A while ago, I posted a blog article entitled “The Arrogance of the Urban” where I expressed concern over the attitude prevalent in many ministry circles today that “real” ministry happens in the inner city, while those in suburbia are out of touch and concerned only about their own safety and prosperity.
Part of the reason that urban ministry is regarded as more relevant is because of the belief that it is filled with minority poor that have been neglected by the mainstream church. While this is no doubt still true in some places, it is a vast oversimplification. In my original article I wrote:
Suburbia is not as rich and racially monolithic as you think. People’s impression of the suburbs is that everyone is wealthy and white. Although there is a lot of truth in that impression, it is not as accurate as you might think. Samuel Atchison has written a helpful article that highlights the recent trend in the past few years where young professionals are moving into the city centers, while the poor are fleeing to the suburbs! In fact, I see this in my own city. One of the most racially diverse areas I see regularly is the suburban parks where I take my kids to play. There, all playing together, are folks who are Asians, Indians, African Americans, Hispanics, and more.
My own experience with the suburbs seems to be more widespread than I even realized. In a recent article, Anthony Bradley points out that recent studies have shown that urban areas are no longer than location for poor minorities that they once were. He highlights the opportunities this creates:
This current shift also provides wonderful new opportunities for suburban churches and other cultural institutions to remain in the suburbs and adjust their vision and activities to receive this new cohort of suburban poor. Words like “urban” and “inner-city” can no longer be associated with racial minorities and the underclass. In the coming years, as is the case today in cities like New York, “urban” and “inner-city” will be the home of cultural elites who are rearranging the market and pricing out the poor. In the near future, the inner city will be the place to find trendy coffee shops, Whole Foods, and artist enclaves. The suburbs may not be where all the “cool” innovators and culture makers will live to raise their children but it is the place where poverty is exploding.
In the end, this whole issue raises an important lesson for evangelicals. We have an unfortunate tendency to chase what is cool in our culture and make it the centerpiece of our ministry (often denigrating other ministries that don’t share our vision). Meanwhile, we don’t realize that we are really about 10 years behind the cultural trends anyway. We are perennial late-comers to what our world thinks is hip.
It is time to abandon the evangelical quest to be “relevant”. We need to be more cautious about letting cultural trends determine and dictate our ministry choices (and attitudes). God’s word is sufficient to fill that role.
“It is time to abandon the evangelical quest to be “relevant”.”
It is a chicken and egg thing. Evangelicals started going to the inner cities and urban areas because of the lack of evangelical churches there. Secondary was the impulse to right a wrong, which was evangelical churches abandoning those areas in the first place. And on that: “We need to be more cautious about letting cultural trends determine and dictate our ministry choices (and attitudes)” well that happened already. Evangelical churches gladly participated in the cultural trend of white flight from urban to suburban areas and in the process took on a positive outlook towards suburbanism and a negative one towards urbanism. Indeed, the suburban evangelical church became a subculture of its own, with its own methodology and mindset. As for staying in the suburbs because the poor people are moving there … it hasn’t happened yet. It is trending in that direction, but right now the suburbs are still mostly non-minority and affluent while the urban areas are still mostly minority and poor. Furthermore, if the mindset of aversion to minority and poor people doesn’t change, evangelicals will simply relocate further out into the exurbs, which is where the affluent people who want nothing to do with liberal urban revitalization are going. Also, there is no evidence that other cities are going to follow New York City’s pattern, and as a matter of fact there are likely very many economic and cultural reasons why they will not. Affluent liberals moving into places like New York, Los Angeles, Miami etc. is one thing. But affluent liberals moving into Memphis, Birmingham, Cleveland and pretty much anywhere else that isn’t considered to be a trendy, fun place for a liberal to live and socialize in – the vast majority of the cities in the country and pretty much all of them that are not on the east or west coast – is another.
And as far as the “relevance” goes, a great deal of it had nothing to do with urbanism anyway. Instead, it was an attempt to be hip in the eyes of the suburbanites; trying to appeal to the Starbucks crowd and elite college intellectuals. To the extent that they were attempting to be relevant with regards to the urbanites, it was simply acknowledging that one was ministering in a different cultural context … that people in the urban areas have vastly different cultures and experiences than people in suburban areas do.
