Tim Chester and his group of collaborators are to be praised for the work they do in living incarnationally in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in Britain. They seek to bring the Good News of Jesus to local residents and to plant culturally relevant churches among them.
The book draws on this experience and is a clarion call to comfortable Christians to move out of their suburban ghettos and fulfill the Great Commission where making disciples is hardest. Chester argues rightly that contextualisation of the gospel offer is necessary in cross cultural mission and understands the value of informality, of story telling of food sharing.
The author and his colleagues are happy to be involved in compassionate social action and to some extent in community development. But the priority, indeed the point of their work, is the proclamation of the gospel. So far so good…evangelism and church planting is clearly his vocation.
Thinking within the box
It’s not meant to be an academic book but one would have thought that there should be many more references to the urban mission literature of which there is a plethora available, both in the UK and globally. However the main source book cited is Roy Joslin’s 1982 book Urban Harvest which, though useful, is hardly the last or only word on the topic. Apart from that there is one reference to an article by Jim Hart in the 2004 collection of short papers Urban Church (eds Latham & Eastman) and one to Tim Keller‘s church planting manual.
The problem it seems to me with the book and the “Reaching the Unreached Network” is that they live in the ghetto of highly conservative reformed evangelical churches and that their thinking is largely “within the box”. The gospel is already a given. And effectively that means patterns of discipleship, spirituality and church life are also tightly constrained, thus implicitly preventing the level and modes of contextualisation that may be appropriate, indeed that the Spirit may be working to produce.
There is certainly in Chester’s thought litle room for the experimental or the emergent church. Salvation is primarily from sin and eternal damnation and there seems to be scant enthusiasm for the Kingdom of God breaking even partially into the present age. Indeed, if like me, you do not share Chester’s high Calvinist theology you will probably be offended by his suggestion that our sovereign God has arranged the multiple deprivation of some of our sink estates as a means of opening the minds of some of the elect to the need for salvation.
It is here that the closed system of Calvinistic logic seems to rotate around itself and eventually disappears down the plughole. There is arguably more Biblical foundation for an understanding that the worst of urban deprivation is the result of human sin, of greed and inequality, of prejudice and exclusion, of neglect and even oppression of the poor. It is is a challenge for Christians, and others of goodwill, to struggle with the powers that be (on earth and in the heavenlies) to bring about both personal and social transformation.
Shortage of urban missionaries
All this said I still would encourage you to read and engage with this book. There is a great shortage of contemporary writing about efective evangelism in deprived urban areas. And an even greater shortage of urban missionaries, and indigenous working class Christians who are prayerfully and sacrifically committed to being there, and living and speaking the Good News of Jesus. Despite his peculiar theology, Tim Chester will have my blessing and prayers in the work he undertakes.
Greg Smith lives in Preston and has spent more years than he can remember in practicing and researching on urban mission in its various forms. Despite having lived over 25 years in Newham he still supports West Ham.