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.

Book Review: “Encountering the History of Missions”

The book, “Encountering the History of Mission: From the Early Church to Today” by John Mark Terry and Robert L. Gallagher, is part of the Encountering Missions series of books. It was published in 2017 by Baker Academic.

I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in Christian missions— especially Evangelical Christian missions. I don’t have major problems with it— most of points are either positive or of a more neutral nature. Therefore I will list my points together.

  1. The book is very readable in terms of content, style, and format. I found that I wanted to continue reading to finish a chapter, and then move to the next chapter to see “what happens next.” That in itself is strongly in its favor.
  2. It balances well between events, organizations, movements, and individuals. Missions history is primarily the work of God. Secondarily, it is the work of various religious, sociological, political movements. Third is the people involved. Missionaries did not MAKE missions happen, but responded positively to the work of God and their place in history. That is my view at least. Terry and Gallagher’s book balances things well.
  3. The book embraces what I might describe as a “Generous Orthodoxy” (drawing the term from Brian McLaren). The book is quite respectful of missions from a variety of Christian groups including Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Celtic, “Nestorian,” Russian Orthodox, and many faith traditions among Protestant groups. Some negative portrayals are reserved for the Roman Catholic church (especially in ways it worked against Christian missions and Protestant missions), but the work of RC missionaries is portrayed more positively. The only “historically” Christian group involved in missions that seems to never be described positively (as far as I noticed) was the World Council of Churches, and it missions (“conciliar missions”). More on that later.
  4. The target audience for the book is Protestant Evangelical. A little over half the book is focused on Protestant missions. As the book nears the present, the focus moved more to Evangelical missions. That being said, non-Protestant, non-Evangelical missions is given its place of prominence, especially in past centuries.
  5. I struggled to get a grasp of what the authors’ definition of missions was. Perhaps a reread of the book would clarify this. However, in a couple of places, I found the issue of definition problematic. In Chapters 7 and 11, Christian missions seemed to include what I might call, “Getting people to leave their church to start attending my church.” Chapter 7 attempted to support the notion that the early reformers (most notably Martin Luther and John Calvin) were indeed missional— despite anything that I would consider good support of this. Their argument that Luther and Calvin were missional was based on the fact that and their followers worked hard to get people to leave their own churches and join their churches. Chapter 11 is supposed to be about Methodist Missions, with focus on the Wesleys. However, the great majority of the chapter spoke of their ministry to people who are already Christians. Perhaps the desire to include the Methodist movement, with its link to the Moravians, and to the later ‘Holiness Movement’ made the inclusion feel necessarily. Missions has often included denominational efforts to get people to change churches. I am an Evangelical missionary in the Philippines. Ministry work to get Catholics to become Evangelical is commonly seen as a valid form of Christian missions. However, in other parts of the book, it seems like missions about reaching those who don’t identify as Christian. Thus, I am a bit confused.
  6. Generally, the book did a pretty good job of separating between missions history and church history. To me at least, Church history tends to focus on Creeds, Councils, Controversies, and Conflicts. Generally, the book avoided these. Perhaps it would have been of benefit to integrate more of these in since missions history is in many ways an outworking of church history. For me, however, I feel like keeping the focus on missions was probably the correct choice.
  7. Towards the end of the book, in the chapter on Specialized Missions, a lot was ignored. There was little to nothing on Social Justice, Community Development, Missionary Member Care, Theological education, Interreligious Dialogue, and more. Not everything can be covered in one chapter of course. Still, I feel like some more important specializations in Christian missions should have been included.
  8. I feel like the absence of (positive) representation of conciliar missions was a bit of a failure in the book. I have worked with missionaries who could be described as part of conciliar missions, and often found them to be very faithful to God and capable in their work. While some of the concerns regarding conciliar missions in the book are all too valid, very often the authors had been willing to take the positive view of other missions movement rather than focusing on its worst. The book took a very generous view of the theology of Ulfilas, completely avoided the negative aspects of the work of St. Boniface, and the list goes on. Arguably, the Evangelical missions has benefited from conciliar missions as well. It was the Anglican component of the Evangelicals (such as Neill, Stott, and Newbigin) with one foot squarely in conciliar missions, that kept Evangelical missions from simply be subsumed by the theology (or lack of theology) of the Church Growth Movement. Additionally, conciliar missions has often been better in certain forms of missions than Evangelicals (social justice and interreligious dialogue being among them). I certainly see no reason to give conciliar missions an equal place in the book. I just suggest the overall generosity of the book could have been supplied here as well.
  9. Despite the tendency towards “generosity” to various people and movements, the book did not idealize. The authors were willing to provide kind critique, and occasionally harsh critique. The summary of the good and bad of Christian missions in the last chapter (drawn from Herbert Kane) was not only valuable, but was generally supported in the text of the book.
  10. The authors did not spend much time on theology of missions. I can understand why this was seen as generally outside the scope of the book. However, I was glad that the book did list down strategies and practices of many missionaries and mission movements. I found this quite helpful to understand them better, and to learn more about what I should and should not focus on as a missionary.