The reality is that you can go to a lot of urban areas – whether majority, majority, rich, poor etc. – and see very few self sustaining, let alone large and influential, evangelical churches, and indeed will find a great deal of hostility to such churches: people not only not wanting to attend them but not wanting them around.That may not make ministering in those areas superior, “real ministry” in other words, but it certainly makes it different from ministering in a place where there is an evangelical church on every corner and evangelical churches fill a vital role, respected role in the community. It honestly is akin to missionary work in a lot of respects, and should be viewed as such. Now that is no excuse for those laboring in the urban ministry fields – the urban missionaries if you will – to be puffed up with pride. Pride is a temptation for all Christians. But still, just as missionaries face added challenges and circumstances, so do urban ministers, and there should be a way of discussing and acknowledging that without suburban ministers feeling put upon.
Chris Lee says
This is a pointed rebuke in certain ways, and this issue of feeling cool or trendy is actually more of an issue than I think that most people realize. Great article. Please keep this up!
I have also noticed that this type of coolness happens much more in the PCA than it does in other reformed denominations.. (it still happens in other denominations, but on a much smaller scale.. I have been to an OP church where you couldnt tell that it was “stereo-typical” OP because it was rather “cool”. But I have only seen that one OP congregation be that way)…
There is of course nothing wrong with reaching into urban areas (this is greatly needed), but especially in the PCA cool church context, the motive behind doing so is sinful and can hinder the church plant in many ways unbeknownst to the pastor and the congregation.
The focus turns from maximizing glorifying God in worship to how we can “accommodate” God into our coolness and hipness and “relevance”. Many people dont see it this way, but this almost always happens.
You didn’t specifically mention this, but I think that this speaks to the growing trend in the PCA of more churches and plants following the “redeemer-model” of worship. This could probably be the standard bearer of what is cool in the PCA.
I have visited several redeemer-model churches when I visit my in-laws in CA, and every time, I am always very troubled every time I attend a service.
In the attempts to be cool, hip and “revelant”, the service somehow ends up being so man-centered and so focused on ourselves.
What is even more alarming is that when I brought this up with a friend who attends one of these churches, he had no clue as to what I was talking about. He couldnt see it.
Even during the confession of sin portion of worship, the service is so man centered that the prayer ends up becoming a prayer about how we are not confessing properly, and never mentions how we have sinned against a holy God! How backwards is that?
This also delves into other issues that don’t directly deal with worship, but are closely connected to it. For instance, in one of these trendy churches, the session is to be aided (not sure if they made it formal yet) with a group of “wise counselors” who are women from the congregation..
Where in Scripture is there any direct warrant or even by good and necessary deduction to have wise female counselors to be guiding and helping the session as a formal elected body within that church? There is none and in fact, the scriptures speak of the opposite by direct warrant and by deduction.
This is a dangerous precursor to something that can cause major problems down the road (women elders).
And why are they doing this? This is a reflection of the trendiness that that church wants to exude and the associated egalitarianism that is inherent within being modern, trendy and cool.
There is nothing wrong with being “contemporary” and singing “contemporary” songs or using a guitar in worship. But, as you probably know, the issue of using a guitar or singing a contemporary worship song is not really the issue.
The issue is when the focus of the church (Christ) has been replaced with something else (namely trendiness and coolness). Sometimes, many people don’t notice this shift. At that point though, I think that this speaks more to people’s lack of wisdom as opposed to the benign nature of being cool or hip.
Thank you for the article!
I agree that the church should not be so concerned about what is hip or relevant, rather it’s goal is to be obedient to Christ. The need is not so much geographic location (urban/suburban) as ethnic (ethnic groups from many different backgrounds). The problem is that many urban and suburban areas are filled with ethnic groups the typical American Christian doesn’t want to reach. This is really a cultural and missional breakdown. The urban or suburban isn’t cool in and of itself if we do it for the wrong reasons. Maybe if more ministries approached it with good missiology there would not be the fad mentality.
One thing that I think is notably present in both of these blog posts is “the poor.” You can be in the “city” or the “burbs” and escape the poor these days. But we are called to do the opposite of escape – to engage, to dive in. Not just in a helping way, but in a relational, life-sharing way.
Trying to figure out how to do this in my own context. It takes following up intentions with actual, sometimes uncomfortable work!