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To Transform a City: Whole Church, Whole Gospel, Whole City

To Transform a City: Whole Church, Whole Gospel, Whole City

by Eric Swanson, Sam Williams

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To Transform a City is a timely, compelling book that helps readers understand how to think about cities, their own city, and the broad strategies needed for kingdom impact. The book begins with an overview of the importance of cities in the new day in which we live. The authors address the process of transformation along with examples of where and how communities


To Transform a City is a timely, compelling book that helps readers understand how to think about cities, their own city, and the broad strategies needed for kingdom impact. The book begins with an overview of the importance of cities in the new day in which we live. The authors address the process of transformation along with examples of where and how communities have been transformed throughout history. After writing a persuasive chapter on kingdom thinking the authors unfold the meaning of the whole church, the whole gospel, and the whole city. The book ends with the need for people of good faith to work together in the city with people of good will for the welfare of the city.

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To Transform a City

Whole Church, Whole Gospel, Whole City

By Eric Swanson, Sam Williams


Copyright © 2010 Eric Swanson and Sam Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-52330-7



The city dweller becomes someone else because of the city. And the city can become something else because of God's presence and the results in the life of a man who has met God. And so a complex cacophony raises its blaring voice, and only God can see and make harmony of it.

— Jacques Ellul, The Meaning of the City

On Wednesday, May 23, 2007, Shao Zhong, clutching a black plastic bag filled with all his possessions, shuffled off the train onto the platform of Beijing's West Railway station. He was from a small rural village in the Shaanxi province and had arrived at the city to work in a factory with several others from his village. Shao Zhong was moving to the city that day and was one of over three hundred thousand passengers arriving at the station. But unbeknownst to him, his arrival at that moment signaled a historic event. Shao's arrival in Beijing that morning tipped the global demographic scales from a rural to an urban majority. There are now, scattered around the globe, more people living in cities than in the rural areas of the world. Most important, this is an irreversible trend. For the rest of human history, the earth's population will be more urban than rural. We believe that this historic shift has huge implications for the mission of the church as we seek to transform our communities.

What Is a City?

As we begin to think about cities and their transformation, it is helpful to begin by defining exactly what we mean by a city. Is a city different than a town or a village or a hamlet? Is a city defined by the size of the population, its place and geography, or its function ... or some combination of all three? In the early years after the founding of the United States, Americans were quick to confer the title of city on almost any small settlement. In 1871, for example, the city we know today as Boulder, Colorado, was incorporated under the great name of Boulder City — but it was really nothing more than a small mining settlement. The same was true for "cities" like Dodge City, Kansas; Silver City, Nevada; and hundreds of other small towns across the United States that added the impressive-sounding surname. Defining a city is not as easy as one might think. All cities are not defined equally, regardless of what they are named.

In his beautifully illustrated book The City Shaped, Spiro Kostof refers to two popular definitions for the term city: "Two sensible definitions, both from 1938, would allow us a good starting point. For L. Wirth, a city is a 'restively large, dense, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals.' For Mumford, a city is a 'point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community.'"

Words like dense, permanent, and heterogeneous are helpful terms to get us started. Clearly, cities involve a certain concentration of people in a limited geographic area. Richard Sennett defines a city as "a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet." 6 He goes on to suggest that "for this definition to hold true, the settlement has to have a large, heterogeneous population, the population has to be packed together rather densely; market exchanges among the population must make this dense, diverse mass interact." In other words, at the most basic level, cities are groups of people densely packed together. But size and density of the population don't really capture the full picture of a city, so we'd like to consider a more practical, simple definition for the purposes of this book.

A Working Definition

Rather than working our way through ever more complex sociological definitions, we'd prefer to start with a minimalist definition for a city that goes beyond mere matters of size and population density. In the spring of 2008, I (Eric) attended a three-day conference in New York City called Q, sponsored by the Fermi Project, and listened to Tim Keller speak on cities. Tim is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan — an influential church that has helped to plant over ninety churches in New York City. He is also one of the clearest-thinking emerging voices on cities. Keller defined a city that day as "a walkable, shared, mixed-use, diverse area. It is a place of commerce, residence, culture, and politics." We like that definition because it defines a city by utility and function rather than the size of the population. It is a definition that is both scalable and culturally transferable. Each of the words in the definition was chosen carefully and crafted to express the unique and inherent function of any city: walkable, shared, mixed-use, diverse, a place of, commerce, residence, culture, politics. This is a definition that works for Mexico City (provided you are willing to walk for a long, long time) and Mumbai, India, as well as San Diego, California, and Boulder, Colorado. We've found that it's a definition that works for just about any "city" you find yourself in. Occasionally we'll also use the term community in this book in a way that is interchangeable with the word city, but in either case we are referring to the place where you live, work, play, and interact with others in the ways that Keller has defined for us.

