Does Metro-Focused Missions Square with the Way Jesus Did Ministry?

by Mike Leake on January 21, 2013 · 32 comments

“Cities are the centers of political power, economic activity, communications, scientific research, academic instruction, and moral and religious influence.  Whatever happens in cities affects entire nations.”  Cities are at the very center of where worldviews are created.  To neglect the cities would be to miss an incredible opportunity to be a redemptive voice in our world today.

That is a quote from missiologist Roger Greenway, with a little commentary from the staff of Kaleo. I agree that we should not neglect the cities. I appreciate the renewed emphasis on reaching the cities. There are many people there that are broken and in need of the gospel. It is imperative that we take the gospel to them. So in what I am about to say please do not think that I am in anyway anti-city missions. I am arguing for a both/and.

My problem is that those who say “do not neglect” the cities very quickly morph into saying, “we must focus on the cities”. Mark Driscoll argues that “cities are of greater strategic importance”. That’s a step up from saying, “don’t neglect the cities”. It’s almost saying “let’s funnel a majority of our resources and efforts towards the cities even if it means at times neglecting the rural areas”.

I understand the logic. There are more people in cities, cities affect entire nations, therefore to maximize our influence we ought to focus on the centers of “political power, economic activity, communications, scientific research, academic instruction, and moral and religious influence.” If we focus on these strategic centers then it will influence places like rural America too.

My Question

The logic of the metro-evangelicals* makes sense, but it leaves me with a question. Did Jesus do ministry this way? Did he focus on the seats of power and expend his energy on transforming the world by transforming the cities?

Jesus spent most of his time with three fishermen. He also spent time with a tax collector and a batch of other no-names. He did minister to the Pharisees and other religious leaders, but he spent more time with prostitutes and other “untouchables” from his culture. He spent even less time trying to win over Rome, which was the culture-shaper of His day. Jesus did ministry the exact opposite of focusing on the cultural transformers of His day.

Again, I’m not saying that the Lord Jesus does not call some people to strategically minister in the larger cities. I believe you can see this in part in the ministry of the apostle Paul. We need to be careful not to neglect the cities. But at the same time let us not pretend that ministering to the cultural elite with the hopes of a trickle-down effect is thebiblical way to do ministry.

Arrogance?

In actuality it probably betrays a bit of arrogance to assume that the cities trickle “down” to the rural communities. Are we so confident that rural areas aren’t just as faithfully living out the kingdom of Christ? I know that few people would outright say that people not living in the cities are sub-standard believers/missionaries but such is often implied in some of the more recent material on doing ministry to the city. Why should we assume that more people would be won to Christ and the kingdom more faithfully ushered in if a cultural elite came to Christ than if a rural farmer gets excited about Jesus?

Let us not pretend that the rural communities have already been reached with the gospel. Furthermore, let us not assume that rural communities will eventually be won to Christ when the big-city cultural is won to Christ. There is a great disparity between the two cultures.

As scores of dollars and church planters flock to the cities I want to plead with some that we need focused ministry toboth the rural communities and the big cities. We need the gospel to reach places that Starbucks won’t touch. It might be harder for some of us caffeine addicted young-uns to do ministry around a plate of grits instead of a cup of mocha, but the gospel demands that we go wherever lostness is found. I know ministering in the big city is sexier at this stage of missions but there are men and women that spend their day wading in cow manure that need the powerful gospel as well.

Will you consider giving your life to ministering in a community surrounded by cows instead of city lights?

*Keith Miller does a tremendous job of explaining the “Metro-Evangelicals” and then asks the question of whether or not they are right.

I also appreciate a recent article by Matthew Spandler-Davison who argues that “as long as there are people in rural communities not being reached by the gospel, we need to revitalize and plant healthy gospel-centered churches there.”

1 Tim Stephens January 21, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Thank you for this post. You have well stated the very thoughts that I’ve had after reading the comments of many who seem to have the spotlight in the church planting movement. I have planted two churches in rural Texas in the past six years. I can tell you, first hand, that there are a great many “salt-of -the-earth” folks that live out in the country that need to hear the Gospel. These folk will respond when the Gospel is presented in a culturally relevant manner and setting. I’ve preached in rodeo arenas, livestock auctions, cafes, and horse barns.

We cannot neglect the responsibility of reaching all people, everywhere, with the Gospel and concentrate only on the population centers.

2 Christiane January 21, 2013 at 2:27 pm

This is a wonderful post, because it is vital that people of faith make every effort to ‘bridge the gap’ that keeps those who desperately need Christ away from the help the Church can provide for their care.

