Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the Neighborhood
Often when I come across books about spirituality, the pictures on the front covers of those books make me smile. Usually there will be a photo of the mountains, the desert or the ocean with not a human being in sight. If there are any people, they usually look lost in their own thoughts, with dreamy expressions on their faces, eyes closed with a look that conveys escaping from the world. I think this is true for secular as well as Christian spirituality books. So what would a spirituality look like that is not escapist but rather grounded in day to day living? What would a spirituality that is embodied rather than “other-worldly” look like? Is there such a thing as a spirituality that is lived out in the midst of the busyness of life? Biblical scholar Michael Gorman writes a stinging critique of popular versions of contemporary Christian spirituality
“For many people including Christians of various kinds, the word spirituality connotes an experience of the transcendent even specifically of God or Jesus, that is not connected to life in the world. Its purpose so to speak is to transport people out of the trials and tribulations of the world through mystical experiences, an interiority focused on the self or the god/God within, or an eschatological orientation that pays scant if any attention to social ills. Although recent scholarly interpretation of Christian experience has opposed such approaches to spirituality, much popular spiritual writing and some Christian music (both traditional and contemporary) reinforce such sentiments. The resulting spirituality is often otherworldly, escapist and even narcissistic.” (Michael Gorman “The This worldliness of the New Testament’s otherworldly spirituality” The Bible and Spirituality)
Gorman makes a strong point here about the way that popular versions of Christian spirituality are practiced today. However, many of us crave a spirituality that is grounded, embodied, others-oriented and led by the Spirit as we engage with our culture.
Many scholars and leaders are now calling this kind of spirituality a missional spirituality. It is not new and perhaps this term could be accused of an ancient concept rebranded for new times. But maybe this is what we need. We have followed the stream of spirituality that belongs to the Desert fathers and mothers which is more about withdrawing from the world, than say the spirituality of the Christian Celts which is centered on discerning God’s Spirit at work in the world.
The latter is the spirituality that I try and live out in my inner-city neighborhood in Sydney. My context is secular, skeptical of religion and deeply committed to the pursuit of pleasure, freedom and individualism. My neighborhood where I live is busy, fragmented and people can feel isolated as development moves forward rapidly, leaving behind the vulnerable and weak who cannot manage to keep up. These are the issues that many cities and urban contexts struggle with. So a missional spirituality, in my view is also very appropriate for an urban context.
What are the practices of a missional spirituality for the urban context?
For any missional community or church that is taking root and emerging in the urban context, urban spirituality practices will form the Christ community as well as be a witness to it. Women and men who are leading churches in urban contexts can apply urban spirituality practices in their local contexts and teach these practices to their congregations.
As we engage in practices that are incarnational, others–centered, Spirit-led and Trinitarian, this will lead us to be shaped into disciples on God’s mission who engage with our neighborhoods for the work of God’s shalom there. Additionally, as we practice these habits, those in our neighborhood who don’t yet know about the love of Jesus will notice that love in us and will hopefully be drawn towards that love. The faith community becomes a parable of the gospel as missiologist Darrell Guder likes to say.
Practices must emerge from that particular context in urban spaces. Here are a few that I engage in based in my inner- city neighborhood.
Urban neighborhoods are often characterized by various sub-cultures that can be in competition with each other. My neighborhood is home to the gay community, the homeless, the mentally ill, well-off families which have just moved into the area and the elderly. How can we practice peace-making within these groups when tensions arise?
Urban contexts can be very isolating and fragmented as the amount of people living alone increases and family or friends support networks become increasingly fragile. As people who believe in the deep relationship of mutuality and community within the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, how can we offer a hospitality that stems from the essence of God and contribute to the connectivity of our neighborhoods? What does good neighboring look like?
If our spirituality is incarnational and “this worldly” rather than “other- worldly” as Gorman puts it, then we will need to take seriously the shape of the parks, architecture, art and spaces in our communities in order that they become a blessing and a context for the flourishing of people who we live with. How do we flesh out a theology of “place” in order to bring shalom to the neighborhoods where we live?
There is much more to reflect on for emerging missional communities in urban contexts. Women and men who are leading these brave new initiatives can embrace an urban spirituality that will hopefully lead those who would never walk into established churches, to the love and grace of God.
(For more on Urban Spirituality and practices you can buy my book which is coming out next month called Urban Spirituality: Embodying God’s Mission in the neighborhood.)
Karina Kreminski is Lecturer in Missional Studies at Morling College Sydney in Australia. Before that she was leading and pastoring a church for 13 years. She was ordained in 2002. Karina is looking into planting a church in the inner city and has a doctorate from Regent University in the area of missional church formation. She teaches and preaches at churches and events and also loves to mentor emerging leaders.
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