What Good Cities Need

In defining cities, it will also be important for us to think about what cities have needed in order to thrive and grow throughout different stages of human history. Joel Kotkin, writing in his book The City: A Global History, provides some insight for us. He writes, "Since the earliest origins, urban areas have performed three separate critical functions — the creation of sacred space, the provision of basic security, and the host for a commercial market. Cities have possessed these characteristics to greater or lesser degrees. Generally speaking, a glaring weakness in these three aspects of urbanity has undermined life and led to their eventual decline."

Kotkin suggests that there are three critical functions — sacred space, security, and a commercial market — that every city must provide for its people. Church leaders who want to engage in holistic, kingdom-minded ministry in and to the city must learn to recognize and engage deeply in all three spheres. We'll address this more in later chapters, but at this point it is important to recognize these key, critical functions of every city.

What Makes a Modern City?

Cities have been around for thousands of years, but modern cities have developed and grown over the last several decades as they have benefited from technological innovations and scientific developments. In particular, three transforming innovations have been essential in creating the booming, modern cities of our world. The first innovation that makes possible the modern city is the passenger elevator, first put into service in 1857 in New York City. The elevator allows millions of people to live in vertical space rather than simply spreading out horizontally. The elevator brought significant economic shifts to building construction by altering the values of the different floors. Before the invention of the elevator, the cheapest rent was usually found on the highest floors. After all, who would ever want to climb twenty flights of stairs lugging a pound of cheese, a bag of flour, and a half gallon of milk? But after the installation of elevators, the upper floors went for the premium prices, as they had the best views and were farther away from the street noise and the traffic.

The second great innovation that makes possible the modern city is the steel-framed building (1884 – 85). This innovation, now found in countries all over the world, allows for the construction of buildings that soar well over one hundred stories high. In cities like Hong Kong, Dubai, and Shanghai, where the cost of labor is cheaper than the cost of materials, skyscrapers not only are functional in design but also are themselves works of art. The tallest buildings of the twentieth century were the Petronas Twin Towers of Kuala Lumpur, each tower standing over twelve hundred feet high. But these are not just functional buildings. The towers combine stainless steel with glass, melding beauty and functionality to give the dwellers the most prestigious address in Malaysia. Standing next to one of the towers on a recent trip, we were astounded by the quality of the craftsmanship and the artistry of the buildings. They are truly breathtaking.

The third great innovation that allows modern cities to thrive (and survive) is air-conditioning. First made economically feasible in 1902, when it was installed in the New York Stock Exchange building, air-conditioning is what makes it possible for significant work to be accomplished indoors, even in the sweltering heat of summer in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world (or in your home office, for that matter). When people are asked to rank the greatest inventions of the twentieth century, air-conditioning is always near the top of the list.

New Urbanism

Not all of the developments in modern cities have been positive, and more recent movements are offering a corrective alternative to the mistakes of the past. In response to the rise of modern cities characterized by isolated high-rise buildings, many urban planners today are advocating smaller, mixed-use, walkable urban spaces. These are the spaces that are driving much of the revitalization of urban living. More and more families and individuals are eschewing the sterility of the suburbs and returning to redesigned urban centers where they can experience the vitality of city life. Writing on behalf of this new urban movement, Eric Jacobsen defines the new urbanism as "a movement of architects, builders, city planners, and lay persons that advocates development based upon principles of historic downtowns and traditional neighborhoods." If you look around your city (in the United States), you will probably find that when an old shopping mall is torn down, it is usually replaced by buildings and structures built on the architectural values of this new urbanism. The new community that emerges consists of local businesses, eating establishments, entertainment areas, affordable housing, and common space all designed so that (in theory) people can live, work, learn, and play in this new urban community.

Three City Models

Even with our working definition of a city, we should also note that not all cities were designed or settled with the same purpose or function in mind. Canadian-American architect Kevin Lynch suggests there have always been distinct ways of thinking about the design and layout of cities. He proposes three conceptual city models. The first model is what he calls the "cosmic" model of cities. These are cities whose spatial layout reflects the symbolic representation of a belief system. As an example, ancient Chinese capital cities were laid out in perfect squares, with their twelve gates representing the months of the year. Roman cities were laid out according to the equinox and solar axis. A city's high places were typically reserved for temples of worship. Lynch notes that a city doesn't need to be ancient to be designed with cosmic and symbolic significance. Washington, D.C., planned at the end of the eighteenth century, was designed so that there was physical separation between the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), represented by three different edifices. The spatial layout of the city reflects the separation of governmental powers.

The second model that Lynch describes is what he calls the "practical" city. These cities are "imagined as a kind of machine, chiefly a machine for commerce. Such cities are pragmatic and functional; they grow according to material needs, as new parts are added and as old parts are altered. Their urban form derives from simply the addition of undifferentiated parts; they have ... no wider significance."

