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.
Now, there have been many rebuttals to this attitude over the years, including my own articles (here and here), one by Jared Wilson, as well as a recent piece by Phil Colgan.
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.
Jim Pemberton says
Thanks for this. Cities are certainly strategic. Church plants there are also more likely to succeed given the available resources. There is also the opportunity to reach people who are passing through and will be going to back to wherever they came from.
Rural populations tend to be more difficult, although this is not always so. They tend to be more homogeneous and have often been taken advantage of for the natural resources that are available in their region. So they are less trusting. The exception would be people like the small, remote mountain villages of the Himalayas where they just don’t ever see other people to learn to distrust them. But all of these people need to hear the Gospel too and it usually takes a far greater commitment than an urban plant.
John T. Jeffery says
The link seems to be broken in the post above to Jared Wilson’s article “Rural Ministry is not Second Rate” (5 JUN 2012), on Gospel Driven Church at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/gospeldrivenchurch/2012/06/05/rural-ministry-is-not-second-rate/. What comes up is “Not Found, The article you are looking for could not be found.” I attempted searches on Jared’s Gospel Driven Church blog for this article using title keywords without success. Reconstructing the URL with blogs.thegospelcoaltion.org in front rather than thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/ did not made a difference. I also failed to come up with any other URLs in a Google search that would connect to this article. If anyone has any information about how to access this 4+ year old article I would appreciate it.
John T. Jeffery says
Jonathan: Thank you!
James Anderson says
Interesting. Is it also possible that the evidence itself is skewed, in the sense that we’re more likely to find historical evidence of urban ministry than of rural ministry?
Thank you for this! What an encouragement for those of us serving in rural ministry. FYI, Village Missions is committed to doing just that, not because rural is better but because at least in part, it is overlooked. http://www.village-missions.org
I would guess there is a temptation for a pastor or church planter in America to want an urban or suburban setting–whether for himself or his spouse–for consumerist reasons: better/cooler/newer dining, housing, shopping, etc. We affluent Christians are masters at masking materialism with spiritual language. I don’t mean to sound all negative, but I think that temptation is real.
Donnie Griggs says
Hey Michael, Good stuff. I wrote a book on this called “Small Town Jesus.” I would love to send you a copy if you are interested. Just let me know where to send it. Thanks, Donnie
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Donnie. Sure, send it along:
2101 Carmel Rd.
Charlotte, NC 28226
In the PCA especially, I would suspect that there is a very simple reason for this: the requirements for sustainability in new congregations. I am a reformed southern baptist, but most of my pastor buddies are PCA guys from seminary. I am working from memory here, but is it not the case that a requirement for a PCA church plant is that it be totally self sustaining, including owning its own facilities, within 3 years? I think one of my friends shared that tidbit with me, that the denomination will provide some support, but that the church has to have facilities, full time staff, and meet other benchmarks within that time frame.
If my facts are correct, it is no wonder that rural america is largely ignored. No one in their right mind is going to voluntarily sign up for that, because the odds of failure are so high. Heck a majority of rural churches these days cannot afford full time staff at all, including the pastor. I know the church I pastor can’t. If the PCA really is concerned about rural church planting (and I am not saying they aren’t), they ought to either let go of some of those requirements, or dramatically extend the period of time that the denomination is willing to provide support.
William Duncan says
This is a subject that crosses my mind often, possibly because of where I live compared to where my Church meets. I live in rural South Carolina. I have within a mile of my house three large Church meeting places. As you might suspect, none are reformed. I have to drive 25 miles to my church building. Of course the dynamics behind this problem are many. The answer would be parishes but that is rarely sought as an option anymore. The harvest is ripe in rural America based upon what I see around me, in my community. Large reformed congregations should consider rural plants as a mission field instead of somewhere on the other side of the world.
They Don't Understand Grace says
I can assure you, from personal experience, rural areas need it most. They say they’re preaching and teaching love and grace, and they genuinely believe they are, but they don’t understand the problem is the underside of whatever rock they’re moving. That’s where the snakes are, and that’s where we need to be working. Under this earth suit, into our heart and soul.
I live in the sticks. Grew up in the sticks. I was saved 40 years ago at age 14, but because the church I went to pretty much thought anything other than the KJV was heresy, I never grew through my teen years. I spent so much time and energy trying to figure out what the heck it was saying, I missed what it was saying. KWIM? For example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Now, in my podunk brain I’m trying to reason this out. If He is your Shepherd, why don’t you want Him? And this from a man who was probably God’s all time favorite of any man.
