The Arrogance of the Urban

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One of the perennial dangers of Christian ministry is to begin thinking that our particular ministry is the most important ministry and that everyone ought to be doing what we are doing.  Much of this is understandable.  After all, if we are passionate about the ministry to which God has called us, then we naturally begin to promote that ministry and place it at the forefront of our thinking.   But, we too often forget that God’s plan for the Kingdom is much bigger than our little worlds.  There are other ministries that matter too.

I have seen a particular example of this phenomenon in my denomination (the PCA) over the last ten years or so.   The hot area of ministry during this time frame has been urban church planting.   The cities, we are told, have been abandoned and neglected by evangelicals as they have fled to the suburbs to raise their families.   The result is that the inner cities are left unreached and untouched.  The best way to recapture the city is to plant churches there—right in the heart of the urban centers.

Now let me say that much of this trend has been wonderful.   It should warm our hearts to see Christians going into all areas of our world with the light of the gospel.  And I’ve seen much fruit in our denomination from churches planted in urban areas, designed to expand Christ’s Kingdom into the neglected and forgotten regions.   Indeed, my own church, Uptown PCA, which I love dearly, was an urban church plant.   And I have seen how God has used it to impact the city of Charlotte in a number of incredible ways.   No doubt cities are strategic battlegrounds—and we should take this into account as we seek ways to grow the church.

But, occasionally, what we might call the “arrogance of the urban” can begin to manifest itself.  Those who are a part of urban churches can sometimes project an attitude, even unwittingly, that urban centers are where “real” ministry happens.   The city is where everyone should be focusing their attention.  And slowly this can create a critical sentiment that suburban churches—usually bigger, wealthier, and demographically older—don’t really get it and probably more concerned with comfort than with sacrificial ministry.  Moreover, the suburban churches are often viewed as out of date and out of touch with cultural and social trends.

Now, we should acknowledge that some of these critiques of suburban churches may be exactly right.  Sometimes they may be cordoned off (in an unhealthy way) from the surrounding culture and not willing enough to break out of their comfort zone.  And in as much as this is the case, they should be called to repentance and reformation.  Nevertheless, the “arrogance of the urban” issue still needs to be addressed.   A few considerations:

  1. Suburbia needs the gospel too.   Granted, the suburbs may be more affluent than most urban areas (though below I will challenge this a bit), but they also need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.  Do not bankers, lawyers, doctors, business men and women, housewives, also need redemption from their sins?  Are their marriages not also in need of God’s grace?  Do their kids not also need to trust Christ?
  1. Suburbia is also strategic.  No doubt urban areas are strategic, but so are suburban ones.  While traditional suburban neighborhoods (think 2-car garage, white picket fence, etc.) are often mocked in popular culture, this is where many, many people actually live.  And there are neighborhood strategies that can really work to reach these people.  Moreover, suburban moms and their children are a very important demographic for spreading the gospel.   One of the most successful evangelistic outreaches in our church has been to suburban moms with kids, who are eager for relationships with other mothers and often quite open to hearing the gospel.
  1. 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.
  1. Don’t forget the rural areas.  Jared Wilson has written a helpful piece, Rural Ministry is Not Second Rate, where he exposes the common “disdain” that even Christians have for rural areas and reminds us that 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 Christ ministered to all kinds of people, then so should we.

Comments

The Arrogance of the Urban — 7 Comments

  1. Where ever the Spirit of the Lord is, that is where the soul stirring “real” is. As to the Spirit’s “moving” that is more difficult, it has been known to be in cities & towns, amongst the younger & older, amongst the least & the great. In the whispers & the shouts, in quiet lonely corners & crowded rooms.

    When it came to Elijah & Elisha…It was the widow from Zaraphath & Namaan the Syrian with leprosy that was in God’s sights. I dare not limit the wonder, wisdom & mystery of God.

    The need to battle against the spiritual deception of self-importance is a task for us all in the Church of God… I need Thee every hour…Sanctify your church O God.

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  3. Thank you. As a suburban church planter who is not wired nor gifted for urban ministry, I’m grateful for these thoughts. May God grow His Church in both city AND suburb.

  4. Thanks, Dr. Kruger.

    There’s a related phenomenon I like to call “cosmopolitan provincialism” wherein those in an urban environment can’t seem to grasp the point of view or way of life of anyone outside their urban environs. (It applies equally to those in other places too, of course. It’s hard work to get outside of one’s own skin.)

    For instance, an editor of the New York times finds it laughable that his paper is liberally biased, as does Frank Rich, one of the leftiest of the NYT opinionators. Rich’s own views are not remotely near the center, and I can only see his evaluation as cosmopolitan provincialism.

