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Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Stay in the City" (Mark R. Gornik and Maria Liu Wong)

TITLE: Stay in the City: How Christian Faith Is Flourishing in an Urban World
AUTHOR: Mark R. Gornik and Maria Liu Wong
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017, (95 pages).

There was a time in which many Christians flood the suburbs as the city becomes either too expensive or over-populated. Some see the city as too secular for their comfort. Others deem the city a lost cause due to the rising levels of crime and social ills. For young families, it is also increasingly difficult to afford to live in cities where the cost of living rises each year. Yet, the city continues to hold a strange attraction for many. Going downtown or uptown is also a popular choice among young people. What if all Christians vacate the city? Where then would gospel witness come from? Even in an age of Internet and social media connections, there is still a need for face to face interactions and communications. The authors of this book believe that Christians have a calling to stay in the city as a gospel witness. They provide encouraging stories of the many creative witness happening in major cities such as the City of Refuge in Brooklyn that offers refuge for the homeless. Over in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a terribly expensive city, a young couple made their home so hospitable that teenagers loved to pop in for a snack and where parents could drop off their kids for a few hours. Other stories of hope and mercy fill the pages of this very engaging book about how Christians are making a difference in the cities. This book is a companion volume to "Sense the City." The latter goes more in depth about the skills and the practical things needed. This book shows forth the stories and the reasons why Christians ought to continue to be engaged in the work of the gospel in the city. Why? There are many reasons. More and more people are living in cities. Much of the need for the gospel are in cities and urban areas. In fact, cities are creeping into suburban lands and not the other way round. Cities are also hubs of opportunities, given the many resources and growth activities in them. There is also global migration to keep track of.

There is something that is quite unique in the approach to ministry in the city. Conventional models begin with what churches do or perceive the need. Gornik and Wong's approach is about waiting and listening before embarking upon anything. They base their approach on Luke 24:49 to "stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." This staying does not mean jumping into all kinds of frenzied activities and programs. It means listening, praying, discerning, and humbly learning about what to do and what not to do. Chapter One looks at the changes happening in both the cities and the churches in North America. As we observe, listen, and engage the city dwellers, we are assured that we are not alone in ministry. We also see opportunities and to realize that opportunities abound outside even as the Church increasingly face challenges inside. Chapter Two helps us to make sense of a coherent whole out of the many happenings in the city. The key word is vocation where our calling is a guiding strategy to make sense of the stories around us. Chapter Three looks at the "Art and Public Faith" that creates a "third space" for interactions and conversations. Art opens up opportunities for conversations. Incidentally, if art or music could raise questions for the public, we could even have the public asking questions themselves, that we could be ready to give an answer for the hope we have in Jesus. Personally, this chapter is most helpful as it contains many new ideas on how to do creative evangelism. Have a drama night, musical concert, or an arts exhibition comprising photographs, drawings, artwork, etc. Chapter 4 is about hospitality and Maria shares her story of immigration from HK to New York and how she made peace with her own calling to build bridges and work cross-culturally in the city. In fact, just walking a block away from where we live or work opens up our eyes to the many unique features of our neighbourhoods. Chapter 5 looks at the next generation where it was noted that "young people most often flourish in churches where young leaders have the freedom to try new things." In other words, the next generation must be allowed to minister and work with others. No more doing things for them, but with them. No more spoon-feeding them but letting them learn how to fish. Chapter 6 gives us a way to look at city ministry on a longer perspective, giving us five points to consider in our creation of a "third space" for ministry.

This book challenges me in three ways. First, it challenges me to look closely and listen carefully to the extraordinary things happening in ordinary times. Just like the wisdom in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun, so it is better we learn to live in the present and minister in the neighbourhood contexts that we are in. The exhortation to stay in the city is a way to preempt our human tendency to jump to the next big thing or wave of change. Come to think of it, if we do not deal with our present situation well enough, it will not be long before we start jumping again in our next place. For a restless heart will never find rest anywhere except when one's heart is at rest. Be at peace where we are so that we can minister the grace of God in our present contexts, without being worried about missing out the next big thing elsewhere. Who knows, the really big thing could be happening right in our backyard! Second, I like the creative ideas generated in chapter 3, which talks about the arts and the various expressions of what it means to be human. Far too often, we see evangelism as some kind of a tract passing, pamphlet handling or a gospel rally. We should think out of the box and to use arts to spur conversations. After all, our task in evangelism is not to convert people but to invite people into conversation. By linking up and talking as one human to another human, we would be more authentic and more able to connect with people, both believers as well as unbelievers. Have an art exhibition and invite the neighbourhood in. Organize a musical event for the neighbourhood. These things are just a snapshot of the boundless creative programs we can embark upon, without appearing too condescending in our gospel presentation. Granted, we are eager to see people enter the kingdom of God. Yet, the work of conversion is always with the Holy Spirit, not us. Third, this book should spur more people to see ministry in the cities as their primary calling. They could be practicing faith in the workplace or theology in the marketplace without having to restrict themselves to a conventional Church-based environment. Whether it is cafe outreach or some kind of an informal small group gathering, the gospel is about opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit, for God to guide us to wherever the wind blows. The authors have situated the book in New York City, one of the most vibrant, multicultural, and eclectic cities in the world. If it could work there, it could most probably work in other cities. However, the work of contextualization will need to be continually done. The last chapter of the book gives us the necessary tools to do just that.

I applaud the authors for sharing their knowledge and expertise in this book.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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