Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review of To Transform a City by Eric Swanson and Sam Williams

When Sam Williams hit the streets of San Francisco to discover the public opinion of church he was struck by one particular response: “The church is a parasite.  It owns the best property.  Doesn’t pay any taxes.  And doesn’t help anybody”.  Granted, that is probably an overstatement.  But far too many churches fit the bill of “doesn’t help anybody”.  Sam Williams and Eric Swanson hope this book is one thing that changes that. 

Their appeal is that churches begin partnering with “any organization that is morally positive and spiritually neutral” (17) for the sake of the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole city.  Obviously, they are not calling on unbelievers to spread a gospel they do not believe in.  But they are saying that churches should engage in community transformation even with unbelievers. 

Swanson and Williams really hope to expand our understanding of the mission and kingdom of God.  They encourage believers and churches to become what they term quadrant-IV Christians.  By Quadrant-IV they mean those who are salt and light that have as our goal both saving the lost and serving the least.  And rather than simply looking to transform individuals we also hope to see a transformed community.  This is an encouragement for churches to not only show, and not only tell, but to actively show and tell the beauty of the gospel.

This book is packed with stories of real people doing what is described in this book.  Williams and Swanson are not passive bystanders merely presenting a theory.  They are actively engaged in doing what this book is talking about.  So because of that they are able to also give some insight and practical help for those inspired to transform their community. 

There is much to commend in this book and anyone desiring to transform a city with the gospel will benefit from interacting with this work.  In fact the book really could be titled To Transform a Community.  The ideas suggested in this book are probably easier to apply in a larger community, but they are certainly just as applicable in a smaller one. 

A few concerns

After reading and thinking through this book I do have a few questions or concerns that cause me to pause.  This may be more the result of the book causing me to think, and/or the Lord creating growth in my heart and mind.  Or it may be legitimate “holes” in the book.  Judge for yourself. 

One particular concern is most clearly shown on page 75.  In this section the authors are discussing how Swanson’s son Andy shares the gospel.  In sharing the gospel Andy actually presents a model of the kingdom to unbelievers and asks things like “what would our campus be like if all of our students followed Jesus and lived as he lived?”  This section concludes with this statement:

“Wow!  Even those who don’t know Christ know that the kingdom is a better story than the one we have.  Life in the kingdom is universally attractive.  The gospel is much bigger than just a personal relationship with God—the gospel of the kingdom can literally change the world”.  (75)

I absolutely agree with that last sentence.  No beef there.  But I do wonder how the “attractiveness of the kingdom” squares with 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (among other places).  It seems to me that the NT pattern is not necessarily that the gospel is attractive to unbelievers but actually a stumbling block.  Undoubtedly Christ grew large crowds of people as he was meeting their needs (see John 6) but often—and this is one of the points of the gospel of John—the gospel is attractive in signs/service but a stumbling block at the point of discipleship (John 6:66). 

So I find myself wondering whether it really is the “whole gospel” if it is met with a “wow, that’s really attractive” type of response.  I agree, and the authors do a wonderful job of showing this, that service is often the open door to sharing the gospel.  But at the end of the day is society really “transformed” in a kingdom type of way while people within it are still rebelling? 

Again, the authors do a wonderful job of encouraging us to engage people with the message of the gospel.  This book does not promote a social gospel, and I do not believe the authors would ever intend to mute or dull the gospel.  But I’m just not sure I agree with their view of the kingdom of God and what its advancement looks like.

I’ll take up my second concern tomorrow…

At the end of the day though, this book is a really good read and a wonderful resource.  You will benefit from reading it and thinking through it.  You can buy it for only 12.90 at Amazon .

Rating 4 out of 5 stars.

This review is part of a blog tour hosted by Zondervan.  I received this book free from Zondervan in exchange for a review.  You can follow the blog tour here

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