An example of how this is being done in NYC:
A Franciscan group of the people of my own Church are hosts of many public outreach programs in the heart of NYC. These include a daily bread line, coupled with an outreach ministry, running since 1924.

Adult education programs, programs for those who are separated or divorced, a counseling center, and a Come Home program which seeks to bring gay and lesbian Catholics back to the Church.

As if this is not enough, they also sponsor every 12 step program that ever existed such as AA, sex addict’s anonymous, and transvestite’s anonymous to name a few.

There are also many ethnic programs in place.

‘When Francis began his ministry he worked in the cities in order to make the biggest difference. His goal was to bridge the gap between the institution of the Church and its people . After his death the order became monasticized. In recent years the order has returned to its original spirit of working with the poor in the midst of the poor.’

Southern Baptists are needed in NYC and in many of our great cities. I think if they realize the depth of the need, and that they can offer Christ’s consolation in those dark places,
there will be no question of them trying to ‘go forth’ in His Name. I can see this clearly as an excellent opportunity for the SBC to make itself known as a force for good in our inner cities.

3 JD Hall January 21, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I agree with the sentiments expressed entirely. There is much to be said for “Gospel Strategy,” and if that’s the case it seems to make sense to tackle the cities. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but with the vast eastern Montana prairie as my mission field, I wonder if Jesus would have just passed us by. Somehow I doubt it.

4 Dave Miller January 21, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Obviously, cities have a lot of people who need Jesus. But I would agree that there is a little bit of metro-centrism in some of this movement. A soul in a city is no more valuable than one in a county seat or a rural area.

We ought not focus on cities to the exclusion of small towns or rural area. We ought to develop ministry strategies that reach to each of these.

5 Mike Leake January 21, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Dave,

This is THE issue for me. “A soul in a city is no more valuable than one in a county seat or a rural area”.

6 William Thornton January 21, 2013 at 8:47 pm

Is there someone who is maintaining that such is not the case?

7 William Thornton January 21, 2013 at 7:05 pm

Sure, I’ll be the contrarian here. It comes naturally.

1. If you feel called to the vast open spaces like Phillips County, Montana, with less than one person per square mile, have at it. Those 4,253 people living in a space about 50 by 100 miles need the Gospel as much as the 70k people or so living on 640 acres in NYC. I just don’t think it makes much sense for churches to pool their resources to put one person in that vast space for that few people. NAMB recognized such things when they implemented a metro focus – we are putting huge sums of money in places where there are few people. A retired person with a good income might feel called to do the Montana work and allowing our common dollars to be used more effeciently.

2. I do not find Jesus outlining any principle about rural/urban ministry and am not persuaded by your case.

3. Let’s be brutally honest here. It is odd how the subjective business of one being “called” never leaves pleasant, attractive, often rural or resort areas without willing laborers. I for one am glad NAMB made the sensible decision to move away from ‘botique’ ministry destinations and focus on where people are.

4. I rejoice in Jesus being preached, wherever and by whomever.

8 Jim Pemberton January 23, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Most rural areas are hardly “resort” areas. One of the summers my family spent in Venezuela, part of the time was spent on mission to a small Yukpa village. They had to dig their bathroom, and bathed in the nearby river. In order to gain a hearing, they had to help the Yukpa harvest and shuck their corn crop as well as help them with many other of their daily survival tasks. It was no resort.

Another trip to Venezuela involved ministering to people who live in the open-air city dump, many of whom who may just as likely kill you if they thought you might try to take the things they recycled from the garbage as they would hear the gospel from you. No resort here either.

People who go to these kinds of places do so with very little support and with very few local resources for taking care of personal needs. The urban missions I have been involved with have always had plenty of resources and support because of all the people there.

9 JD Hall January 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Richland County Montana, actually. Thanks for the demographic work, though. I can’t really agree with NAMB’s urban-focused restructuring being a smart business decision (and might actually be the best thing to do). Although I would remind you that people move from the country into the city (as has been the direction for the last 50 years at least, and probably since the mechanization of farming). We could argue that to focus on rural areas will create de-facto missionaries that will move into the city inevitably later in life. But that aside…trust me. NAMB is still wasting LOTS of money in rural areas, spending almost as much money hiring church planters (former D.O.M.’s) to work rural areas, closing down churches and opening them under different names to meet their work quota.

10 William Thornton January 21, 2013 at 7:56 pm

No argument from me on their being waste in our $115m or so enterprise. I will have to be convinced about focusing on rural residents because some will move to the cities. Would make better sense to make those disciples from those already I the teeming cities and save the necessity of overcoming cultural obstacles.

