Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: Unreached

I've been living and working in a scenic part of rural county Fermanagh for over a year and a half now, having left suburban Belfast behind. It might raise eyebrows that I was reading a book like 'Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-Class and Deprived Areas' with its emphasis on large towns and cities with substantial housing estates. Was it totally unrelevant, a waste of my reading time?

In the opening chapter, it appeared as if it wasn't going to be helpful. The introduction opens with a question about where the thriving evangelical churches in your local area are situated. 'The chances are they will be in the 'nice' areas of town and their leaders will be middle class.' For a start, the thought of towns with lots of churches, and indeed towns of a suitable size to have 'nice' areas - they must be writing about huge towns or even cities. Perhaps I should have passed on this book to a brother in Belfast?

The rest of the introduction, though, and indeed, the rest of the book, helped me to see that it was a very helpful book, one that has been and will continue to be useful, because it helps the reader to think about the culture of the local community (whether it's a housing estate or a country estate; urban jungle or farming families), and how the gospel can be effectively communicated to the people there.

Chapter One focuses on contextualization. Having discussed the various types of people found in working class and deprived areas (itself a helpful reminder that people are different and we can't just lump everyone in an area into the same category), Tim Chester then seeks to provide a Christian view of culture: 1. God created cultures and diversity; 2. Sin distorts cultures; 3. The gospel affirms and judges every culture (at different points and places); 4. Christians should both affirm and transform culture (discovering the bits that align with the gospel, but confronting the bits that are ungodly); 5. The gospel transcends cultural differences; 6. Missional engagement is a two-way process (sometimes the 'missionary' will learn as much as the culture being missioned). These points were very helpful, and have led to lots of reflection to help identify the cultural characteristics of the community I'm reaching. While it's different from the main focus of the book, this general stuff has been very good.

In Chapter Two, the theoretical material about culture is now examined in the precise setting of those working class and deprived areas. Again, while the specifics were different, there are useful pointers - the need to contextualize on a person-to-person basis, because every culture is part of a common humanity (sharing the same basic problem), but also that each individual may not be the stereotype of the cultural norm, and have their own unique mores. As Chester points out, the broad characteristics are best used as shortcuts to reach an individual, rather than definitive guides to the person. It's also important to get to know your neighbourhood (which I have found by living and working in the same community).

Chapter Three builds on the previous chapters, by looking at Key Gospel Themes, mentioning lots in brief, and then three in detail. The Fatherhood of God, victim mentality, and the sovereignty of God are discussed, analyzed and applied to the community and how the gospel brings to bear on the issues raised. For anyone in any mission situation, the issues will be different, but how to work through them and present them are ably demonstrated in this chapter.

Chapter Four thinks specifically about evangelism and how to share the good news. There's an interesting discussion of the merits of social action and evangelism, with a right emphasis on the importance of doing more than just 'good deeds' but actually sharing the faith. The four Es of evangelism (plus another) are presented: enter, explore, expose, evangelise (and engage). The suggestion is to discover the idolatry of the community and use it as the way in to show the gospel as the true fulfillment of those desires, hopes and dreams. Using some basic ideas, there are helpful ways to meet the community in the four points of intersection between peoples' stories and the gospel: creation; fall; redemption; consummation. I also found the following a useful suggestion in the four truths about God as a diagnostic: God is great; God is good; God is glorious; God is gracious. How do my behaviours or thoughts conflicting with these truths? In this way, presenting issues are used as a window on the heart - where change is effected, rather than simply making working class people middle class.

There are some good thoughts on discipleship in Chapter Five, with the reminder that the gospel is not just the ABC of the Christian life but the A-Z. 'We become Christians, continue as Christians and grow as Christians through the gospel.'

Chapter Six brings the book to a close with the focus on teaching the word in a non-book culture. The new person arriving at many of our churches to be greeted by a news sheet, prayer book, hymn book and such like must be off-putting for those who cannot or choose not to read. Bible studies shouldn't just be English comprehension lessons, but rather an engagement with the text as we meet the God who speaks his word to us.

Perhaps surprisingly, while I may not be the primary audience for this book, I have found it really helpful, and it's certainly up there in the best books I've read this year. The principles of mission and cross-cultural engagement are explained and applied in very clear and simple fashion, and the need to understand the culture (whatever the culture and wherever you're working) has been prompted even more in me. If you're hoping to move into a new area and reach people with the gospel, this is a must read book - and not just if you're church planting in a housing estate.

Having asked on Twitter if IVP or Christian Focus or The Good Book Company have any resources for rural ministry and mostly drawn a blank, it seems that in the mean time, this is going to be the best type of book to help work through the issues and opportunities of engaging with the prevailing culture and bringing people to Christ. Maybe the rural mission book will spring forth in a few years time... Unreached is available from Think IVP and as an ebook.

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