This definition is not meant to suggest that practical cities are in any way inferior to cosmic cities — they simply have a different organizing structure. New York City, for example, with its planned gridded layout of city blocks, is a practical city. Although it is beautiful, it was built and designed, as a port city, primarily for commerce.

The third model for a city is what Lynch calls an "organic" city: "As the name suggests, this is the city considered as a kind of organism: cohesive, balanced, and indivisible. Medieval towns are organic — their layouts look natural rather than man-made." The streets of organic towns tend to meander; they are of differing widths and are rarely straight. Over the decades, neighborhoods and boroughs are added and joined together in the labyrinth of the organic city. London is a good example of an organic city.

Six Reasons We Need to Engage with Cities

Cities and urban areas also have a different role in shaping culture than do rural areas. While rural areas do have an effect on the culture of a nation or people group, there are at least six reasons why we need to engage at a deeper level with cities.

1. Cities have a transforming effect on people.

2. Cities form a creative center.

3. Cities create fertile ground for thinking and receptivity.

4. Cities can help people live more efficiently and productively.

5. Cities are valued by God.

6. The early Christian movement was primarily urban.

1. Cities Have a Transforming Effect on People

While rural areas tend to have a conserving effect on the culture, city living changes who people are and how they see themselves. Tim Keller tells us why this is true: "The city puts you in proximity to people who think differently than you do, so you must think differently."

A popular American song written in 1918 after America's entry into WWI was titled "How Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?" The lyrics to the second stanza go like this:

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree?
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway,
Jazzin' around and paintin' the town?
How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm?
That's the mystery!
They'll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parlez-vous a cow?
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree?

This song struck a chord with the American people because it reflected the inherent attraction of the city. After all, who would want to move back to the country after experiencing Paris or New York? The songwriters knew that something happens to people who have been to the city. They learn to adapt to a new way of life. This type of personal transformation was only negligibly possible in rural areas. Yale historian Wayne Meeks notes that the cities, in contrast to the conservative villages, were defined as places of change: "The conservatism of villages [is] their 'central characteristic.' 'They and their population hovered so barely above subsistence level that no one dared risk a change.' If some extraordinary circumstance should compel a villager to seek change — a lucky inheritance, a religious vision, or even, rarely, the accumulation of a little real money through frugality, shrewdness, and hard work — it must be in the city that he would work out his new life."

People came to the cities to seek their fortune and find a new life, and for this reason cities needed the attention and focus of the church. In 1893, Scottish evangelist and writer Henry Drummond, writing an address on cities, admonished his readers, "To make cities — that is what we are here for. To make good cities — that is for the present hour the main work of Christianity. For the city is strategic. It makes the towns; the towns make the villages; the villages make the country. He who makes the city makes the world. After all, though men make cities, it is the cities which make men" (emphasis ours).

Drummond goes on to say that the city actually has a greater transformational effect on one's spiritual formation than the church itself. "[T]he church with all its splendid equipment, the cloister with all its holy opportunity, are not the final instruments for fitting men for Heaven. The city, in many of its functions, is a greater church than the church. It is amid the whirr of its machinery and in the discipline of its life that the souls of men are really made. How great its opportunity is, we are few of us aware."

For good or for evil, it is the city that shapes and transforms the lives of people.

2. Cities Form a Creative Center

Connections, conversations, and transactions take place in the city at a far greater rate than they do in rural areas. Lewis Mumford notes, "The unique office of the city is to increase the variety, velocity, extent, and continuity of human intercourse." It is the exchange of things and thoughts that creates something that never previously existed. In his book The City: A Global History, Joel Kotkin observes, "Cities compress and unleash the creative urges of humanity. From the earliest beginnings, when only a tiny fraction of humans lived in cities, they have been the places that generated most of mankind's art, religion, culture, commerce, and technology. This evolution occurred most portentously in a handful of cities whose influence then spread to other centers through conquest, commerce, religion, and, more recently, mass telecommunications."


Excerpted from To Transform a City by Eric Swanson, Sam Williams. Copyright © 2010 Eric Swanson and Sam Williams. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Eric Swanson is a missional leadership specialist with Leadership Network, leading initiatives with externally focused churches that are missionally engaging their communities, cities, and the world.  He is coauthor of The Externally Focused Church (Group, 2004), The Externally Focused Life  (Group, 2009), and The Externally Focused Quest  (Jossey Bass, 2010). He lives in Louisville, Colorado, with his wife, Liz, and enjoys reading, blogging, photography, cooking, travel, and good coffee.
Sam Williams is the codirector of Vision San Diego, a coalition of 200 public, private, and not-for-profit sector organizations working together to serve San Diego.  He was a pastor for 35 years, a seminary professor, has planted 13 churches, and is a church and leadership consultant. He lives in San Diego with his wife, Nancy, and loves books, movies, and loving on his grandkids.

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