Around the world and throughout America, urbanization is a growing trend. More and more people are migrating to city centers. Meanwhile, many churches—especially white evangelical churches—spent the past generation retreating to the suburbs.
In his book, On the Block: Developing a Biblical Picture for Missional Engagement, Doug Logan calls the church back to urban neighborhoods. With ministry advice and encouraging stories from years in the now notorious Camden, New Jersey, Logan inspires a new generation of missional engagement on the forgotten streets of urban America.
The Book’s Grid Plan
The book’s prologue asks us to consider the unity of missions and the local church. What urban neighborhoods desperately need, according to Logan, are both hope and family. The gospel brings that hope. The church supplies that family. So in subsequent pages, he exhibits the indivisible nature of covenant community and commission as we seek to minister among people “on the block.”
Early chapters suggest the foundation for such ministry begins with seeing God as proto-evangelist, the first missionary to mankind in the story of Adam. Logan also traces God’s heart for the city in Nehemiah, Jesus’s own compassion for Jerusalem, and Paul’s urgency to reach city centers throughout the Roman world.
The remainder of the book—and its true center—is built on the characteristics, or posture, of that mission. Logan begins with his own experience of serving in the rough neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Camden. He then guides his readers down their own city’s streets, helping them see what it takes to reach the difficult and dangerous by, as he says, actually doing something.
What makes Logan’s vision unique is its constant commitment to locational ministry. As evidenced by the title, this book isn’t just about mission to the block, but on it. Logan repeatedly advocates for the church to move beyond its four walls, beyond an attractional model, and onto the streets. And he personally takes us there, demonstrating what such evangelism looks like through stories of redemptive relationships birthed in his own neighborhood.
“What makes [Doug] Logan’s vision unique is its constant commitment to locational ministry.”
These stories of engagement lift the book beyond mere platitudes. But they also avoid promising instant success. Instead, Logan shows that gospel proclamation that leads to lasting fruit is bold, vulnerable, and patient. So when we witness his hospitality, we hear about stolen goods and real threats. When we observe a dramatic conversion, it follows years of prayer and preaching. When we read of changed lives, many times they include an ongoing arm-wrestle with addiction.
In this way, On the Block avoids the pitfall of packaging urban ministry for two-day delivery. Logan intentionally avoids offering a simplistic or programmatic approach, instead calling his method “people-driven.” In fact, the rhythm of the book continually pushes us peopleward: going, living, loving and serving where they are. In much the same approach as international, culture-crossing missionaries, Logan challenges us to contextualize the gospel, knowing the story of our hearers and speaking their language.
If Logan advocates for any program at all it would actually be this posture. In Nehemiah, Jesus, Paul, and even in his own example, we see the character qualities of those who would reach the city. The requisite deportment of urban missionaries is one of Christ-like grief, compassion, urgency, boldness and, last of all, “sentness.” It’s our lack of this sentness that prevents us from seeing our own God-ordained purpose in the neighborhoods where we live.
“The requisite deportment of urban missionaries is one of Christ-like grief, compassion, urgency, boldness and, last of all, ‘sentness.’”
The book also acknowledges the disabling fear arising from our perceived inability to connect with a foreign, urban culture. Amid the ongoing racial tensions in America, fear represents a tangible threat to our bold proclamation. But here Logan’s personal reflection is revolutionary advice from a black man to a mostly white, suburban audience—worthy of an extended quotation here.
In a certain sense, there is nothing particularly “urban” at the heart of urban ministry. Indeed, our efforts will be frustrated whenever we use preconceived, cultural expectations as our lens for gospel engagement, rather than using gospel engagement as the lens by which we set our cultural expectations. What matters most is that the church is emotionally engaged in the hurt and darkness of the context in which it finds itself and that boldly proclaims the gospel into that context with an agonized, loving heart (119).
In this vein, On the Block is really a mission text for the everyman. His paradigms are practical for urban ministry but also helpful in any context. Cultural sensitivity can easily snuff out passionate and personal engagement with, as Logan calls them, the least, the last, and the lost. In the face of racial or cultural incongruity, we may opt for safe silence at a safe distance. But Logan constantly drives us back to people. He calls us, first and foremost, to compassion. Then he challenges us to open our mouths with the gospel to the hurt and hopeless. This is what makes his book truly street-smart.
A Few Back Alleys
Now, as with any book or any city, there are back alleys. At times Logan lacks clarity when applying certain texts. This could easily lead to confusion, especially on a few occasions where Old Testament promises regarding Jerusalem are made to point directly to present-day hope in our own cities. Correlation and continuity between Nehemiah’s day and our own are overstated. This is particularly surprising in light of later recognition that our cities will never be whole in this life.
In some way, this reflects another stylistic glitch in the book. Earlier chapters feel incomplete, almost rushed, perhaps as a later addition to the book. Also, on more than one occasion content was repeated in strange, disconnected ways as if individual chapters were originally separate blog posts later compiled as this book.
But those stylistic speed bumps shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the worth of this work. Because in many ways it represents a recovery of missionary living in our domestic contexts. Logan’s book gives us a vision for urban renewal, then helps us think about it strategically. But more important than that, he helps us think humanly and Christianly about those who are lost without hope and without God in our world. In our neighborhood. On our block.
Elliot Clark (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) lived in Central Asia where he served as a cross-cultural church planter along with his wife and children. He is currently working to train local church leaders overseas with Training Leaders International.