Friends are Better than Books

On the (obvious) limits of books written about urban ministry.

A friend recently posted a link on his Facebook page to a webpage cataloguing a list of “Top Christian Books on Reaching Cities.” I’m not linking to the page as the entire site is a bit confusing and the list itself seems flimsy as pointed out in my friend’s commentary: “How to justify educated, upper middle-class white folks moving to the city to plant churches that end up gentrifying neighborhoods.” You can imagine, given his sarcastic description, what he thinks about the list. I’ve not read any of the recommended books, so I can’t speak to their content, but the list does strike me as overwhelmingly white, male, and mostly coming from a particular evangelical tradition. There may be some helpful books on that list but I wouldn’t know.

However, because I’ve pastored in Chicago for 9 of my 14 years of ministry, I am interested in why lists like this one exist. There’s clearly a market for books that attempt to help Christians reach cities with the gospel. (We’ll leave, for this post, the question about what is imagined by that seemingly innocuous word, reach.) I’m sitting next to my well-stocked bookshelves as I write this and I can’t find a single book about urban ministry among my many, many books. I have to imagine that certain pastors have been helped by such books but I’ve never once felt the need to read about urban ministry over these years, especially from the perspective of those authors – often white – who aren’t homegrown to the contexts about which they write.

Making the Second GhettoNow, I read a lot and many of these books are uniquely relevant to the life and ministry of our urban congregation. This year, for example, I’m doing a deep dive into housing policy and federally-mandated segregation. Books like Making the Second Ghetto,  GentrifierThe Color of Lawand Jim Crow Nostalgia are helping me to see our city and neighborhood more accurately and to think more carefully about our presence within a city that continues to experience the harsh results of hugely complex economic and social forces.

I also read a lot that isn’t geared to urban realities but, given my context, I work to apply those books – wether theology, sociology, history, etc. – to our city and neighborhood. There’s nothing unique about this; it’s the kind of thing pastors in our neighborhood do all of the time. Sometimes the contextual application comes relatively easily while other books require the thoughtful reader to spit out a lot of bones to get to a bit of meat. So it goes. The idea that I would limit my reading to books written specifically for my context or demographic seems odd, thought I suppose this is how much of Christian publishing operates.

So I’m ambivalent about books lists like this one but I do feel very strongly that no list can remotely approximate the wisdom of friendships with those who know more than me. When I think about urban ministry I’m rarely thinking about a book or article; I’m almost always thinking about a person or a congregation whose authority has shaped my vision and commitments. The danger – not small in my experience – of book lists like this one is that it gives the reader, often a white pastor with good intentions, the sense that he or she has read enough to do good ministry. But it’s not possible! Nothing can replace the embodied wisdom and accountability that comes from friendship, mentoring, partnerships, and collaborations in which the long-term residents and congregations set the agenda, goals, and metrics of success.

Maybe this takes more time than working through a list of books, but it’s also so much better. And frankly, it’s not all that complicated, though I suppose someone could write a book about it… or maybe they already have.

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

4 thoughts on “Friends are Better than Books”

  1. David – well said. I agree that there are so many ministry books that just seem trite and tone-deaf to the particular needs of a given community. And urban issues vary from city to city (the challenges we have in Cincinnati are vastly different from those in Orlando). Relationships are the most valuable resource for ideas, inspiration, and sharpening. (and they’re the best source for book recommendations!)

  2. So…rather than ask you for a list of good books on “Urban Ministry” (a question posed to your friend in that FB post), can I ask you for some comments about who some of those PEOPLE are who have provided the embodied wisdom and accountability to you in your own ministerial journey?
    Or, better yet as a means of really demonstrating to others that the knowledge they seek isn’t driven by a book, but rather by joining in the work that is already happening — the people and the efforts/ministries/activities/work that is being done in the urban communities where you live and work? Paint the picture of where God is moving now so others can seek to join in and serve alongside?

    1. If I’m understanding your comment/question, you’re asking for the people and ministries that have formed me within the context of urban ministry. Hope I’m getting that right. I’m not quite sure what purpose that’d serve as the people and ministries are all local and, for the most part, not especially known outside of our neighborhood. I’d suggest that similar people and faithful ministries are available in every urban context for those (newcomers, like me) with the patience to see. I suppose one way of getting a sense of this in our context would be to read our church’s bi-weekly newsletter; it’d provide a flavor at least.

      Hope I’m getting at the spirit of your question.

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