I am planning to use this work as the textbook for my upcoming class on missions history. With very few (and limited) reservations, I strongly recommend it to others.

On My Bookshelf at the Moment

I am in the US right now so I like to think of it as a good time to catch up on reading. That hasn’t been as true as I would like it to be. Nevertheless, I have been making some progress. Here are the one’s I am pushing through.

#1. Becoming a Missional Family; Fulfilling God’s Purpose in and through Your Family. <by P.C. Matthews. Urban India Ministries, 2014> This is not the type of book I would normally read, but I am glad that I am reading it. A student of mine is doing a paper on “Missional Families,” so in helping to research it, I came upon this book. It is a short book and I am 40% through it. It is a book written in Asia in Asian context. However, it seems to me to be broadly applicable. I will probably review it when I am done reading it.

#2. Four Views on the Church’s Mission. <edited by Jason S. Sexton and Stanley N. Gundry. Zondervan, 2017> What is the role of the church in God’s mission? While it seems like this is something that should have gotten worked out awhile ago, in many ways it seems to be a modern question. Voetius addressed this back in the 1600s but different views continue. The four views in the book are described as (a) Soteriological Mission, (b) Participatory Mission, (c) Contextual Mission, and (d) Ecumenical-Political Mission. Although I have only finished the introduction and part the first view. I am pretty sure that I am going to end up with a common view for me— all of them have a point. All of the short descriptions sound like they have merit. But that is fine. Truth tends to be in the nuanced overlaps, not in strictly walled categories.

#3. Encountering the History of Missions: From the Early Church to Today <by John Mark Terry and Robert L. Gallagher. Baker Academic, 2017> I will be starting to teach an online class in Missions History. In the past, I have used Ruth Tucker’s book, “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya.” However, the 2nd edition is rather pricey for some of my students, so I am going with Encountering. This book does have the same problem I have for most mission history books— the great focus on post-Reformation missions, and little on missions of the Eastern churches. Still a quick perusal of the book looks very promising.

#4. Creed Without Chaos– Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers <by Laura K. Simmons. Baker Academic, 2005> Dorothy Sayers is one I have little knowledge of except for several very interesting quotes. However, I have loved reading theology by thoughtful lay-theologians. I think their non-academic perspective often brings good things into view. I think this is especially true of writers whose fame comes from non-theological and non-academic works.

Additionally, I am using this time to go through and fix my book, “Ministry in Diversity.” It is a book on Cultural Anthropology— or better said, on Missionary Anthropology. I find the book useful for my class in the Philippines, but feel like I need to upgrade it for general consumption. Hopefully, I will be done with it before I travel back to the Philippines.

By the way, the two most successful books online are:

The Art of Pastoral Care

Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture

Both of them are shockingly inexpensive— especially in Kindle Format.

Review: Cross-Cultural Servanthood— by Duane Elmer

I want to say that this is the best Christian Missions book I have read in a long time. The problem with that is that I have been rather blessed in having read a lot of good Missions books lately. Maybe it is better to say that it is “THE MOST READABLE, RELEVANT, AND QUOTABLE MISSIONS BOOK” I have read in a long time.

The title is “Cross-Cultural Servanthood— Serving the World in Christlike Humility.” The author, Duane Elmer is (or was?) a professor of International Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The title is pretty much the way it is. It gives guidance for missionaries, particularly, to serve cross-culturally as servants. I was also quite surprised in the amount of missionary member care was in this book. That is good and the book is driven as much by stories as by concepts.

