FIVE THINGS I'VE LEARNED ABOUT URBAN CHURCH PLANTING
The “urban jungle” – it’s a phrase we’ve often used to describe the challenging environment where more and more of our population lives every year. Business, recreation, tourism, education and family life all converge in the teeming masses that inhabit our cities. The sheer volume of people who live in these places creates a unique opportunity for the church in the twenty-first century. In reality, with more than half of the American population now living in the urban world, it’s more than an opportunity – it’s a responsibility. We must take the Gospel to them.
Historically, Southern Baptists have been weak in their efforts to impact our cities. Our strength has been located in the rural and suburban areas. To our credit, we’ve recognized the sociological changes that led to urban migration and have attempted to embrace the challenge of urban ministry. However, early efforts led to modest, limited impact. Not before the SEND NORTH AMERICA strategy of the past decade have we really found any modicum of effectiveness. The reason is church planting.
Over the past twenty years of my work in the world of church planting, I’ve discovered that no two church plants are the same. All of them are unique in special ways, from the planter who serves with God to establish it to the name that expresses their identity and purpose to the environment in which they serve. Nowhere are these differences more significant than in the cities. Planters and churches who understand and incarnate their uniqueness as God leads them will find greater success. But they must also come to grips with the following five things to have last lasting impact on the urban world in which they serve.
The world of complexity. Everybody is busy; it’s our modern world. But nowhere is that more evident than in the city. The complex domains of work or school, family, transportation and recreation (especially for children) create tensions for social networks and congregational life. They all demand our time, and they pull us in difference directions. Busyness and complexity go hand in hand and make the challenge of church more difficult for many to embrace at the most basic, practical level, even if the desire is there. The key for effective church planting is to keep it simple. This offers refuge for fellow strugglers and security in a volatile, changing world.
The must of diversity. The urban landscape is not monochromatic; it is Technicolor. This diversity is seen not simply in race and ethnicity but also in economics. In fact, the urban environment is more diversified by socio-economics than anything else. This urban caste system creates “haves” and “have nots” based on education, jobs, wealth and heritage (in the Northeast, at least), in addition to race and ethnicity. Effective church planters know their own neighborhood well and transcend these differences with the Gospel in effective, practical ways. They welcome diversity and refuse to allow these sociological differences to define God’s people.
The seduction of variety. The city offers a buffet of options on everything from outdoor activities to means of transportation. While variety has grown everywhere, the options in the city are endless and are available 24/7. Comparative analysis and consumer thinking are two inevitable results for city dwellers. “How is this option better than that option?” “What’s the benefit to me?” These are the questions that run through the minds of many urbanites. Effective church planters refuse to fall prey to the overwhelming cultural push toward unlimited options. They remain focused in their service, relying on the strengths God has given them and the passion He provides to direct them to carve out their initial niche of impact for Him.
The deception of tolerance. Urban society has embraced a sophistication that has redefined basic terms for its own benefit over the years. None has been more readily embraced in the urban world than “tolerance.” This word, which formerly meant respect, now means acceptance. Anything less is seen as racist, misogynist, homophobic and politically incorrect. Evangelical Christians are often stereotypically thrown into these hateful categories by others. The effective urban church planter knows what he believes and, with compassion, refuses to veer from it. He overcomes this slander with demonstrations of love, service, patience and perseverance.
The worth of a soul. Brokenness is a real thing in every life and family. Nowhere is that more evident than in the city. The tensions of urban life stress the greatest of believers. Unredeemed souls too often are shattered by the brute force of the dehumanizing, impersonal forces that undermine their worth. Into this reality steps the church to bring good news of reconciliation and redemption for broken people. Effective church planters always keep the main thing, the main thing. They are the ultimate optimists, because they know the ability of our eternal God to “make all things new.”
These realities are not just in our cities, to be sure. Perhaps they are simply magnified there, because of the density of people, the exaggeration of emotion and the desperation of need. But with each of these realities comes the opportunity for us to demonstrate the difference the Gospel makes. It is a responsibility we MUST embrace, for it is the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:16).
David Jackson is the church planting director/strategist at the Baptist Convention of New England.