One of the wonderful developments in Reformed denominations in the last generation is a renewed emphasis on church planting. It is a burgeoning movement in my denomination (PCA), and one of the reasons that RTS Charlotte launched the Center for Church Planting last Fall.
One of the notable features of this new church planting movement is the near exclusive focus on planting churches in cities. Most church planters, it seems, want to go urban and not rural.
And let me say that there are many positives about this focus on cities. Certainly, and most obviously, cities are filled with lots of people and for that reason alone make a good target area for church plants. There are also strategic considerations. Targeting leaders and influencers–many of which are located in major cities–makes a lot of sense.
However, in recent years, this interest in the urban has sometimes turned into a superiority of the urban, and even a disdain of the rural. Those who are a part of urban churches can sometimes project an attitude, even unwittingly, that urban centers are where “real” ministry happens.
But a new academic book has just been released that is relevant for this discussion: Thomas A. Robinson, Who Were the First Christians? Dismantling the Urban Thesis (OUP, 2017). I have just finished reading through it and I think it provides a helpful corrective to “arrogance of the urban” phenomenon.
Robinson tackles a wide-spread (and near consensus) belief among modern scholars that the earliest Christians were almost exclusively urban. Ever since Wayne Meek’s, The First Urban Christians (and even before this), scholars have been pretty convinced that the earliest Christian missionaries focused almost exclusively on cities.
And such scholarship has been used to support much of the modern impetus for urban-centered church planting.
But, Robinson basically says, “not so fast.” He dives into the typical arguments used to support the urban thesis and finds them seriously wanting. Yes, Christians evangelized cities in early Christianity, but not only cities. In fact, there is quite a bit of (overlooked) historical evidence that the earliest Christians had a robust mission to the countryside.
Indeed, Robinson argues that, numerically speaking, most early Christians might have actually been rural and not urban.
On one level this should not be surprising, he argues, because Jesus himself modeled a distinctively rural approach going through the countryside of Galilee, moving from village to village.
To be clear, Robinson’s point is not that early Christians prioritized rural over urban. Rather his point is that the rural dimension of early Christianity has been routinely overlooked due to a reigning paradigm that has insisted Christians were predominantly urban.
In reality, early Christians were both.
Robinson’s study thus has an obvious implication for modern church planting. We should be careful not to insist that we must focus on the urban because early Christians focused on the urban. It turns out, according to Robinson, that this is not what the earliest Christians did. Of course, we may decide to focus on urban locations for other reasons, and that is perfectly fine. But, we can’t insist that it has always been this way.
And even if we decide urban planting make more sense in our modern time period, we will want to be careful not to overlook the rural. There are many folks who live there. And they need the gospel too.
In short, the gospel is for all people. Urban, suburban, and rural. Or, as the Scripture puts it, every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 7:9). If the early Christians ministered to all kinds of people, then so should we.