This is personal for me, but I particularly appreciate his chapter on leadership. He particularly avoids emphasizing the term “Servant Leader.” While there is nothing wrong with the term in theory, in practice many people use the term more like “servant LEADER.” Elmer suggests the opposite. The key role of a missionary is to be a servant. The missionary should not necessarily embrace leadership roles— it is okay at times, but often it is better to leave leadership to others. However, missionaries should ALWAYS be servants. As such, missionaries should be SERVANTS or at times SERVANT leaders.

He promotes the Tribal Chief vision for leadership. A lot of people think that Tribal Chiefs are autocratic, but this is rarely so. In most cases, a tribal chief works with tribal elders to come up with a consensus and then acts as the mouthpiece of the elders to the people. We find Moses gradually moving from a Pharoah- style autocrat towards being more of a tribal chief. He gradually passed on authority to tribal elders. And many of the disagreements that came up between the elders and Moses probably point to a more collegial gathering that would OCCASIONALLY go off the rails when the consensus went against clear direction from God.

The misunderstanding of Tribal Chief leadership is hardly surprising. I was in the military and it is surprising how many Christians idealize military leadership— a system that is absolutely HORRIBLE AND INEFFICIENT except in times of military conflict. And even then, the idea that orders are always to be obeyed shows a lack of understanding of how the chain of command really works.

Anyway, the book is about much more than leadership as it relates to missionaries, and cross-cultural circumstances. At times I feel good as I read stories in the book of mistakes I did not make… while at other times I feel that discomfort of seeing myself making exactly those mistakes. I am talking about leadership here because that was the chapter that struck me the most. But much of it has to do with healthy relationships and the right attitude to serve in another setting. The author provides a fairly simple (simple in concept…. a lifetime to perfect) model for acculturation.

Definitely recommend this book to all involved in missions or cross-cultural ministry.


Christian Missions and Pastoral Care

Christian Missions seems so opposite to Pastoral Care. Christian Missions is usually linked with proclamation and apologetics. Pastoral Care is more tied to listening and eductive learning. Christian Missions usually seeks to change others. Pastoral Care is usually more focused on empowering others to change themselves— or at least understand themselves better.

But there are a lot of areas where Christian Missions overlap with Pastoral Care. I have written on this before. However, there are clear areas of overlap.

Missionary Member Care. This one is obvious. MMC is, in many ways, pastoral care for missionaries.

Interreligious Dialogue. This is less obvious. However, living in a pluralistic world, with many cultures having a worldview that is decidedly not Christian, the ability to understand, learn, and build relationships with those of other faiths is critical. Incompetence to do IRD is likely to lead to incompetence in engaging with people of other cultures.

Christian Missions. Okay, this is a bit funny. I am suggesting that Christian Missions exists completely within the bounds of Pastoral Care. Perhaps this is a bit much. However, I would suggest reading the book, CROSS-CULTURAL SERVANTHOOD: SERVING THE WORLD IN CHRISTLIKE HUMILITY by Duane Elmer (IVP Books, 2006).

Much like books on Servant Leadership books that have popularized a radically different view of leadership, “Cross-cultural Servanthood” makes the case that the Servant model is ideal for Missionaries (especially in the context of cross-cultural settings, at least in the context of the book). I believe that the book makes a strong case that Servanthood is the ideal, most effective, best way to serve as a missionary.

Fine… but when one reads the book on what it means to be a servant missionary, the book reads like a Pastoral Care book. Consider the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) that did a study as to who is most effective in serving overseas (cross-culturally). The three top things were found to be (described in pages 96 and 97 of Elmer’s :

  1. “… Ability to initiate and sustain interpersonal relationships with the local people.”
  2. “… A strong sense of self-identity, which allowed people to be real with each other.”
  3. “… Positive, realistic predeparture expectations.”

If one looks at these three— the first two are very much tied to Pastoral Care and Counseling. Perhaps the third one isn’t, but definitely the first two fit.

Back when I was going to seminary, I focused on missions courses while my wife focused on pastoral care courses. I think that as a couple, that worked out well. However, I later found the need to try to “catch up” in the pastoral care area. In retrospect, pastoral care is vital to missions, and I was disadvantaged with the presumption that pastoral care did not have much to do with Missions.

Take away: While language learning is important (I wish I had taken it more seriously), as are the skills of contextualization, Pastoral Care and Counseling## is probably the next most important thing in Christian Missions.

