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17 July 2019

Book review: Seeking a City with Foundations by David W. Smith

Seeking a City with Foundations: Theology for an Urban World

By David W. Smith

Nottingham: IVP, 2011. ISBN 9781844745319. 272 pp.

Reviewed by Peter Rowan

National Director of OMF UK

Mission Round Table Vol. 12 No. 1 (January-April 2017): 47-48

Recent years have witnessed an increasing focus on the growth of cities and megacities in the non-Western world. Mind-boggling statistics with accompanying analyses provide us with insights into what an increasingly urbanised world will look like. Sadly, the Christian community has been slow to respond to what this means for mission. Research conducted by Global Connections suggests that for most mission agencies in the UK a rural paradigm of world-mission still predominates. The GC report concluded that in the UK “it is difficult to find a Christian perspective that really understands and interprets the city and its implications for mission and models for mission.”[1] David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations, provides foundations and perspectives on the city and what it means to engage with the urban contexts of today in missional and gospel centred ways.

As the title suggests, Smith is attempting to provide a theology for an urban world which should inform our thinking and practice in Christian mission. Setting out his agenda for an urban theology (42–47), Smith notes that “Unfortunately, Christian reflection on the urban challenge has often jumped far too quickly to the practice of mission within the city, and so has lacked adequate research and understanding of the nature of the urban context” (42). The product of serious engagement with current research on the nature of the urban context, this book is a model of cross-disciplinary dialogue, which Smith himself urges on and invites anyone attempting to do mission in such contexts.

After describing what the modern urban world looks like, the rest of part one is a survey of urban history, all the while probing every context with T. S. Eliot’s question from The Rock: “What is the meaning of this city?” We are taken to diverse urban contexts, including those impacted by the Reformation. In Geneva, Calvin embarked on “a remarkable experiment in urban social transformation,” delivering sermons and theology which identified “clear ethical guidelines for the merchants and bankers in his congregation” (62).

Towards the end of part one, Smith gives three signs of hope for the urban world of the twenty-first century. His third sign is found in the most unlikely of contexts: Islam. While it may be a widely held assumption in today’s world that “a secular urban model is the only one available to us,” Smith draws our attention to the significance “of cities that are profoundly shaped by an Islamic vision” (99). Certain Islamic groups, e.g., in Egypt, have been effective in creating projects that provide “economic, medical and social support to millions of poor urban dwellers” (101) and these movements “offer an alternative vision of our shared urban future, one which needs to be understood and taken seriously beyond the Islamic world” (101).

Part two concentrates on the biblical and theological foundations for an urban theology. A chapter on the Old Testament includes an excellent treatment of Joshua and the conquest of the land. Smith challenges readers to ask what love in the city should look like. Using the experience of Hosea, Smith considers “what happens to life in the city when a community loses contact with the ultimate source of love, turns sex into a false sacred, and abandons moral and ethical norms beyond a concern for self-interest and self-fulfilment” (155). The urban laments of Jeremiah lead to two central themes of OT hope for the city: the promise of God’s shalom, and the divine purpose for the nations of the world.

A chapter on the New Testament finds Smith debunking the commonly held assumption that Jesus’ ministry had little to do with urban life and urban issues. Although there was indeed an orientation towards the small towns and villages of the Galilean countryside, “the population of those towns and villages consisted of people facing great tensions and distress on account of political and economic decisions taken by rulers far away at the centre of imperial power and implemented by their agents within Palestine” (173). Smith later argues that “the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee would have provided a later generation of believers scattered across the Empire with direction, encouragement and challenge” (223).

Seeking a City concludes by highlighting the place of the church in bringing hope to an urban world. A most crucial question is posed by Smith: “Does the global Christian movement presage the appearance of an alternative model for the human family to that now provided by economic globalization, or is such a prospect completely illusory because, beneath a merely nominal unity, the Christian faith in fact reflects the sociocultural divisions of the wider world instead of transcending them?” (232).

Hope for an urban world will be found in an ecclesia that demonstrates an alternative model for the human family. Smith proposes that it should be characterised as evangelical—not in any partisan way but in terms of its missional character; emerging, in the sense that the ecclesia is a “pilgrim community, always on the road and in a continual state of ‘becoming’”; and catholic—prepared to work out locally what it means to participate fully in the life of the multicultural church that is a twenty-first century reality.

An earlier version of this review appeared in 2013 in the online forum for the British and Irish Association of Mission Studies, an organization which has subsequently been incorporated into the British and Irish Association for Practical Theology

[1] Paul Hildreth, “Strategic Review on UK to Global Mission and Implications for Global Connections – Summary of Interim Findings and Conclusions”, unpublished paper presented at the Global Connections UK Annual Conference, 2011.