The Pen

Evangelicals “Enamored with the Urban”

Modern Evangelicalism is enamored with the urban. Want people to swoon? Then tell them you’re an urban or inner-city minister or missionary and they will swoon…if you’re doing urban ministry you’re doing real ministry…and God forbid if you’re doing rural ministry, you probably don’t even deserve to live.”

This quotation from Voddie Baucham is from a discussion on Reformed Rap on December 5 of this year, facilitated by Dr. James White, between Voddie Baucham, Shai Linne and IV Connerly.  Explaining the broad scope of response toward the answers given on a National Council of Family Integrated Churches panel concerning their views of the genre, Baucham briefly explained one of two reasons he believes the response and rebuttal came from so many in evangelicalism – most of whom aren’t even familiar with the musical styling. Simply put, evangelicalism is ‘enamored’ with the urban.

I had to laugh when he made the passing tongue-in-cheek comment, primarily because he’s so correct. We are fixated upon the urban. The North American Mission Board’s SEND strategy is an example of this intense focus on the urban in recent years. NAMB has prioritized work in 50 cities (32 chosen for emphasis so far) because of their philosophy, “if you reach the cities, you’ll reach the urban.” NAMB’s focus has led to restructuring much of the way the Southern Baptist Convention channels funds to its frontier regions, and Montana has been one of the states that have faced cuts in funding because of this restructuring. And to be fair, it doesn’t seem to make sense that our limited financial resources be spent in rural and frontier states with the least people. My own brother serves in a NAMB cooperative effort as a church planter in one of these 32 cities and he feels compelled that the approach is valid. I have a tendency to agree. And yet, it’s possible we’re overlooking some things in the process.

First, as a historian, I would beg to differ that the urban-affects-rural narrative is an open and shut case. The premise is that societal trends start in the city and move to the rural. There’s some truth to this. The fashion trends, for example, start on the coasts and move inward toward America’s heartland. The same goes for music and entertainment. Is this reason enough to believe that the primary strategy of the church should be to have our pastors and planters pack up from rural America and head into the cities? History doesn’t suggest this is the case.

Over the last two centuries, the United States has transitioned from a rural to urban society. Statistics demonstrate that in 1790, only one in twenty Americans lived in an urban area. In 1870, the number was one in four. In 1920 the number was one in two, in 1960 it was two out of three, and now four out of five in the 21st Century.[1] There are some instances, like the state of Maine for example, that are becoming less urban. For most, however, this is not the story. And yet, these statistics are the very reason why I suggest that the rural area cannot be neglected in our pursuit of the Great Commission.

Whereas the urban influence is invading the rural through media, fashion and entertainment, the rural is invading the urban with a much more valuable resource; people. Consider, for example, the 56 counties of Montana. The U.S. Office of Management and Budgets has designated two ‘metropolitan’ areas and five ‘micropolitan’ areas in the state.[2] A metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is an urban center (this doesn’t count the residents of the city, but the resident’s in the city’s “core”) with at least 50 thousand residents and a micropolitan area is an urban center with at least 10 thousand residents. Comparing it to statistical data over the last twenty years, we see a shrinkage of residents in rural Montana and a relative invasion of urban Montana. Although there is no easy way to tell, the most logical conclusion is that the very people disappearing in one area are the very people suddenly appearing in the other. In other words, the highway of migration is one-directional. The rural is invading the urban.

Every once in a while a cultural phenomenon may invade the urban from the rural, as we’re seeing now with the Duck Dynasty craze. What’s particularly peculiar about Duck Dynasty sociologically, is the rarity that we see anything in the rural setting adopted into mainstream American culture. It also demonstrates that cultural influence is not a one-way street. Duck Dynasty aside, most cultural exchange in America is urban to rural. But the exchange of people is practically a one-way street from rural to urban. The so-called ‘white flight’ beginning in the 1950s and a constant trickle of city core dwellers to the suburbs can’t undo the reality that it’s truly the rural invading the urban and not the other way around.

Now here’s why all the above matters. Denominational powers may eye a takeover of urban cultural centers or through some hybrid breed of Dominionist theology may want to ‘redeem’ Hollywood or Broadway or Nashville and through it, bring the Gospel to the nations. NAMB may very well be under the impression that if it can conquer the tools that urban America has been using to pollute and dominate our culture for the last hundred years so they can then use those tools to propagate the Gospel. It’s a valiant and ambitious plan. And yet, I see it differently.