    By contrast, the NYT ombudsman perceptively said this:

    [I]f you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects [gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation] from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

    TIMES publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. doesn’t think this walk through The Times is a tour of liberalism. He prefers to call the paper’s viewpoint “urban.” He says that the tumultuous, polyglot metropolitan environment The Times occupies means ”We’re less easily shocked,” and that the paper reflects “a value system that recognizes the power of flexibility.”

    He’s right; living in New York makes a lot of people think that way, and a lot of people who think that way find their way to New York (me, for one). The Times has chosen to be an unashamed product of the city whose name it bears, a condition magnified by the been-there-done-that irony afflicting too many journalists. Articles containing the word “postmodern” have appeared in The Times an average of four times a week this year [2004] — true fact! — and if that doesn’t reflect a Manhattan sensibility, I’m Noam Chomsky.

    But it’s one thing to make the paper’s pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls…, and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. I don’t think it’s intentional when The Times does this. But negligence doesn’t have to be intentional.

    … Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires. This has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning.

  5. Dear Michael,

    Excellent post on the myopathy of Christians about their own ministries. I have worked in Urban, Suburban and Rural ministries. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The methods and plans that work for one ministry will not work for another. One that will always work is HUMILITY. It is apparent from the NT that the Lord Jesus knew how to work in all areas, yet saw different results from each.

    The cities of Capernaum, Bethesda, Tiberias, etc. did not have many miracles of unbelief. The city of Jerusalem had miracles, but there was more debating between Jesus and the religious elitests, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Apostles were considered “country bumbkins (Acts 4). There is the differences between the types of groups represented by the disciples of Jesus: Tax-Collector (Matthew) and Simon the Zealot; Fishermen (Peter and Andrew, James and John) not including the various personalities between them like Bartholmew (Nathaniel) who’s view of Nazareth is highlighted yet chosen to be an disciple of Jesus.

    Acts shows the differences in each area of ministry. The Gosple of Hope in Jesus Christ is seen more among the poor and widowed than amongst the more well-off, the rich. The Gospel of Hope is spread into the cities, then to the suburbs and rural areas. As seen in Acts there is various success amongst the rural and suburban versus the Urban, cultural elitists, cf. Athens. The epistles of Paul reflect the differences between Rome, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Ephesus where he ministered and Colossae where he did not minister, yet his influence amongst his colleagues to those areas is shown.

    Urban, inner-city ministries will be different from Urban, middle and upper class ministries. Aside from the economic differences there is the major difference of finding qualified persons to be deacons, teachers, et cetera that exists between inner-city versus suburbs and rural areas. Today, though, that is becoming more like the first-century AD, than in times past.

    For example, divorce creates a problem for qualifications to be a Pastor and Deacon than it would for some other ministries within the church. Here is where presuppositions regarding the authority of Scripture has to be paramount. The complementarian versus the egalitarian positions become more evident in various groups. How does one’s view of marriage affect the way one ministers to various groups. For example, the issue of homosexuality is seen clearly in Scripture to be sin. So also is adultery, stealing, murder, hatred, greed, gossip, pride, selfishness, fighting, etc., yet Paul does indicate that one can change from the list does mentioned, i.e. “and such WERE some of you (I Corinthians 6:9-11). Again, it in Christ that makes these changes come about (Ephesians 2:10).

    As you said above, “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 Christ ministered to all kinds of people, then so should we.”

  6. Very challenging entry. Thank you. I personally believe that urban areas need to be pushed drastically more than suburban areas. Here are the reasons with my city (Cleveland, OH) providing the examples.

    1. There are exponentially more churches (especially evangelical churches) in the suburbs than the urban areas. Not only the amount of churches, but the suburbs contain every single megachurch in the Cleveland area. These churches are actually beyond the suburbs and are located in the exurbs. Suburban dwellers have many churches to choose from, as they are very used to getting in their car and driving for their goods, work, services, play, living, etc. On the other hand, there are very few churches in the urban areas of Cleveland. Which leads me to…

    2. While the overall population of the city of Cleveland declined in the last census, the population of certain dense, walkable neighborhoods continue to explode in growth. The prime example of this is downtown Cleveland, which has reached a population of 10,000 for the first time in decades. People are moving into the city in droves and there are very few churches in their community and reaching their community.

    I understand your point of the need for suburban and exurban churches. Per person, I would argue that the Church is reaching the suburbs far greater than the urban areas in Cleveland. I look at downtown, Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway, University Circle, Asiatown, Tremont, etc. All of these areas could have 4-5 large evangelical churches, and most of them do not even have one. I cannot think of any other suburban area that does not have dozens of evangelical churches and/or megachurches.

    This is why I believe the urgent call for the church to reclaim the urban areas that she abandoned is loudly being broadcasted.

    • I should note that Downtown, Ohio City, Detroit-Shoreway, University Circle, Asiatown, and Tremont are all districts of the city of Cleveland and are not suburbs.