Book Review: Thriving in the City, by Aaron Smith

I recently finished reading “Thriving in the City: A Guide for Sustaining Incarnational Ministry Among the Poor,” by T. Aaron Smith.

Aaron and his wife Ema serve as missionaries to the urban poor in Manila, Philippines. Even though they serve in the Philippines as do my wife and I, we have actually not met in the Philippines, only in the US. They work with Servant Partners, which is a mission organization with focus on incarnational ministry to the urban poor.

I truly enjoyed the book. Part of it is because of its topic. Ministry to the urban poor is a vital ministry in pretty much every age, but even more so in this time. According to the World Bank, approximately 56% of people today live in cities, and by 2050 the percentage is estimated to increase to around 70%. This alone should lead missiologists to reevaluate strategies. For at least 5 decades, the focus in Evangelical (at least) missions has been on Unreached People Groups (UPGs) with the assumption that ethnic and language groups are the final frontier or “wave” of missions. This does not seem to be true, however, with some saying that we are in a new “Global Wave” of missions (to all from all). In my view (for what it is worth) the great wave of missions surging up right now is the Great Urban Centers (GUCs).

So how do we reach out to these Great Urban Centers around the world? The countless hours tracking different languages and people groups don’t have much meaning in this environment where class, sub-cultures, and unofficial castes have greater impact.

Aaron Smith puts forward his perspective of Incarnational Missions, following the guidance of Viv Grigg and others for reaching the urban poor. The book is heavily autobiographical and biographical as it explores the opportunities and challenges of living and ministering in slums and informal settlement communities.

I found the book both inspirational and refreshing. It is inspirational as one hears stories of changed lives and communities through individuals, families, and teams living with and ministering with the poor and the destitute in major cities. Although most of his work has been in the Balic-balic and Botocan communities in Metro Manila, he includes experiences of others both in Manila and in other major cities around the world. This broadens the usefulness of the book, as well addresses unique situations that are outside of the experience of the author.

The book is also refreshing. Some mission presentations focus on the “Praise God” aspects of missions while underplaying the “Oh my God” moments. Smith gives balance. In fact, some parts of the book almost feel more like, “Let me see if I can talk you out of incarnational urban missions.” I also found it refreshing that he looks at the ministry he does as one of many strategies. I have read far too many books on various strategies (frontier missions, never send money missions, only send money missions, CPM, and so forth) that appear to express the view that their form of missions is the only form. I appreciated the balance in this book.

For people who are interested in missions, but don’t know much about it, I think they will appreciate the early chapters more. These chapters are more biographical, and really can open up one’s eyes to what is involved in serving God sacrificially.

For people who are looking more seriously into missions, especially incarnational missions (if you want incarnational missions explained in more detail, read the book, especially Appendix A, or go to, the latter chapters may be more for them, especially as there are reflection questions to go over as far as whether they are ready for this type of ministry. It is also in the latter chapters where different flavors of this type of ministry are looked over, to help a prospective missionary to see where, if anywhere, he or she may fit into this broad category of service.

For me, since I teach missions, I tend to like chapters that add clarity to a topic that wasn’t there before (at least in my mind). I appreciated especially chapters 10, 11, and 13. Chapter 10 spoke of “Anchor Institutions”— those institutions that come alongside to support and guide the missionary. I like the terminology and the types of such institutions more than the way I normally hear them described. Chapter 11 was on choosing ministry approaches. Again, one size does NOT fit all and I found the options given here clear and helpful. Chapter 13 was on “engagement” and “disengagement.” As one involved in missionary member care, I appreciated the time here trying to help missionaries find balance in a ministry that can easily overwhelm.

I have very few complaints, and even the term complaint might be too strong here. I will note two minor things.

#1. In chapter 8 are two lists. One list gives positive characteristcs for self-evaluation to see if you as a future missionary should consider being an Incarnational Leader. The positive list is good overall. Some of them are a bit generic, more guidance for ministering full-time than specifically for International Leadership, but that is okay. However, the negative list I don’t think really relates to Incarnational Leader at all. It is a list of qualities that are bad for any full-time ministry not just Incarnational Leadership. Perhaps it would be good to have good and bad qualities for full-time ministry, and good and bad qualities for incarnational ministry in urban settings.

#2. My other “complaint” I give in half-jest. In giving his descriptions of some of the challenges associated with incarnational ministry to the poor (or cross-cultural missions in general I would add), he mentions a lot of things including challenges due to one’s own children. I would argue that the section of the challenges associated with children should be in all bold print. Raising our three children in Baguio was a challenge, when they were young, but I would say as they got older it became a lot more difficult. It became so difficult that we sometimes wondered whether we had sacrificed our children for ministry. All three of our children are grown up and doing much better now, but I still think we made some big mistakes. Smith’s children are still rather young. Time will tell what his perspective will be in the future.

Anyway, I would strongly recommend reading this book if you are interested in supporting Christian missions in any way, and even more so if you are considering serving in missions to the urban poor and destitute of the world.

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