Mission Round Table 18:2 (Jul-Sep 2023): 46-47
To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:2.
Reviewed by Brian Farber
As a recent graduate with a master’s degree in biblical studies and pursuing God’s leading into vocational ministry, I faced a future of ten-plus years to pay off the debt that I had accrued because of my studies. This debt brought home the reality that my lifestyle was going to have to change. This was going to be no easy task, as I lived near Chicago and was able to enjoy many of the perks of the city. As a graduate, however, I would no longer be able to take advantage of the significant student discounts that I previously enjoyed.
One of the perks of the city I enjoyed the most was the access I had to stage productions, whether that be theater, musicals, operas, or concerts in various types of venues. One day, a friend of mine informed me that the Briar Street Theater, which is the performance home of the Blue Man Group and situated in the heart of Chicago, utilized volunteers to usher performances. After responsibilities are complete, typically five minutes into the show, volunteer ushers are free to find a seat and enjoy the show for free. I was once again able to enjoy one of the unique aspects of urban life that I had grown accustomed to.
In Urban Spirituality, Karina Kreminski argues that urban areas have a uniqueness not found in suburban or country areas that demands we think differently about our ministry practices. Kreminski’s work is a worthwhile read for anybody thinking about or involved in ministry in a city, especially those who are considering work among those in the city who live more communally.
The book is divided into two main sections. The first is more of a theoretical look at what an urban spirituality looks like, drawing on theology, anthropology, and sociology. The second emphasizes praxis and best practices.
In section one, Kreminski speaks of the unique challenges of the city compared to other contexts, arguing that we need to give greater emphasis to reaching cities and why a different approach is needed. After laying this foundation, she offers four distinctives that will give shape to missional communities and church planting: community, placemaking, discernment, and the other. Each of these is addressed in a separate chapter to demonstrate the need for a different approach to ministry in urban areas.
The case made in chapter one about how ministry in the city is unique and essential is presented well. Drawing on the work of Eric Jacobsen, Kreminski shares six distinct markers of a city. These are public spaces, mixed-use zoning, local economy, beauty and quality in the built environment, critical mass, and the presence of strangers.
Having lived in Bangkok for several years now, I can see signs of the six markers all around me. There are massive world-class malls, built for the spending pleasure of the city’s wealthy, right next door to the slums filled with people who were not meant to step through the mall’s doors. There are public markets, whose vendors often live inside the market or in the immediate neighborhood. There are well maintained parks, and the architecture of many buildings is unique or inspiring.
The author could have strengthened the case for ministry in the city by developing each of these markers to show how they give credence to the need for different types of ministry expressions. However, that would have been beyond the scope of this work, as it would become less about praxis and more theoretical.
Chapter three, on place-making, is intriguing and arguably gives significance to the rest of the book. As Kreminski says, “Most people can identify with knowing the difference between simply travelling in and out of a place and settling in that place to live, making it a home. We could call the process of making the ‘space’ that live in a ‘place’, place-making” (74).
For anyone who has moved house, there may be a time when the potential of turning a house (space) into a home (place) brings excitement. However, to bring this to fulfillment takes intentionality. Kreminski is spot on in emphasizing that in urban ministry we need to seek to develop places and not simply spaces for people to gather. It is in places, and even the process of place-making, that discipleship and community is formed.
The last section focuses on praxis—practice. Here, the author offers nine different practices that should be used for cultivating urban spirituality. Some recommendations include praying with open eyes in neighborhoods, neighborliness, lectio mission, peace-making, and celebration. This section is organized nicely and can easily be used as a reference guide for the different practices, how to practice them, and the reasons why.
There is much to commend about the book, but I do have a couple of complaints. First, the opening chapter about the city lends itself to “preaching to the choir.” The argument presented for the importance of giving priority to ministry in urban contexts is not enough for those who are committed to ministry in rural communities. Since I am involved in ministry in an urban context, having moved from a mix of suburban and country, I largely agree with what she has stated. This section would be strengthened by showing more of how ministry in the city impacts other areas and ultimately leads to bearing fruit in other contexts.
A second complaint addresses her critique of “typical” Christian spirituality. What Christian spirituality is being spoken about? There are many who critique some of the traditional evangelical practices and present these critiques in a non-monolithic matter. The critique in this book seemed to group all the practices together into one monolithic group without recognizing the differences. Much of what she said is true of some groups, but there are many that would be in “typical” churches that it is a bit unfair to say that their approach is ineffective.
All in all, this is a good book. The weakness, in my view, was the overemphasis on praxis and not developing arguments to convince those who do not have a burden for cities. It is clear that she has thought deeply about living and ministering in cities. Throughout the book, she gives helpful examples of being present among people and how different Christian practices can be utilized in urban areas. However, it would have been helpful if she had developed the arguments for why ministry in cities should be given greater attention. It is not that what she said was wrong, just that it was incomplete.
For those who aim to reach out towards those working in the marketplace of a city or who are looking for a more developed case for why the church should give a greater emphasis on urban centers, I would recommend Tim Keller’s Center Church over this one. However, it is still a good read and I find that many of the principles can be applied to disciplemaking and church planting in various contexts.