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Book review: Building Communities of the Kingdom

Thursday, 15 March 2018  | Karina Kreminski




By Andre Van Eymeren (Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2017)

Reviewed by Karina Kreminski

In his book, Building Communities of the Kingdom, author Andre Van Eymeren quotes Frederick Buechner:

If we only had eyes to see and hearts to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we have been starving to death for. (51)

It is this kind of generous approach to the kingdom of God that I found refreshing in this inspiring book about God’s vision for a restored world. Building Communities of the Kingdom has, at its basis, a picture of the shalom of God as seen through the images we find in, for example, Isaiah 65:17-25. It then sets out to show that this picture is not merely utopian but can be a reality once the church fully grasps its missional identity and exercises its stewardship of the kingdom for the sake of the world.

Essentially, Van Eymeren is wrestling with the question that many of us in our post-Christendom, secular culture are attempting to navigate: what is the role of the church in the world today? The author believes that the church has failed in its mandate to contribute to the common good and has perhaps focused on itself rather than living for the sake of the world:

Looking at our churches, one could be forgiven for thinking that God’s concerns revolve around salvation and building the numerical numbers of the church. While salvation and the fellowship of believers are important to God, our preoccupation with these things points to a misunderstanding of God’s final intentions for the world and indeed his present activity in it. (2)

For Van Eymeren this is not an abstract thought, but grounded in his experience as a Christian leader who has thought critically about the church’s desire to be at the centre of society as it was in Christendom times.

This book is a challenge to the church: it calls for the people of God to be engaged in the community in which they are placed, as opposed to becoming absorbed by internal church mechanisms that can inhibit the prioritising of mission and community work. To flesh this out, Van Eymeren suggests that each of the three models in Howard Snyder’s Models of the Kingdom can help frame the Church’s perspective in engaging with the world. Churches must critically and theologically assess each model and then embody the values of the kingdom in our world. The author states his preference for the ‘Kingdom as Christianized culture’ model, which is premised on the view that the kingdom is partially with us and so Christians must work for positive change. The role of the church, then, is to work for social transformation. However, Van Eymeren balances this perspective with the ‘Kingdom as mystical communion’ model and the ‘Kingdom as inner spiritual connection’ model. In other words, social change takes place when there is individual and community transformation as people personally experience the reality of the Kingdom (64).

But alongside this challenge, Building Communities of the Kingdom is also deeply hopeful. Van Eymeren has a positive outlook on the Spirit’s work in our culture and, as the Buechner quote implies, he sees that there is much good to celebrate in our society. This is evidence of the kingdom expanding before our eyes, if only we are able to discern it.

Starting from the belief that all have a longing for the kingdom of God, Van Eymeren does not leave Building Communities of the Kingdom in the realm of the conceptual but writes about his perspectives on day-to-day life in Australia based on his research, community work and ministry experience. The view of our society that emerges in Building Communities of the Kingdom is a hopeful one, which Van Eymeren suggests is necessary to temper the gloom and doom prophets who cast a shadow over any silver linings:

I believe we are so aware of the issues around us we are almost at saturation and need a balancing perspective to remind us that all is not bad. I am not immune to the alternative reality endured, but in fact believe there is incredible potential present in that gloomier world. Here I want to point out that ours is a country that has many obvious signs of the presence of God’s kingdom. (11)

However, says Van Eymeren, what is missing in our society is the Story, a meta-narrative of the kingdom which people long for, yet instead of which they have bought the lies and false promises of lesser stories such as consumerism, narcissism and individualism. Again the book incarnates these thoughts in local spaces. After exegeting and listening to his neighbourhood, the author reflects:

So this is my community. In part where I am placed to be salt and light. A core question for me is, what is good news for this diverse and divergent community? Jesus very clearly says that he is the good news , so what does it mean to take Jesus into this neighbourhood and more generally into the places and spaces we all occupy?’ (25)

I was struck by a thought that the author reflects on after attending a workshop in Melbourne about building a safe city. How can the church help to build cities ‘where people can flourish, growing to who they were meant to be and living their purpose out of that sense of being?’ (2) This is indeed a challenge for the church today in terms of engaging in the common good. When we shift from asking ‘What is God doing in the church?’ to ‘What is God doing in the world?’, this can be deeply disruptive for established churches.

One creative connection that Van Eymeren makes, again because of his work in local communities, is to apply his theology around kingdom, Church and world to Assets Based Community Development (ABCD) and Appreciative Inquiry (AI). I think this is where many reflective practitioners will find their home in this book. What is missing in much church literature today is, firstly, theological thinking about our neighbourhoods and the mission of God in those places, and then, importantly, linking this with practical steps to working with our community to flesh out that mission. More than anything else, what is needed in the missional conversation today is a greater connection between theory and praxis. Herein lies the strength of Building Communities of the Kingdom. Van Eymeren sees value in ABCD and AI as methodologies that find the strengths in a particular community while being focused on giving voice to and empowering the marginalised. And here he makes a connection with liberation theology - while he rightly cautions against some aspects of this theology, he still finds it worthwhile for the purposes of ABCD:

Liberation theology can have a tendency to feel combative, with a focus of the ending of oppression, rather than the empowerment of community as would be true for community development. However it is important to remember that the aim is for the poor to rise and take their place. With this in mind the theology and connected process becomes ultimately empowering and allows for community self- determination. (142)

What I loved about Building Communities of the Kingdom is its determined focus to integrate theory with praxis. Van Eymeren makes a very good start at establishing a theology around more practical tools such as ABCD and AI. This is needed if the church is going to speak into the common good in our world and yet still maintain its foundation on the person of Jesus Christ and his work. The idealism and ‘can do’ approach in this book is also very appealing: Van Eymeren resists pie-in-the-sky images of flourishing unless they can be at least partially fleshed out in the here and now. Above all, he reminds us that everything we do must be embedded in a hermeneutic of love:

What difference would it make to our work and ministry if we began to shape it around love or, you might like to say, relationships or people? (88)

At the end of this book I was left wondering how I could apply and contextualise some of the practical steps mentioned, for the restoration of my inner city community where God has placed me to be on his mission. We are all called to do this, as Beuchner says, because people are ‘starving to death’ for the beauty of the reign of God.

Photo: Little Albion St., Surry Hills. By Tim Richie.

Karina Kreminski is Lecturer in Missional Studies at Morling College. She has pastored a church for 13 years and is now looking into starting a faith community in Sydney's inner city. Karina's book Urban Spirituality: Embodying God's Mission in the Neighbourhood is coming out this month. Karina blogs at http://www.karinakreminski.com.au/.


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