Review of Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the Neighbourhood
Author: Karina Kreminski
Publisher: Urban Loft Publishers
Reviewer: Seán Mullan
Living in the city means living with the city — and the city is an inconsiderate neighbour. It makes noise from early in the morning to late at night. For me, the current soundtrack of Dublin includes the demolition squad levelling the building next door, the ultra-loud Airbnb visitors in the apartment above, and the couple whose alcohol intake convinces them that conversation is best conducted at rock concert decibels.
Challenges like this can make following Jesus in the city a continual challenge. How do you find the will to love your neighbors after they’ve kept you up all night with their shouting? Any book that offers insight on how to do it is always welcome in my apartment. Urban Spirituality was one such book. It is a well-researched piece of writing by Karina Kreminski, a college lecturer who moved to live in an inner-city neighbourhood of Sydney, Australia in an effort to practice what she teaches — how to live a Christian life in the company of a city that is largely indifferent to both Jesus and your convictions.
The book is set out in two parts. Part One is a theoretical examination of the general topic of the Jesus-following life in the company of thinkers such as Scot McKnight, Tim Foster, Charles Taylor, and C. S. Lewis. This is clearly material originally developed for the classroom — even the layout looks like an academic thesis — but it is also easily usable for practitioners. Loads of great quotes for your next talk on the city!
The opening chapter lays out the ideas that led to the book — her understanding of the city and the ways Christians view it. She sets out her understanding of what an “urban spirituality” should be; it should be missional, love the city, seek its wellbeing, and be based on embodied missional practices. “Can you imagine,” she asks, “a local faith community intentionally living out an urban spirituality that forms that community into missionaries?”
The chapters on community and place-making combine a critique of western individualism and isolationism with an analysis of the challenge the incarnation presents. As an antidote to what she calls “transience, displacement, and excarnation,” she offers the notion of “practicing stubborn faithfulness to a place.” This is a particular challenge to urban church planters who face the temptation of loving a place only if it delivers on their desire to start a new church there. With that in mind, she sets out the challenge of tackling “disenchantment” — having no room in our lives for religion, spirituality, and miracles — by re-enchanting our local places through our interaction with those places and the people who live there.
Then follows an interlude where she considers the content of the gospel message, largely shaped by Scot McKnight and N. T. Wright. Kreminski says the gospel is primarily the story of the reign of God embodied in the life and work of Jesus, and warns against the notion that it is “a set of abstract propositions that we assent to but … leaves us sometimes unaffected.” If that is the good news, then we must work out what it looks like in the reality of our cities.
The rest of Part One opens up some other ideas related to missional living in the city, such as distraction, discernment, disenchantment, the idolatry of safety, and re-enchanting spaces. Though useful, much of this material reads like ideas for further discussion and reflection rather than a comprehensive way forward.
The much shorter Part Two looks at habits and practices that help develop a healthy and biblical urban spirituality. She considers Celtic and Benedictine traditions of communal spiritual practices, but refers only briefly to contemporary examples of urban church-planting. The final chapter offers practical suggestions of regular spiritual practices that could help shape a missional community in the city. I liked Number Five: “Slow in the City,” which suggests ways in which we can deliberately and regularly slow down in the midst of fast-moving city life.
There is plenty of honesty in these pages. Kreminski doesn’t shy away from the hard questions of fearing for our safety, sacrificing our comfort, and engaging with people we just don’t feel comfortable with. She quotes Mother Teresa’s challenge to “find your own Calcutta,” a place you will love and serve with your life. She also notes what every urban dweller experiences — that life in the city can make you more angry and less patient, more hurried and less human. I got the sense of someone who had moved well beyond her comfort zone in her journey of following Jesus.
What the book lacks is stories that reflect what that experience was for her. I wanted to scribble in the margins — “tell me about that” or “introduce me to your neighbours.” The subtitle uses the word “embodying,” but the text could use more stories of how that embodying worked out for the author in her conscious decision to become a practitioner as well as a teacher. But for all that, it is a worthwhile read. My hope is that it becomes a means of ongoing conversation about the challenge of following Jesus in mission in the cities of the world.