The book begins with brief history lesson from Marsh regarding the church’s takeaways from the Civil Rights Movement. In the first chapter, he offers a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., who described the ultimate aim of the Civil Rights Movement as that of reconciliation, redemption, and the creation of a beloved community (p. 17). This incredible movement of the 1950s and 1960s reminds us of Christianity’s essential affirmations, including showing hospitality to outcasts, reclaiming the ideals of love, embracing nonviolence, and practicing justice and mercy (p. 21).
The following chapter by Perkins is equally powerful but less optimistic. Perkins, a black pastor from rural Mississippi, suggests that King’s original vision for beloved community has been lost or forgotten among evangelicals and therefore needs to be revisited and revamped. This church-wide neglect of the poor is a result of the Evangelical Church being held hostage by its own cultural captivity for the past several decades.
The next three chapters focus on the marks of true conversion and the evangelistic impetus of believers to reach across societal and cultural diving lines in the name of Christ. For Perkins, evangelism is simply reading the scriptures with others and talking about how God wants to use them to influence society (p. 81). He believes that America is on the brink of the next Great Awakening because young Christians everywhere are valuing authentic relationships with one another and reconciliation for their communities. Marsh agrees, and believes God’s movement in the Twenty First Century is contingent on the church “learning to speak the language of peace” to believers and nonbelievers alike (p. 105).
In the final chapter, Perkins implores local congregations to commit to rebuild themselves, their families and their communities, which have become broken by injustices and enslaved by cultural captivity for far too long. He then reminds readers of Zechariah’s vision of the peaceful city, where young and old can live together in harmony with one another, playing and laughing together in the city streets. In short, Perkins’ prayer and vision for the neighborhood aligns with Zechariah's. Like the prophet, Perkins believes that God has a plan of redemption for our cities. Namely, Perkins says God wants to “interrupt this broken system with his love” (p. 112). This plan of redemption will take a long-term commitment of local congregations to invest in a place and a people, alongside an outpouring of the Spirit.
As a white evangelical, I found some of the book’s most challenging and poignant moments to be when Perkins calls out white evangelicals, such as the following quote from Chapter Two:
“I just don’t understand… why the same white churches who think they are too culturally different to do anything in my black community send missions teams to Africa. Is the cultural barrier easier to cross in an airplane? We’ve let this world define us to the point that we don’t trust God to transform us and make community possible across racial and economic lines” (p. 42).
Perkins' words are tough but true. Evangelical churches may raise millions of dollars annually for international airfare to send short-term missions teams overseas. However, these same churches often fail to find the money for neighborhood mothers who can’t afford diapers for their newborns. What’s more, on these international trips Christians are empowered and encouraged to lead and love like Christ in another culture and context. Again and again, these Christians are overcoming their fears, getting outside their comfort zones and sharing the good news of Christ with complete strangers overseas. And yet, when these same missions teams return home, local churchgoers cannot find the courage to cross racial or socioeconomic dividing lines a few blocks away or a few houses down.
Perkins rightly suggests this cultural disconnect boils down to a lack of true, relational discipleship. “Coming out of our cultural captivity, I hear God saying that this is a time for rebuilding the church and remembering what it really means to be Christ’s body in the world,” Perkins says (p. 109). He goes onto argue that, “Jesus invested God’s love in authentic relationship with broken people who were created in God’s image… He evangelized by loving broken people like they had never been loved before” (pp. 76-77).
Another strong point of the book is found in the final chapter, where Perkins says that a shift toward becoming a beloved community must begin with loving and serving our neighbors in a particular place. “If the church is going to offer some real good news in broken communities, it has to be committed to a place,” Perkins says. “(A commuter church) is not an asset to the community…It’s a liability” (p. 114). Here, Perkins articulates the growing conviction among young evangelicals for their churches to become relevant among their neighbors. In addition, there is an increasing desire to be incarnational by moving into a specific neighborhood in order to participate in ministries of justice there. If church buildings are merely taking up space in a given neighborhood and gathering in isolation but the people inside are not striving to serve neighbors, engage in community development, or proclaim the gospel of Christ on the other side of the parking lot, perhaps these churches are being perceived as liabilities rather than blessings.
I also agree with Perkins that being committed to a place means we care about getting to know our neighbors and investing in the beautification of the neighborhood. We care because their neighborhood is our neighborhood; their struggles are our struggles; their injustice is our injustice; their hope is our hope. If we are committed to a place, then we will be more prone to care about the beauty, jobs, politics, schools, peace, and overall health and well being in that place. More importantly, through prayer, the Spirit will grow our heart for the people of that place. “Community development is important, but it means very little if we’re not also invested in the development of people,” Perkins says (p. 117). This starts with befriending the people in the neighborhood including single moms and grandmas, fathers and the fatherless, young adults and teenagers, children and infants.
In summary, Marsh and Perkins offer strong words of conviction and hope for evangelicals. Guided by scripture and the Spirit, we can proactively cross racial and economic dividing lines and enter into genuine friendship with our neighbors because, according to Marsh, “God has crossed every barrier to become friends with us” (p. 106). The false dichotomy between preaching the Word and participating in acts of social justice is being reconciled. At long last, we have started to buy into the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “One must not only preach a sermon with his voice, he must preach it with his life” (p. 102). As a result, we are entering into a new era, a new awakening, and a new movement toward beloved community.