban slums around the world are not less “privileged”, they are exploited and a necessary part of unjust social structures that create wealth for the rich and powerful. Their poverty is not in any way unrelated to the wealth and privilege of the numerous millionaires in India or anywhere else.
Secondly, while thanking God for your “more fortunate” socioeconomic position and giving out charity to the “less fortunate” might pacify your conscience, it certainly does not align you with the God who, when He became flesh and bone, identified plainly and purposefully with the poor and marginalized of the earth. In the Bible inequality is an injustice and charity is not a substitute for true compassion and solidarity.
In giving considerations for planting churches in poor communities, Bergquist cites Viv Grigg (pg. 84) who has had experiences in slums around the world. He offers five suggestions for middle class people who wish to “live well with and for the poor”: (1) earn much, (2) consume little, (3) hoard nothing, (4) give generously, (5) celebrate life. What appears to be good intentioned charity and a celebration of life in the midst of struggle is actually a fatalist view of the supposedly permanent, necessary and inevitable reality of homicidal poverty.
Bergquist, concerned with the poor and their “access to eternal life” (ibid.), seems fatalistic about any change in the situation of the poor because after all, “the poor would always be among them” (her paraphrase of the words of Jesus, pg. 82). What about God’s inbreaking Kingdom? What about Jesus’ radical teachings and His challenges to the unjust social structures of His day? What about the example of the early church in Acts that turned the tables on socioeconomic injustice through the ever-expanding ekklesia? What about working for transformation and not just to support the status quo as a sign of God’s love and of His redeeming of all creation?
Bergquist’s chapters on church planting among the poor and immigrants reveal a lot of internet research but not deep understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural challeges to these people groups. Also, her chapters do not reveal a deep biblical understanding of the issues she intends to address. I hope that if there is a second edition to come out in the future, the authors might take the necessary steps to give a more robust theological and socioeconomic understanding of the complex reality of the poor and immigrant communities in our globalized cities.
Jonathan Hanegan, B.A. (Oklahoma Christian University), M.A. (Abilene Christian University).
This last point of critique could be easily applied to other theological texts written in English for English-speaking audiences. However, a book about God’s global mission in a global area would seem to imply truly global thinking is necessary.
Contemporary literature about the ministry of Jesus, poverty and the global church today is not difficult to find. Here are a few examples: Craig L. Blomberg. (2013). Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; José Porfirio Miranda (1974). Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books; Ronald J. Sider (2015). Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson; Christopher J.H. Wright. (2004). Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic., 146-181.
Cf. Bryant L. Myers (2011). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.