One of the changes I have seen in recent church revitalization and church planting is the move to the cities. Southern Baptist churches have predominantly been located in rural areas, although the megachurch movement eventually led churches to start in booming suburban populations. Yet it is a relatively new emphasis and change to see more and more Southern Baptist churches go back to urban population centers and plant their outpost in the heart of the city. Much of this new emphasis can be attributed to the efforts and writing of Tim Keller who pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Here are some of his article on cities, church planting, and urban life:
>> A New Kind of Urban Christian: As the City Goes, So Does the Culture
>> A Biblical Theology of the City
>> Preaching in a Postmodern City, Part 1
>> Preaching in a Postmodern City, Part 2
>> The City: Why We Are Here (vision paper)
>> Why Plant Churches?
>> The Missional Church
>> Planting a Church in the City
>> Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers, Part 1
>> Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers, Part 2
>> Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers, Part 3
>> Ministry in the New Global Culture of Major City-Centers, Part 4
>> Advancing the Gospel into the 21st Century, Part 1
>> Advancing the Gospel into the 21st Century, Part 2
>> Advancing the Gospel into the 21st Century, Part 3
>> Advancing the Gospel into the 21st Century, Part 4 (city-focused)
>> The City–We Have a Strong City (MP3)
>> Should I not Love That Great City? (MP3)
>> The Meaning of the City (MP3)
>> Love for the City (MP3)
>> For more resources from Keller, go here, here, here, and here.
Now the new move to urban life and culture centers of North America and around the world present a whole new set of challenges for Southern Baptists. For instance, this means that they must engage the culture and ideological thought. Those who minister in the city and live in the city are advocating a “drive-by” Christianity that is often found in attractional suburban churches. Megachurches flex their muscles when they get people from all over the region to come to where they are. Missional, urban churches flex their muscles when they live in the community centers and go out to where the unbelieving community exists. Evangelism is not door-to-door, but it is sitting on the downtown park bench talking to the homeless man who would likely not be allowed to sit in most suburban churches. You see, suburban churches have done well to reach the white, middle-class family of four who have the social refinements of gated communities, two-car garages, and a healthy pocketbook to contribute to the many causes in the megachurch enterprise. They also seem to “have it together” if you know what I mean. Nice clothes, trendy hairdo’s, manageable sins, and a respectable place in community.
On the other hand, urban churches are a little more messy. When you walk out of the front door where the church meets, you are likely to engage in conversations with gays and lesbians, and on the other corner of the block there may be an abortion center where unwed, pregnant teenagers are looking for an “out.” Down the alley will be men struggling with drug addiction and gambling and prostitutes who are selling themselves to the highest bidder. When you are in the city, you cannot just change the channel. It is where you live and minister. These people may not have much to contribute to the church, but it those for whom Christ came to redeem. I am glad to see Southern Baptists move into the cities, because it is correcting a lie which we have been believing for a long time. It is a lie perpetuated every time we walk outside our worship centers to manicured landscaping, high-priced vehicles, and police escorts who part the traffic for our busy schedules.
When you are face to face with some of the most radical manifestations of sinful lifestyles, you are faced with such questions as, “Is the gospel really the power of God unto salvation? Can Jesus really set these people free from enslavement to sin?” Either you believe God can perform the miracle of conversion or you shut down shop. The temptation and seduction of a morally refined people well-versed in church etiquette and Christian vocabulary is that we subscribe to behavior modification and moralism. We think, “I am not as bad as they are,” and yet there is nothing different in their state of depravity than the prostitute or drug addict except the suit and tie. Lest we forget, Adam was quite adept to covering himself with a suit of fig leaves, and heirs to such sinful nature, 21st century Christians just have a better logo to go with the outfit.
Living in the culture centers of the world means you will build relationships with person working at the coffee shop across the street who has an altogether different worldview and understanding of life than you. He will be asking tough questions about the environment, social justice, and loving your neighbor, and why churches seem to look so selfish with their money. They may ask questions like, “Why are there Southern Baptist conferences that give Hummer H2’s as door prizes when that money could provide H20 to thousands in need of it around the world?” (okay, maybe not exactly, but the example is legit). Being in the city will not only mean that we must believe in the power of the gospel but that it should dominate every area of our lives so that being missional is merely the normative outworking of gospel-centered Christianity that encounters culture, confronts ideologies and sinful lifestyles, and redeems the broken lives and humanity around us.
So much more could be said about being in the city for the cause of Christ and His church, but I will pause here and simply encourage you to check out some of the articles and messages by Tim Keller. The movement from rural to suburban to urban could be one of the most promising aspects of Southern Baptist life in the 21st century, and I hope that we get on board with what our Presbyterian brothers and sisters are already doing. Did I mention that the PCA is currently the fastest growing denomination in the United States?