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Urban Churches, Vital Signs: Beyond Charity Toward Justice

By Nile Harper
Eerdmans. 1999. 334 pp. Pb. $25. ISBN 0-8028-4441-3

Reviewed by Carl S. Dudley, Hartford, Conn.


If churches were portraits, this book would be a national museum. Urban Churches, Vital Signs offers a magnificent gallery of verbal portraits of city ministries, with the brilliant colors illuminating the artistry of those who are doing the job.

Nile Harper, as author and editor, working with interviews from pastors and church leaders, offers 28 story-pictures of urban congregations that are unique and potent in their various ministries.

With strong implication that these programs can happen anywhere, these vivid witnesses are located in major cities from Portland and Los Angeles to Savannah and New York. With the common bond of bridging both charity and justice in the name and Spirit of Jesus Christ, they are drawn from 15 religious bodies, from the established Roman Catholic Church to the evangelical Church of God in Christ.

Implicitly denying church growth as a measure of success, the churches using these powerful programs range in membership from 125 to 15,000, but most reflect the modest midrange of typical Protestant congregations. The implication is clear: you also can do it, and here’s how.

But the profile of these congregations as a whole is unique and challenging. The majority (16 of 28 stories) are drawn from the African-American community. They have maximized black cultural values to support congregations with a strong place in community life and to honor the bond between corporate faith and civic action.

The total group is also heavily weighted toward churches with affiliations with historic mainline Protestant denominations (again, 16 of 28), where financial links and personal bonds within denominational networks have been parlayed into ministries much larger than would be possible by the particular church alone.

These are powerful and compelling church portraits. The people and places are authentic, the social conditions and the Christian commitment are genuine, the pain and the victories are real as well. As you would expect from such a scenario, these reports do not dwell on the somber tones of ministry — major losses, petty bickering and the dark nights of the soul — and to that degree they reflect the romance of first love. But they are rich in the colors of lay as well as minister leaders, of congregations as dynamic communities and faith as a motive for action.

The stories offer a happy antidote to the simplistic analysts who so concentrate on high-profile ministers that they denigrate all others who do not measure up. Rather, Harper has written about congregations, not just their pastors. He shows leaders (lay and minister) who have a special chemistry-in-Christ to mobilize the strengths of the whole congregation.

When compared with the success literature associated with church growth, Urban Churches, Vital Signs offers a bold and necessary alternative. Located in the poverty and multicultural confusion of our cities, these congregations must fight against hopelessness every step of their journey. They are driven by social urgency, not institutional success. They emphasize kingdom building, not personal salvation. They paint in the colors of community conversion, not incremental growth.

We can almost hear the music when they claim the centrality of worship and education, the importance of strong leaders and committed laity, and the genius to turn hardship into opportunity.

These stories have a pattern that is instructive as well. Each begins with a brief history of the congregation in its transitional urban context. Each tells of the energy necessary to meet the new day with programs of outreach and renewal.

Typically congregations identify and energize particular areas of potential ministry, such as youth, education, housing and health care. Either early or late, or both, the faith and worship that undergirds each ministry will be introduced and honored, and then the larger systemic issues will be exposed.

These brief portraits are not just pictures, they are transformational stories of communal conversions, each in its own faith journey. There is a pattern: initially congregations move from an established status to confusion as they confront their radically changing social conditions. In this unstable and uncomfortable setting, they learn by doing; they build the airplane after it leaves the runway.

Urban Churches, Vital Signs offers a set of portraits that should live in the heart of every urban Christian. Educationally oriented, each chapter concludes with “What We Can Learn.” A final chapter pushes the reader “beyond charity toward justice.” In addition, there are study notes, bibliography and a list of resource organizations.

In the end, the larger landscape dominates the detail in this book; urban ministry is powerful and possible for artists who see the whole picture first.