I see the current exodus of rural and frontier regions into the urban as a providential opportunity to flood the urban centers with missionaries. And by missionaries, I don’t mean those on the NAMB payroll and serving as vocational church planters, necessarily. I don’t mean the guys highlighted in NAMB’s “Go Magazine,” the tattoo-covered guys with funny hair preparing their sermons at a coffee shop and doing home Bible studies trying to ‘engage’ their new culture. I mean the possibility of thousands upon thousands of believing laypeople who flood the urban areas each year to carve out their niche and call it their new home. These people – if they were properly discipled to begin with – already would have had a huge impact on the urban centers (and some have). And this army of rural-to-urban missionaries wouldn’t have to be on the payroll of a home mission board (although praise God that church planters have funding; don’t take that the wrong way). They would be, shockingly enough, ordinary and yet remarkable lights for Jesus that were properly trained in rural America to take the Gospel with them wherever they go. I think we can look at what we (evangelical America as a whole) have done over the last quarter-century and say that in spite of our best efforts and mission board overhauls, we have not properly trained our laypeople as missionaries. We’ve outsourced it to professionals. And for that, we’ve lost sight of the big picture.

I pray for a Reformation in rural America – one that spans beyond denominational lines – that will properly catechize our young people, train our children, and reinforce our lay people with a commitment to the Scripture and a biblical evangelism that one-by-one will infiltrate urban America. I’m just crazy enough to believe that God would prefer to move through people than through vehicles for cultural take-over.

There’s one more element about being enamored with the urban that doesn’t sit well with me. Those entranced with the inner-city seem to be (typically) of the same doctrinal variety that tends to operate under a practical denial of God the Holy Spirit (although not without some wonderful exceptions). I just think there’s something about a room full of men plotting over a demographics map and consulting statisticians about where to send our resources that may have God provoked to prove them wrong. The Holy Spirit, after all, is like a wind that blows from some unknown place to some other unknown place for a reason known solely to the Godhead (John 3). Historically, I think God likes to prove us wrong.

It was entirely illogical for John the Baptist, when his father was an urbanite priest in the hub of Jewish culture, to preach in the wilderness. Yet, because of the power of his preaching emboldened by the Holy Spirit, all of Jerusalem turned their ear to the rural and sojourned into the wilderness to hear him. There’s something intrinsically and beautifully illogical to that. It was entirely illogical that the very man to receive the attention from the entire world and be the very center of salvation for every believing soul was born in a manger in Bethlehem and raised in a dust-covered and irrelevant part of Galilee. And now, many urban and inner-city dwellers flock each year to those dust-covered back-roads to see where the Savior walked. There’s something poetic about that. Can prophetic voices in the wilderness still draw the attention of the urban?

I see the logicality of an urban fixation in church planting and missions. I’m all for it. Hit the cities and hit them hard for Jesus.  At the same time, I pastor a church in a frontier area with very few people in a mid-sized congregation and a screaming high membership turnover because the oil boom in nearby North Dakota brings people in and out like a revolving door. And for the hundreds in my church today, hundreds more have come through, been saved or discipled, and have gone back home as lay missionaries on fire for Christ. Imagine that; God has a place in his redemptive plan for backwoods church in rural America that is impacting cities all across the nation.

I pray that in the rural churches of Reformation Montana (and other churches like them across the nation) might light a spark in their pulpit that will waft the burning ember far into the night sky, not to be seen by them ever again. And I pray that little ember might be protected from the winds and stormy gale by God the Spirit through the night unknown, and land into one of the concrete jungles of America’s inner cities and start a fire that cannot be quenched. I suspect that might give as much glory to God as a game-plan built upon our human wisdom and a census bureau report.

 [Contributed by JD Hall]

[1] “United States Summary: 2010”. 2010 Census of Population and Housing, Population and Housing Unit Counts, CPH-2-5. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. 2012. pp. 20–26. Retrieved March 2013.

[2] “OMB Bulletin No. 10-02: Update of Statistical Area Definitions and Guidance on Their Uses”. United States Office of Management and Budget. December 1, 2009. Retrieved August 8, 2012.