I have been thinking about this post for a while and finally today as I was browsing through some of the blogs I commonly visit, I decided it was time to write. I will do my best not to go into rant mode, but know that I am on the verge. If you pay any attention to the church planting movement that is really sweeping (in a good way) across the Church, you have probably come across someone making some reference to cities. So the following phrases or mantras (as they have seemed to have become) are probably familiar to you:
- reach your city for Christ
- loving your city
- mission focus for your city
- bringing the Gospel to your city
- cities are where culture is created
- cities are where people are
- transforming your city
- millenials are moving to the city
- and on and on
As people commonly do, I am matching these statements, perspectives, "stats," visions, missions and procedures with my experience and it's not all clicking. I live in a small town with a bit less than 2,000 people in it. The school district I am in is made up of three communities for a total population of around 5,000 people. I do not live in a city. We attend a church that meets in our closest city, but as far as cities go, it is small. I am largely surrounded by rural and suburban areas in all directions. I am no sociologist or demography expert, but I would venture a guess that there are plenty of other areas like mine throughout the United States. If these other areas that I am assuming exist have a church culture similar to my community, then there are no mega-churches and/or even any churches with a mega-church hangover or obsession. There are approximately 25 churches within my school district, which means if everyone attended church evenly across all churches, there would be about 200 people at each church. (As I have previously mentioned in an older post, only about 22% of the population of my district attends church within our district). What does a pastor do with all this city talk in an area like this? What do all the other pastors that I am assuming exist do with all this city talk?
One response is to take what is good and apply it as best you can to your context. This is the approach that I have primarily taken because I read and listen to many of the guys in this camp: Darrin Patrick, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chander, Tim Keller, John Piper, Alan Hirsch, Matt Carter, and many others. I like what these guys have to say for the most part, I appreciate their hearts and I appreciate what their ministries are doing for the Church. However, you reach a point when trying to make city-focused ecclesiology work in your small town, rural or suburban context just doesn't completely work. That's because rural areas, suburban areas and small towns are not cities. Everything moves at a different pace. People live there usually by choice, meaning they don't live in a city by choice either due to their vocation or some other reason. Yes, I said that there are people living in small towns, suburban areas and rural areas. These people need to know and be transformed by the Gospel just as much as people in the city. They have a culture that needs drenched in Christ just as much as the city does. They have real problems, real sin, real brokenness and real needs just like those who live in the city.
Another response that I have not seen many take, particularly for those in positions of leadership is to write, teach and build paradigms for small town ecclesiology. This is a real need. I am not saying that no one has ever written on this, but there is not much newly written material on this subject. Go talk to any pastor of a small church in a rural, suburban or small town context and just listen to them. Listen to them share their struggles they face that are directly linked to the nature of their contexts and cultures. I have had the privilege of getting to speak at a few of the churches in my area and each time I talk to the pastors of the churches I just want to give them a hug. I have never met men more committed yet beaten down by their vocation. These pastors all want the same thing at their core, which is for people to know and walk with Christ. They want to see their communities changed by the Gospel. However, they are tired and it doesn't seem like they have too many people in their corner. I know that is common for pastors in general, but from my experience it seems like it weighs heavier on these small town guys. There is such a need for leadership, new writing, teaching and vision for what church looks like in these types of areas as the world changes. We can certainly learn from the city guys, but when it comes to focused ecclesiology and mission in relation to context and culture, it is a different conversation.
There are things that we really cannot argue in this whole debate. People will not stop living in rural areas, suburban areas and small towns. Even though many from my generation are moving to cities, which I think is great, every person is not doing so. Churches will not ultimately vacate those areas either. The Gospel has not, needs not and will not change whether we are talking city or more rural contexts. A different message is not needed for either context, but what is needed is a way to understand both contexts better in light of the unchanging message of the Gospel and boldly proclaim it. The city guys are hammering away at this very well, but we need more focus on the rural/suburban/small town context. City people and thus cities are not more important to God than all others. I think we have to be careful that we don't paint this picture as we talk about the strategic importance of cities for changing culture. We should be careful in not seeming to elevate the importance of city people. Also, should we spend lots of time thinking about strategy? Does God have a strategy to carry out His will? I am pretty sure He just speaks and it happens. The Spirit blows where it (He) will. Can we really say that an infinite God has a strategy or goals? Doesn't such language or concepts really only fit with finite creatures like us? So if we are following and serving an infinite God whose "strategy" really is His will which is what governs all else, shouldn't we be focusing on His will and not our strategies? In all of our machinations in strategy in any context, let's be careful not to be so arrogant as to not let God be God.
This past Sunday I was invited to preach at Justus UMC and I spoke on Luke 14:12-24. Jesus tells the parable of the Great Banquet to a house full of Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. He basically says in the parable that the Jews have rejected the Messiah (Him) and the Gospel will be presented to the Gentiles as well. In the parable He speaks about a party that was given, but all the invitees made excuses as to why they could not come. So the master throwing the party tells his servant to bring in the lame, blind and poor off the streets. His servant does so and there is still room. So the master tells him to go out into the highways and the hedges. John Calvin describes these people as the "common people." And Matthew Henry describes it as "the country" and the people as "the vagrants." Preaching on this passage made me think of my community made up of common people who live in the country (at least as would be described by those in the city). These people need compelled to come to Christ just as is mentioned in the parable He tells. It is interesting in the parable that the only people that need compelled to come are those that the servant has to find in the highways and hedges. It seems to me that one could surmise from this parable that there is a different approach to be taken to non-city people. Therein lies the need for books, conferences, focus, teaching, leadership and communication about what that looks like to do church in rural/suburban/small town contexts in the year of our Lord 2013. I love the city guys and frankly there are many things about cities that I love and thus there are many reasons why I would love to live in a city, but for right now Jesus has us in a small town as He does many others. Perhaps you could consider this a call to the Church in small towns, suburbia and rural America to begin to connect and communicate what things look like from our perspective, what our needs are and what struggles we face as we seek to serve the Lord in our context.