Some years later, I got my hands on a Living Bible. I flipped through it, digging the fact the finally wrote something in English (I jest) so that I could understand it. I ended up on Psalm 23. “Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need.” Oooooooohhhhhhhhh!!!!!!! I see. Kin James and his peeps just spoke sentences backwards! I thought. And that opened the door to studying up on many translations. I settled on one, don’t remember which, but over the years I’d find another that seemed to have a more accurate translation and so on and so forth.
Listen, my English Lit teacher fudged just a bit on my final grade so I could graduate on time. I hated English Lit, mostly for that very reason. The King’s English, Shakespeare and all that. But I struggled many years because of that legalistic attitude. Punt all that. Our Lord said “love God with all you are and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two, all the others hang.” And when you break it down like that, and process whatever you do through that filter, you cannot go wrong. Unless there’s something working in the background of which you haven’t been made aware. Still, if you’re “all prayed up” as they say around here, and you stay in the Word, 9 times out of 10 whatever you roll with will be the right choice.
I was thinking just Sunday, “I wish I really felt called to walk into one of those churches and call the pastor out on some things right there in front of God and everybody. But I couldn’t decide if I’d ever be able to tell if that was His will or just mine. These are my people. People I grew up with, went to church and school with, played with. Even my own family. It absolutely breaks my heart they put the very chains our Lord took off right back on. And they don’t truly know the liberty they have. No stress. Just trust God for today and let the rest go.
Once a couple of years ago I was in a church I’d heard so many good things about and I committed the atrocity of, before Sunday School even started, an error in a conversation the class just happened to be having at the time. One lady said something about praying aloud at her desk before she ate lunch. Then it got into public prayer in general. I’m just sittin’ back, watchin’ all this wondering why this is even up for discussion, even a non official one. Finally, the teacher walked in and got behind the podium. Then he got in on the discussion and was saying the same thing everyone else was. here was finally a chance for me to get a word in and I looked a him and asked, “What does the Bible (maybe What did Jesus) say about public prayer?” We all know He said don’t. He said to go into the closet and pray. Now I understand church events or family reunions and things like that, but I’m talking about when there are no such activities and you’re by yourself. Why can’t you say a silent prayer? Why can’t you bless lunch in the morning, before you even leave. Don’t you know God expands time? He’s in tomorrow, today and yesterday. And every other day or measurement of “time” anyone’s ever had or will have.
Regardless, when I hit SS teacher with that one question, “What does the Bible (Jesus) say?”, he looked at me and I believe had the Holy Spirit not been inside to knock ’em out, he woulda shot rays right through me with his eyes. He. Was. Mad. And if that simple question, about any subject, bothers you that much, sump’m ain’t right.
I could go on forever, but I’d give my left leg for a good, REAL, come as you are, Bible believing, Bible teaching, God loving, people loving church in the sticks. I’ve never found one.
One problem is, for the most part, a small church can’t pay much money, so the pastor is bi-vocational. So between his job, his family and helping around the community, there’s not much time to properly prepare a sermon, or even study the text in depth. Few have formal education, and they’re far too quick to put someone in the position who isn’t mature enough for it. Sadly, that almost always ends up being a disaster for several people.
So yes, we need help. I talk about stuff like this as much as I can, but I don’t see that many people anymore. Use social media a lot. I appreciate the author for the work it took to put all this together. It’s an excellent article. The need is huge. And I live in the Biblest of all belts. So please pray for those who mean well or think they’ve got it figured out, who are really just playing “Preacher Says…”
And, frankly, I don’t even care if they’re Reformed or not. I’m in no man’s land on that part. Now, my son is a Presbyterian minister, so we all know which side of the fence he fell on. Personally, I can make a good debate for either view. And I’ve never lost one, regardless of what side I was taking. I think it’s one of those things that fits in the “God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts,” category. I’ve believed both ways at various times. I’ve concluded the best way to lay it out was explained by my favorite Bible teacher of all time, J. Vernon McGee. He said, “If you find yourself in Heaven, it’s because God chose you. If you find yourself in hell, it’s because you rejected God.”
And that’s the way I feel. Today.