To save the cities, go to church, not city hall

REVOLUTION AND RENEWAL: HOW CHURCHES ARE SAVING OUR CITIES By Tony Campolo Westminster John Knox Press

272 pp., $16.95

It's a sign of the times. The phrase "faith-based social programs" has almost become a buzzword, ringing through the corridors of Congress, dropping readily from the lips of presidential candidates, filling newspaper columns. What it clearly signals is that church is "in."

"Revolution and Renewal: How Churches are Saving Our Cities," is Tony Campolo's paean to that phenomenon. But Dr. Campolo, a Baptist pastor and professor of sociology at Eastern College in St. David's, Penn., goes much further. He urges that churches become "the lead institution" in bringing about a transformation of America's troubled cities, and he offers an ambitious prescription for how to go about it.

It's easy to see why Campolo is a sought-after inspirational speaker. This book rings with his love for the city and its residents, deep conviction of the power of faith, and demonstrated commitment to putting faith into action.

Amid great prosperity in the United States, he reminds us, some cities are still dying, with profound ramifications for their residents. Churches are virtually the only institutions that have stuck it out in decaying neighborhoods. In grappling with societal ills, Campolo points out, America has been through the laissez-faire period from the Civil War to the Great Depression, and the big-government period from the New Deal to the Great Society. It's tried "benign neglect." Both Republican and Democratic prescriptions have failed. Now, he insists, "the church's time has come."

Churches must address both the spiritual need of individuals and families to be freed from the "culture of poverty" and the "structural evils" that shape the environment of unemployment, drugs, crime, and decay.

The unapologetically activist stance derives from years of urban-ministry experience - his own and others - and a recognition that needed change won't occur simply through a person-by-person approach. Campolo highlights "systemic evils," for instance, with the compelling story of how private and public institutional decisions put a once-healthy community, Camden, N.J., and its families, on the road to disintegration.

This is an evangelical Christian agenda in the spirit of Call to Renewal, an ecumenical group of Christians from across the political spectrum aimed at fighting poverty and countering policies of the Religious Right. Rather than a "triumphalist approach designed to impose a Christian agenda on others," Campolo says, it offers a "servant model," where the church doesn't seek power, but encourages others to find their voices and take action.

Its essence lies, first, in reaching out to neighborhoods through evangelization, and then, in developing within churches the capacities to be convenors of town meetings, incubators for job-creating enterprises, innovators in urban education, fosterers of family life, and reformers in criminal justice.

There are even plans for private "Christian prisons."

Campolo is convinced where the power lies to carry out such bold initiatives. In describing the important first step - visitation programs in neighborhoods - he says: "The 'seventy' sent out by Jesus to visit people door to door with the Gospel were amazed at what happened to them. They found they were able to speak with an authority they never suspected was theirs. These ordinary folks realized that they were endowed in ministry with extraordinary powers."

One of his own organizations now runs a program called Mission Year, in which young college students from across the country spend a year living in small groups working with urban churches. Eastern College's new Institute for Urban Studies trains local church leaders in economic development skills and helps get mini-enterprises started. Some churches adopt a school and some adopt ex-prisoners. Suburban churches link up with urban churches for resource sharing.

Apart from the tremendous expectations placed on city churches, the question also arises as to just what the "servant model" of evangelistic action entails. Religious conversion is seen as a key element in change. And in his final chapter, Campolo talks about the "spiritual warfare" needed to counter the evils holding cities in their grip. For some evangelicals, other faiths are part of the "darkness" to be countered. What does that mean for "the lead institution" in an increasingly diverse America? And how would public resources be employed for projects if evangelization is the starting point?

Campolo's emphatic call to action should be a spur to Americans who call themselves religious to care in deed as well as word about our cities. But much remains to be sorted out as churches tackle the expanding role society has handed them.

*Jane Lampman is on the Monitor Staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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