Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Instant Apostle (17 Mar. 2017)
I have known Paul Keeble for a couple of decades as a colleague in the national urban mission networks and have appreciated his significant contribution to the church and community in inner city Manchester. In his new book Paul reflects on his own journey over 35 years starting out as a student and youth evangelist who joined and put down roots in an urban parish not far from Piccadilly station. His experience of living in a council flat and later in an ordinary terraced street, where with his wife Judith he raised his family, has given him a rich understanding of urban life end of the relationship between church and community. The book is largely biographical and Paul tells a good story which is easy to read. At the same time which is a profound and significant theological reflection on living as a Christian in a context of deprivation and diversity.
At the heart of the author's theological and missiological thinking is a gradual progression from concentrating on mission to the community through a commitment to mission for the community that has led in more recent years to a notion of mission with the community. As a new evangelical incomer to Manchester Paul's priority was communicating the gospel to young people outside the church. As he grew to know his neighbours more closely and observed material and social problems he became more involved and committed to mission activities which served their needs. Every urban church, and many now in suburban and small town settings, has become familiar with projects such as food banks, family projects and money advice services. But long-term every day life in urban settings tends to draw you into low level community politics and community partnerships. In Paul's case it was a community response to gun crime in the locality which was taking a devastating toll among local young people, that led to the recognition that he was involved in the mission of God with the community. It is familiar enough to say that the kingdom of God is wider than the church, yet it often takes Christians a long time to understand the implications of this for their mission practice, and indeed this is often resisted on the basis of a desire to remain pure and holy. It is also an established practice in community development to work alongside and with local residents while the recent emphasis on asset based community development resonates well with the approach.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is living and working in the context of an inner city church and community and especially to the new generation of Christians who are intentionally relocating to urban neighbourhoods and deprived estates with a view to church planting, Christian outreach and community transformation. It should be required reading for Eden Network and Urban Expression teams, new clergy and gap year interns. However, it does surprise me that it is taken 35 years for this book to come to publication and I have a degree of concern that it is still needed. 40 years ago when I and a similar group of young people arrived to work in the church and community in East London we soon found we were talking and writing about similar themes and issues. The debates of that time and the period following the publication of the faith in the city report in 1985, produced a considerable literature which came to similar conclusions about community mission. In some senses it is a tragedy and failure that the church as a whole has not listen to these prophetic voices and if anything has retreated into the mission to and mission for models of Christian outreach.
One criticism I have of the book is that in concentrating on telling his own story Paul has not been able to give an account of religious diversity in the city and therefore does not seem to recognise the distinct contribution of new and emerging congregations, many of which serve ethnic minority communities. In some of these the model can better be described as mission from within the community, and although in many cases they operate in silos and do not adopt incarnational methods they are an important sign of the times. They may indeed be God's answer to our earlier longings to see an indigenous, self sustaining and locally led indigenous urban church. They are also a marker of a rapidly changing ecology of the city and of the church in the context of globalisation. We need a stronger sociological account of these processes if we are to develop appropriate and flexible networks and methods of urban mission and community work in the 21st century.
Pears, M. & Cloke P. (eds), 2016. Mission in Marginal Places: The Theory. Authentic Media Inc.
Mike Pears is another veteran of urban mission in London and Bristol while his co-author Paul Cloke is Professor of geography at Exeter University. The volume of edited essays from mission practitioners covers similar ground to Paul Keeble's book but is written with academic rigour in a less accessible style. But it is well worth the effort of engaging with the arguments for anyone who is concerned for the life of the church and community involvement in marginal places. The editors top and tail each section of the book and frame their concerns in terms of contextualisation, dialogue and presence and the notion of third space and redemptive places. It is rooted at the intersection of urban geography and missiological thinking, and recognises the importance of social justice in an age of austerity and welfare reform, the widespread dissatisfaction with the priorities of the institutionalized church and the failure of its mission among people at the margins of society.
The first chapter by Mike Pears develops an interesting and helpful theology and sociology of place and recognises the rapidly changing, increasingly unequal and exclusionary nature of urban settings such as East London. Stewart Christine's chapter on incarnation and connecting with marginal communities is a theological reflection drawn from experience in Brazil and Manchester and focuses on the experience of children in contemporary cities and in their encounters with Jesus in the Gospels. Sean Murray Williams shares the story of an emerging Christian community as it sought "to identify the contours of the kingdom of God or the profound cry for God's presence in a context of deep and systemic need or injustice". Sharing food together became a profound element in the liturgy of this group. Together these chapters can be summarised has exploration of what it means to participate together in the word becoming flesh in mission in marginal places.
Part 2 of The Book is about loving neighbours and corresponds in some sense to Keeble's mission for the community. Andrew Williams writes about embrace and encountering others in a post welfare society and draws significantly on the theology of Miroslav Volf. His context is food banks and similar Christian ministries which have become popular and necessary in austerity Britain. Where secular politics would prefer to deal with marginal people by expulsion, assimilation, domination or abandonment the Christian way to challenge such exclusion is hospitality and embrace. Food banks at their best create this open contact space where the diversity of volunteers of different backgrounds and political persuasions working together builds community and understanding, which potentially could lead to political and ethical transformation. But Williams is aware that such church led welfare approaches are not without problems and could be colluding with policies of exclusion and injustice. Cathy Ross reflects upon hospitality as welcome of the stranger. She advocates sharing table fellowship which involves not only eating and drinking but sharing stories and listening. The Christian discipline of hospitality symbolised above all in the Eucharist she believes is really a spiritual discipline, and that when we practice hospitality as both givers and receivers our worldview begins to change. Paul Cloke's chapter concerns working across religious and secular boundaries and his routed in his understanding of the notion of postsecularity. He examines Richard Niebhur's analysis of the possible relationships between Christ and culture but finds it lacking. He turns to and draws on recent work by Elaine Graham and Chris Baker, which leads him to advocate a Christian approach that goes beyond self-interest and church interest and works towards spaces of post-secularrity where Christian projects and activities relate more openly and generously to local and Civic and political structures.
The third section of the book is more strictly theological. David Purves speaks about cruciformity and the tension between centrifugal and centripetal tendencies in mission. He advocates dialogue and mutuality as central to his approach and the need for the church to be embedded in the culture of marginal communities. Juliet Kilpin, writing out of her experience of urban ministry and work with refugees and asylum seekers, concentrates on the concept of shalom as an alternative narrative to the dominant ones that marginalise and exclude. She illustrates this with the Tale of Two sofas, both seemingly abandoned in the street by lazy poor and antisocial residents, but which could be interpreted in radically different ways. She points to a Jesus whose feet are well grounded, who tells a truthful story, who seeks the welfare of the whole community and radically redefines the use of power. His presence is calming, his style is relational and as such this is the model for our Christian involvement. Stephen Finnamore's final chapter on Hope, prophetic vision and the lie of the Land radically deconstructs the dominant myth of prosperity and consumerism and finds hope in a Bible based anthropology that goes beyond individualism into common ground and social justice.
This volume is a welcome new contribution to the srban mission literature and brings some new voices and themes into important debates. As a volume devoted to the theory it is the first of a promised series infer the volumes reflecting on stories case studies and practice eagerly anticipated by this reviewer.
Reviews by Greg Smith - March 2017