Book review: Reimagining Mission from Urban Places

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Anna Ruddick, Reimagining Mission from Urban Places: Missional Pastoral Care (London: SCM Press, 2020)

by Jonny Baker, CMS

Anna Ruddick was part of the Eden Network, who, motivated by their faith, moved into urban estates to share the gospel. It was a movement of young adults whose energy and motivation grew out of evangelical festivals and para-church organisations. Over several years Anna pursued practical theological research in order to reflect on that movement and mission practice through a blend of ethnographic research, interviews and doing practical theology. Practical theology is paying attention through the research to the lived experience and putting that in conversation with Scripture and resources of theology and other disciplines to discern what God is doing or where God is at work. Through that process she developed a framework for mission she named “missional pastoral care”, which is intentional missional living shared by seven elements – being among people who are different, living locally, being available, taking practical action, long-term commitment, consistency and love. The interviews are with members of the teams and those they got to know.

At the core of her work is the exploration of the gap between the rhetoric of mission she went with from the evangelical community that sent the teams with its accompanying expectations of what results might look like, and the reality of what actually happened on the ground. All sorts of good things took place that led to flourishing and genuine transformation, but those that went on mission found that both mission and their evangelicalism were changed in the process.

If you are a practitioner or pioneer in a context like this, this book will be invaluable. The approach makes so much sense. And it’s a relief, because there is an honesty about the reality of what mission is like, perhaps summed up in one of the chapter titles: “If it’s messy, slow and complicated, you’re probably doing something right.” Through her interviews and reflections on them, Anna pays attention to how lives change in slow and messy ways. The changes are real, and they blend shifts in perspective and meaning-making alongside or within an environment that loves and affirms people for who they are over the long term. It’s an approach that chimes well with Sam Wells’s discussion of being with rather than seeking to fix people. I really liked the way the whole was framed with mission as what God is doing in the world that we join in with.

However, it is not just a book for practitioners. Anna’s discussion over two chapters of what good news is – and of evangelicals’ tribe and identity and how it could respond to the mission challenges and context we are in – is so good and so important. I fear it may not get the audience it deserves because it’s tucked in what looks like a book for practitioners. She writes as an insider to the tribe, which is important to say, so it’s written in a tone of careful consideration and appeal to that community. She unpacks the evangelical mission narrative and says that there is a mismatch between that and the realities of mission engagement on the ground. This arises because there is a rejection of context. She then develops an alternative mission narrative, which I found compelling, framed as it is with the discovery that God is present and at work in the world with people in the community who are made in God’s image. She then unpacks evangelical identity and where it has come from, and suggests it could evolve in four ways – firstly revisiting epistemology in response to our time and place (rather the time and place from which it arose); secondly relaxing a concern for protecting evangelical identity and aligning with the incoming kingdom of God in the world; thirdly “good news-ness” in mission impulse and passionate piety; and lastly a bigger story, reframing the doctrinal priorities of evangelical theology. There is not space to elaborate on these here but I especially commend that section of the book and hope it gets picked up for wider conversation. There has always been a strain of evangelicalism with which that would all resonate – CMS at its best has been in that flow, in my opinion; there were a couple of points where Anna’s writing reminded me of John Taylor’s writing, for example.

Lastly, to state the obvious, this is a UK book on mission. This is significant because it chimes with the UK context really well in ways that, say, American books on mission (of which there are many more) simply don’t. It is gritty and missiologically brilliant. It’s also a very welcome counter voice to the results-driven approach that seems to be dominating, for example, the Church of England’s investment in mission through the Church Commissioners’ monies. I think Anna is a wonderful practical theologian and this is exactly the sort of thinking that the church needs right now.

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