A Heart for the Community
New Models for Urban and Suburban Ministry

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 06/14/2010 by Bob Kellemen.

Recommended. An invaluable, encylopedic methodology of urban and suburban ministry in the 21st century.

Moody Publishers and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) joined together with general editors John Fuder and Noel Castellanos, along with nearly three dozen other authors, to produce an encyclopedic reference work for 21st century urban and suburban ministry. What started as an updated edition of A Heart for the City (Moody, 1999), became a fresh new look at emerging models for ministry in our increasingly multi-ethnic society.

This major reworking was necessitated because of titanic shifts in urban issues today—shifts that impinge upon suburban ministry. Specifically, the authors frequently address the "gentrification" of urban areas—the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle classes, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people. Playing itself out across America, cities and suburbs alike are becoming a shifting mix of classes, cultures, and ethnic groups.

Rather than seeing this as a problem, the authors perceive "within it a Kingdom purpose for our generation." The ministry models highlighted throughout A Heart for the Community seize upon this missional opportunity—for both urban and suburban churches.

A fundamental premise of the book is that many pastors are trained in the exegesis of Scripture but not in the exegesis of their community (ethnology). This also explains a primary strength of and the need for A Heart for the Community. It seeks to equip pastors and church planters not only with a theology of the church, but with a methodology for understanding the community surrounding any given church. They seek a "more balanced hermeneutic" in the training of ministry practitioners as they muse over the "proper mix of the biblical text with the contemporary needs of the city and its people."

This very strength could be considered one of the weaknesses of the book. A Heart for the Community is not a theology of urban/suburban ministry. It is more a methodology of. However, since the editors (explained in personal conversation) believe that other solid theological manuals on urban/suburban ministry are available, and this book seeks to supplement those manuals, readers should not be disappointed as long as they understand this mindset.

Still, further exegesis of narratives such as Jesus' compassion-based ministry model and of Paul's ethnological entry into Athens (Acts 17) could have helped to balance the "exegesis of Scripture" and "exegesis of society", and would have illustrated biblical models of such ministry. In fairness, this is not to imply that the book lacks a theological grid or that it excludes any exegesis of Scripture. For instance, Castellanos develops a biblical theology of collaboration, Fuder provides a biblical basis for community analysis, and Dudenhofer shares a theology of neighborliness, just to name three examples.

A Heart for the Community is divided into four main sections. Part 1 focuses on critical issues such as the aforementioned "Gentrification." This section serves to provide an understanding of the paradigm shifts for the church in urban and suburban America. Part 2 highlights church-planting models. This includes anything from the hip-hop church, to the cell church, to the Latino church, to the multi-ethnic church. Part 3 shifts the focus to ministering to suburban needs, while Part 4 addresses para-church ministries in urban and suburban settings.

Each chapter, like a good encyclopedia of ministry, is filled with historical background, cultural insight, and practical methods to implement. Additionally, every chapter includes reflection questions and a recommended reading list. No one can finish A Heart for the Community and leave hungry.

The wide breadth of authors, as with any multi-authored book, lends itself to a diversity of style, background, experience, and depth. A great strength of the book derives from this diversity—numerous engaging, practical, relevant vignettes and real-life narratives illustrate the principles being shared and the points being made.

Some Evangelical readers may be surprised or taken aback by the inclusion of some authors from Catholic and non-Evangelical backgrounds. Additionally, while the authors evidence tremendous diversity, almost all currently minister in the greater Chicagoland area. Thus implications have to be extrapolated in order to apply to other urban and suburban centers.

The various authors consistently eschew any one-size-fits-all approach. Wisely, they encourage pastors, church planters, and para-church leaders to minister idiosyncratically—to take the principles from their chapters and apply them to the unique congregations and communities in which they serve.

While greatly appreciating this relational emphasis, at times the constant barrage of negativity toward "programs" felt overdone. The idea of "organizing the organism" or of "ad-ministering the ministry," or of "people-oriented strategies" seemed to be thrown out entirely. It is possible to balance people and programs to address the unique, complex issues of multi-ethnic urban and suburban ministries.

My copy of A Heart for the Community is highlighted effusively. I took page after page of notes. While I would encourage all readers to "be Bereans" as they read and respond to each author, I would also urge everyone interested in modern urban and suburban ministry to read A Heart for the Community. Like any reference work, you'll not likely agree with every aspect of every chapter/article. However, you will be stretched to think through a practical, pastoral theology for 21st century ministry.