##Pastoral Care and Counseling here does NOT refer to formulas of counseling, or of verse-bombing. I am referring the the art of Pastoral Theology and Care that has been passed down from the Original founders of the church, through church history until today. Sadly, Pastoral Care has been messed with on both sides— those who have most to an overly secular model, and those who have embraced a Biblicist (arguably SUB-Biblical) model.

Other Links:

7 Rules of Pastoral Conversation

Resolving Pastoral Care and Missions, Part 1

Resolving Pastoral Care and Missions, Part 2

Resolving Pastoral Care and Missions, Part 3

Book Review: “Encountering Theology of Mission” (Ott, Strauss, Tennent)

The book, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues by Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, with Timothy C. Tennent, is the best Missiology book I have read in quite some time. I just finished reading it about 2 hours ago, so I don’t think this will be a carefully crafted review… but I hope that is okay.

ENCOUNTERING THEOLOGY OF MISSIONS: BIBLICAL FOUNDATIONS, HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENTS, AND CONTEMPORARY ISSUES. Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, with Timothy C. Tennent (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010). Part of the Encountering Mission series.

When I first began reading the book I was a bit down on it in that it did not seem to have a theme or framework. But clearly, the goal of the book is not to give a single clear theological vision for mission (or missions), but to review the landscape and range of perspectives in the Theology of Mission. This certainly not only adds to its strength as a textbook, but also helps those involved in missions to come up with our own perspectives. As the sub-title suggests, it addresses Biblical Foundations for missions- but it is more than most such Biblical foundations which (at their worst) is little more than quoting a lot of Scripture verses. It deals with Historical Developments of missions and does do honor not only to Evangelical Protestant missions, but Catholic, Conciliar, and Orthodox missions as well. And it deals with many of the Contemporary issues that are bandied about today.

While the perspective of the writers is clearly Evangelical, the book does not try particularly hard to be a defense of Evangelical perspectives. It criticizes some perspectives within the Evangelical world with regards to missions, often shows respect (even if respective disagreement) with perspectives from others, and is cautious in generally avoiding strong dogmatic statements.

I will add two negative comments here.

First, there are some topics that I feel were glossed over a bit. The Honor/Shame Theology versus Guilt/Innocence (to say nothing about other models of connecting Christian theology to worldview categories) was not addressed more than off-hand. I understand that the book came out in 2010, but I do feel like these issues were around enough at that time to be seen as a real contemporary issue worth dealing with more. Additionally, the section of contextualization did not do much in the area of tests for good localized theology versus bad. In this particular case, the book did speak to this issue more than just off-hand. To me, however, it could have benefited from an in-depth review.

Second, I felt that it was a great book that was really let down by the final chapter. That chapter “The Necessity of Missions” did not really need to be there. It dealt with three “uncomfortable questions.” that are related to the justice and fairness of God. These are good questions, but are starting to move away from Theology of Mission into Soteriology and Theology Proper. It does feel like the authors simply weren’t that strong in those topics. The issue of Hell was especially weak in my mind. It did not deal with the wide range of perspectives regarding the nature of Hell…. limiting to three perspectives, and even then only covered one in-depth (the one they supported). It went into a fairly unconvincing Biblical justification for the ECT (eternal conscious torment) perspective. That seems pretty out of line with the rest of the book that tried to be multi-perspectival and sought to avoid verse-bombing. Personally, I am in the undecided category regarding much about the nature of Hell because the Bible is shockingly vague in this area. I can’t really complain that the authors have a perspective on it— that is fair and reasonable. I, however, feel like this chapter was added as a bit of an afterthought and was not well developed. I would say that I do find it curious that there seems to be a presumption in the last chapter generally that Christians should find it more motivational to do missions if non-believers experience eternal conscious torment then if they are consumed and perish. (Frankly, why would missionaries feel greater motivation to faithfully serve a God who appears to be less fair and merciful, humanly speaking, than one who appears to be more fair and merciful.) I am not trying to make a big point about Hell and about the Justice of God, but, again, I feel that the final chapter was added in a rushed manner based on editorial comments. I could be wrong.

I spent way too long on these two negative comments. If I ever get a chance to teach Theology of Mission again, I will definitely use it as a key textbook (unless something more updated comes along). I must commend the high quality of the book, and recommend it to all interested in this topic.