Jonny Baker, director of Mission Education at Church Mission Society, recently reviewed the first two books of the Mission in Marginal Places series, The Theory & The Praxis for Anvil, a journal of theology and mission.

RS40062_United_Kingdom_Staff_98434-scr-300x300These two books are the first in a series of six books exploring mission in marginal places. It is an ambitious and welcome project and has real bite to it. That comes from a number of things that combine together well.

It is practical theology driven by real questions arising from a struggle to live out a life of faith and mission at the margins in challenging contexts in communities that seek to bring challenge to the powers and hope in the midst of struggle. What does it means to be a community of Christ followers that live out of an alternative imagination in such places? In other words it is not simply a theoretical exercise – it cuts much deeper than that and the stakes for the writers are much higher, they are about how to live life itself. But the theory engaged with is plentiful, at depth and is informed like nearly all the best missiology from a number of disciplines – theology, biblical studies, mission studies and the social sciences. These are set in conversation with one another and with the lived experience and it is this mix that is energizing. The engagement with the social sciences draws on very current ideas and conversations in a very helpful way. As you might expect with a range of views from the edges there is plenty of critique offered of current ways of framing mission, theology, ecclesiology with its tendencies to create binary oppositions and obsession with growth and sustainability.

Language makes the world in particular ways and one of things I found particularly interesting is how at pains the writers are to speak appropriately about and within the places that are marginal. Tone and posture counts for so much. Power and domination and how they are handled are a huge part of mission. This concern for speech leads to some delightful insights and theologizing. For example in the second book the way of speaking about Christ, mission and church in relation to the environment and making church on brownfield land is creative and profound. I also appreciated that this is a British series and the places and practice do not come from the USA or elsewhere. It’s grit Brit mission which is refreshing!

The titles of the two books are actually somewhat misleading as both engage significantly with both theory and praxis.  But the first is in three sections exploring mission and marginality, mission and neighbor, and mission and God (though I thought it was as much about how to live, how Christian faith is practiced) with a range of authors and then the editors discussing that section by way of a reflection on it. The second tackles five realms in which mission praxis is considered – ecomonic, political, social, environmental and creative/artistic. Each section has a more theoretical chapter followed by a couple of case studies and then a reflection from the editors.

It is clear that there is beneath this series a learning community who are researching and reflecting seriously on an area of mission practice together. There is huge energy and insight here for those with ears to ear and I hope it is not simply read by those living in marginal spaces because it is as much a book that is relevant to the wider  changing landscape of post welfare, austerity, post truth, challenges around immigration and so on that affects us all seeking to follow Christ whatever church and place we are part of. I am looking forward to the rest of the series which engages with stories, spiritual landscapes, the powers and living the peaceful way. In a word brilliant!

More info on how you can purchase these two books can be found here.

Seven Years Living on Knowle West Estate – Bristol

Mike Pears, director of Urban Life, takes some time to reflect on being a faithful presence on the Knowle West Estate in Bristol with others.

Daventry_Road_03We are just celebrating seven years of living on the Knowle West Estate. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this is that a bunch of us are still here and trying our best to be some kind of Christian community. Much has happened and we could tell many stories. One thing we find ourselves reflecting on is the ongoing sense of surprise about how much living here has changed us – after seven years some of us are not sure we could stomach a move back to the ‘leafy suburbs’! (although we wouldn’t say no to a few more leafy trees in Knowle) It has changed the way we listen to the news, the things we prioritise, the way we see other people and the way we see ourselves. Significantly it has also changed the way we understand Jesus and seek to follow him.

So living on the estate continues to challenge and teach us. It raises fundamental questions about life and faith and certainly leaves us with a sense of uncertainty about where this journey will take us in the next seven years.

It has been really great to connect with lots of people from around the country living on similar estates (or in Scotland ‘schemes’). It was fascinating to be with a group of about 20 people this week from estates across Birmingham. In conversation we identified six key areas that are a common part of the experience for those seeking to minister estates; the language might be a bit awkward, but if you are involved with an estate in any way you will catch the sense of what is being expressed here:

  • challenges of investing in ‘local’ people in the hope they will take on leadership when they themselves are often facing so many serious difficulties.
  • how to respond as a Christian in the face of multiple, complex needs (physical and mental health, finance, housing, relationships).
  • how to think about change or the transformation of people’s lives. Comments were made that ‘change is very slow and it is difficult to be patient’ and it is difficult to know how to talk about conversion when faced with such pressing immediate needs.
  • how are estates changing? We know they are not all the same, but they are changing in ways that bring new unknown experiences and added anxiety to daily life.
  • work-load of ministers and priests in estates; ministers often have two or even more estates to ‘look after’ with low levels of financial and people support.
  • questions about how do we ‘do church’ on estates when it ‘feels like things are not moving’ and ‘people not becoming Christians’. Do we need to rethink?
  • w do we imagine the kingdom of God in estates? What does hope look like here? What can estates teach the wider church about the kingdom?

Of course, none of these points are easy to address and they are the kinds of questions we are learning to live with. At the same time we find ourselves inspired from a range of (sometimes surprising) directions. One such inspiring and very insightful source has been the writings of Lynsey Hanley, especially her latest work ‘Respectable: the experience of class’. We would like to reflect on the way in which her insights might help us explore the questions we are living with. With this in mind, if anyone out there would like to do a book review to help us on our way, we would be very grateful.

Further Reading:

Lynsey Hanley, Respectable: The Experience of Class (2016)

Helpful Guardian article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/17/lynsey-hanley-how-i-became-middle-class-respectable-experience-of-class-extract

Lynsey Hanley on Radio 4 (Start the Week): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b079mwsx