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Book Review: Urban Spirituality

Thursday, 18 October 2018  | Charles Ringma

Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the Neighborhood
Karina Kreminski (Skyforest, CA: Urban Loft Publishers, 2018)

I have read this challenging and ‘subversive’ book, twice. I don’t normally do this. But I have good reasons for doing so in this case, as there is a greater depth to this book than first meets the eye, and its message is more radical than first appears. These opening remarks suggest that there is a beautiful congruence between the heart-beat of this book and the way it should be read. Put simply, just as much as urban mission birthed and sustained by an urban spirituality is about ‘the slow march of God’, so also this book should be read slowly and possibly for a second or third time.

The other reason for a ‘slow’ read is that one does not simply engage ideas and strategies in this book, but one meets the author, and her passion and Christian wisdom, and the setting in which she is seeking to serve. This is fascinating. Authors are often ‘hidden’ behind what they write. Karina reveals herself. And she does so for good reasons. Urban spirituality and mission have to do with embodied practices and incarnational service. And while this can be gained from the wisdom and experience of others – and the author does draw on many supporting voices – much is to be gained from one’s lived experienced. Karina is, therefore, a clear example of what we mean by a reflective practitioner.

Before I elaborate further on what I mean by the challenging and subversive nature of this book, allow me to make a further comment on the self-revealing nature of the author. It is rather obvious that the inner-city ministry that Karina is engaging in is in its early stages. As a consequence, there is no ‘success’ scenario in this book and there is no action plan with ten tried-and-true strategies. While this may be disappointing for some who hope for the ‘quick fix’ in ministry, it says a lot about the author. She is not portraying ‘success’, but a way of life, a way of prayer, a way of seeing the city, a way of seeing the neighbour, a way of being an embodied presence of the gospel. In humility she is saying: this is my journey so far and this is what I am learning. Many authors would not do this because they wish to trumpet their successes and victories.

The challenges in this book are many. 1) It is not first and foremost a ‘how-to’ book but one that seeks to ‘weave’ the reader (and hopefully the practitioner) into a rich theological tapestry. This includes ‘trinitarian, incarnational, Spirit-soaked and kenotic’ themes (160). The key challenge here is that if we seek to be God’s missional people today then we need to be framed and directed by a vision of who God is and what God has done in history. 2) These core theological themes are ‘unpacked’ throughout the book with emphases on community, hospitality, presence and witness. The theme of incarnation is extended by the author to include the faith community as an incarnational presence in the neighbourhood, and includes a ‘spirituality of place’ (70-75). 3) The discussion of the role of the Spirit is primarily geared around the challenge of discerning what God is doing in the neighbourhood. The author states: ‘God is not only active in the church; he is active in our world and even in our built environment’ (110). 4) The discussion of the Spirit is situated in the big theme of this book, that of Christian spirituality. While theological themes fit under the rubric of the ‘head’, spiritual themes deal with matters of the ‘heart’. Practical strategies have to do with the ‘hand’. Heart matters, or spiritual practices drawn from a wide range of the Christian spiritual traditions, including both Celtic and Benedictine, are rightly emphasised by the author as core to all missional activity.

There is much that is attractive in this book in that the author is situated as a practitioner in an inner-city neighbourhood, seeking to be an embodied presence of the gospel and building a faith community, while at the same time drawing on the theological and spiritual traditions of the church in history. This makes the book a rich reflection. But, even more so, the book has a ‘subversive’ melody line. There are critiques of church growth strategies (11), of misunderstandings of spirituality (29), of the false narratives of contemporary consumer culture with its ‘satisfaction, comfort and prosperity’ themes (92) and its ‘idolatry of safety (146), and finally there is the call to redefine ‘the notion of power’ (141). Undergirding all of this is the sustained critique of an older dualism that makes the earth transitory and heaven eternal. Instead, the author argues that the good of the earth and culture will find its place in the new heavens and earth in God’s final purposes.

I would hope that this book would find its way into seminaries across the globe, for there is a clear call here for the ‘people of God’ (clergy and laity) to be formed in different ways that would make their witness and service in the world more winsome and Christlike. The book makes a clear argument that service and witness take place in ordinary life and where Christians are neighbours in their communities and grounded in their neighbourhoods.

It is a great pity that the publishers of this book did not do a better job in editing, particularly with the footnotes. And there are emphases that are open to debate, including the distinctions made between suburbs and inner city, in that many suburbs have been able to create a sort of village setting that also characterises inner city neighbourhoods. And there is always the big question as to how much of the action of God arises in situ, and how much comes by way of intervention extra nos (from outside). In other words, to what extent is there an 'eruption' of the presence and action of God from within our very humanity and life's circumstances, or does this come primarily as a 'thunderclap' of God's revelatory power from beyond. I wonder whether the author preferences the former, while I think we need to hold both in a dialectical dynamic.

But whatever we may think of these and others matters, this book, while dealing with an urban spirituality, reflects a spirituality akin to Evelyn Underhill and Jean Vanier and may become a classic in its own right.

You can buy a copy of Urban Spirituality here.

Charles Ringma has served in urban ministry for twenty years and subsequently has taught in universities, colleges and seminaries in Australia, Asia and Canada. He is Emeritus Professor in Mission Studies at Regent College and Honorary Associate Professor at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Ryder Street, Surry Hills. By Tim Ritchie.

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