Mission With: something out of the ordinary (review)

When I arrived at Manchester University in 1978, one of the first people I met was a tall, gently-spoken Northern Irishman called Paul Keeble. He had already graduated in Theology from Queens University Belfast and was beginning a course in probation work and was lodged at the same hall of residence as me. Being older, he was the encouraging and kind presence that I needed in those early days away from home.

We both settled at the same church, Brunswick Parish Church, which is located on one side of the Oxford Road, where the university campus acts as a thin, privileged filling in a deprived social sandwich in the inner-city. The incumbent of the church was Martin Gooder, who had developed a theology of mission in the inner-city which was ahead of its time for the 1970s. Although many students wished to settle at the church, which had a reputation for biblically-focussed and thought-provoking preaching, Martin had an active policy of discouraging students from attending unless they were to engage seriously with the church’s ministry and mission within its socially-deprived parish. He also encouraged those students to seriously consider a call to live permanently in the inner-city as a stable Christian presence there. Although I lived there for five years, a move to theological college led me to other contexts, including theological education. Paul Keeble stayed, along with his wife Judith (whom he met through the church).

Mission With: something out of the ordinary (Watford, Herts., UK: Instant Apostle, 2017) is Paul Keeble’s theological reflection on over thirty-five years of living in, belonging to and working in an area of urban social deprivation. It is a work of considerable theological importance, as it represents an informed and long-term piece of practical theology and, in particular, missiology. Reading it in the light of recent comments by Bishop Philip North about the tendency for clergy to flock to wealthy parishes, this book acts as a timely primer in ministry and mission in the inner-city. But that is just one, rather narrow application of this work with its considerable scope.

As with all good practical theology, Keeble’s work gives a good account of the experiences which have shaped his reflection. These began with following the call to dwell in an area which most working-class Christians try to move away from, and even fewer middle-class Christians choose to move into. He tracks the implications for his and Judith’s call to be a presence-among, exploring the challenge of what this means (and does not mean) for Christians who have come in from elsewhere. This is a fascinating take on the theme of missionary relocation, and Keeble’s experience is a highly valuable account. His thought then moves to explore various options for what Christian mission might mean once this step has been taken. With reference to core missiology from the likes of Bosch and later critics, Keeble’s reflection focusses on the degree to which the undergirding incarnational theology of Martin Gooder developed in his own praxis. Over the years, particularly in response to a rise in gun crime during the 1990s, Keeble has found himself involved in community responses to the effects of deprivation, particularly upon the young. Disappointed by a lack of interest by the churches and their leaders, who shied-away from collaborating in responses where they were not in control, Keeble has had to re-evaluate what ‘mission’ means if it is truly to bring empowerment and shalom to the community among whom he has lived.

Keeble distinguishes in the book between mission-to, mission-for and mission-with. The last of these is what the book is mainly about, but it accepts the importance of the other two approaches, even if it is critical of them. The influence of writers such as Bosch, Donovan and Vincent are clear throughout and the footnotes provide a helpful track of influences acting upon Keeble’s theological reflection. This three-fold distinction is helpful as it allows the readers to critically examine their own thinking about mission within contexts to which they may not originally belong. As such, this book serves to unveil an implied missiology represented by the methods being used, be they churches in the suburbs moving in to ‘serve’ a poor neighbourhood, or churches in deprived areas where most of the congregation live elsewhere.

All good practical theology brings challenge, and I found this one of the most challenging theological books I have read in a long time. At a personal level, it challenges the (typically) middle-class reader with the sacrificial demands of a genuinely incarnational mission to the poor. At an institutional and theological level, it raises an enormous ecclesiological challenge: what on earth is the Church in poor areas actually for? Even if we acknowledge the weakness of the non-incarnational methods mentioned above, Keeble’s account of the ‘usefulness’ of the Church in mission-with is deeply troubling. The principal agents of incarnational mission remain individual Christians, being-with and working with their communities.

The suspicion that deprived local communities have towards churches is considerable and too-often justified. In this picture, the Church’s mission comes to the locality at the cost of disempowering non-Church local initiatives serving the common-good. Keeble takes us on an uncomfortable journey through his experiences of genuine changes for the common-good where the last thing needed was a slice of ecclesiastical power-and-glory-grabbing. In such changes, faith-communities (note: not just the Church) have a role, but if lasting change is to be achieved, the initiative has to remain with the wider, grass-roots community.

So what, then, is the role of the Church? Keeble’s focus remains on the local church, as that which provides effective support for Christians in their being-with mission – which in turn serves the shalom of humanity. He agrees about the need for Christians to give an account for the ‘hope that lies within you’ (1 Pet 3:15), but this is usually to answer a question, not to provide an answer before the question is asked. And the right to do it has to be earned and tends to be earned very slowly and sacrificially.

But what of the vocation of the Church to be, in the world, the firstfruits of the coming Kingdom? If this vocation is perceived, in the gritty realities of missional praxis, as mere posturing, is there any role the Church can convincingly adopt in deprived areas which can fulfill this theological vocation? This is the unspoken and uncomfortable question which Keeble’s book leaves us to answer through further theological reflection.

Mission With: something out of the ordinary helpfully relates itself to other contemporary approaches to mission which seek to address the issue of being Good News to the poor in contemporary, post-Christendom. Keeble engages with, for example, the New Parish movement, Fung’s Isaiah Vision and writers such as Morisy, Ken Leech and movements such as Community Organising and Emerging Church/New Monasticism. In doing this, Keeble’s theological reflection on decades of praxis finds its own place as an important voice in contemporary missiological conversation.


Roger Farnworth 12/08/17 - 3:36 pm

All the best people arrived at Manchester University in 1978!

Paul 13/08/17 - 11:31 am

Hehe. And to share a flat in Moss Side too.

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