I just picked one of the US’ least populated counties (could have used one in W Tx but that lacks cachet).

Like I said, I rejoice wherever Christ is preached.

11 Greg Harvey January 23, 2013 at 11:03 am

Hey…I grew up in W Texas…and was saved there!! ;)

12 Dave Miller January 23, 2013 at 12:28 pm

But you were delivered and promoted to Iowa, right?

13 Greg Harvey January 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm

I think of it as stowed and frozen, but sure…

14 Dave Miller January 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm

This week the emphasis is on the frozen part…at least on this side of the state.

15 William Thornton January 21, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I love my IPad but the autocomplete makes for some strange stuff…

16 Keith Price January 21, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Full disclosure – I am a bi-vocational, rural pastor in eastern Oregon (perhaps frontier pastor would be a better description). I have to agree with William, Jesus didn’t outline any rural/urban ministry principles. I believe that the principle we do have to operate on is to make disciples “in our going” wherever that may be. Where they live has nothing to do with it.

I would suggest that the Scriptures seem to indicate more of a focus on cities in both the ministry of Jesus and Paul, but again, cities then are not the same as urban now. And just because the Scriptures focus on Paul’s ministry in the various cities and cultural centers does not mean nothing happened in his travels in the rural areas. However, the focus on the cities seems to be important to Paul and even to Jesus when he sent His disciples into the various cities to preach the Kingdom.

The businessman side of me can empathize with NAMB’s or other organizations decisions to some degree. You put your limited resources into the areas where you believe that those resources can make the most impact. This would be in more populated areas. This is smart business. However, I have to believe that this decision is not entirely a business decision, but Holy Spirit led as well.

The real rub, at least for me, was a personal pity party. The focus would be in places I was not called to or have a heart for. Resources would not be made available to areas where I ministered. I felt like the powers that be didn’t care about us country folk. But, after a five minute whine-fest I realized that God is my resource and if God wants a church planted in rural wherever, He will provide the resource.

Actually, I think it is a good thing. Maybe it will force us to think outside the box. Churches in the rural/frontier/small town areas of the west are going to have to seriously evaluate how they are doing business and this may actually help force that issue.

17 Dale Pugh January 21, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Keith is one of many guys in rural areas throughout our country doing what they do without the accolades that come to those in metro areas. I was acquainted with Keith a few years back as I was a camp director in his association. He is typical of those guys in rural areas. For the most part they are dedicated, hard-working, committed, loving men who simply want to do what God has called them to do.
Unfortunately, his story is also typical. Resources simply will not be put in those places. Why not? Because it doesn’t fit a “strategic plan.” In my opinion, that’s a shame. But as Keith says, maybe it just requires a different approach. That’s something that those in such ministries have to do on a daily basis.
God bless you, Keith. I miss the Northwest.

18 Keith Price January 22, 2013 at 1:38 am

Dale Pugh + the Duck. Now it adds up. Thanks for the props. I’m sure we could find a spot for you up here in the great NW.

The whole Metro focus bothered me at first. But I really do think that we sometimes become bound to the resource as opposed to The Resource. We in the rural areas need to be thinking about how we are going to make disciples and minister as the dynamics of the rural areas have changed drastically from when much of the conventional wisdom was written. Our mutual friend Gary is doing some PhD work on this subject. So is my brother who is a pastor in rural SD and I think if we are sensitive to the leading of the Spirit we will be amazed with the results.

19 Dale Pugh January 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

“But I really do think that we sometimes become bound to the resource as opposed to The Resource.”
Wisdom!
I don’t think I’ve seen you comment on here before. If I did, it didn’t strike me that it might be you. Glad you’re here! Keep up the good comments.

20 Andrew Wencl January 21, 2013 at 9:33 pm

Mike,

I haven’t really heard anything from the “metro-evangelicals” about rural ministry and missions. Given the amount of resources the big-city churches put out for free, I’d say they’re very supportive of missions work wherever it is taking place. I grew up in a small town and the amount of resources available from some of these big-city churches has been a tremendous blessing to me.

Financially, it just makes more sense that these churches will be pouring more of their dollars into church-plants in cities. They’ve experienced a lot of the blessings and pitfalls that urban ministry presents, so they have a base of experience and knowledge that they can use to help others in similar situations. It’s really not much different than a church planter in Montana giving training and support to others who are called to minister in rural areas.

In all, I’m glad to have benefited from people who were called by God to minister in rural areas where I grew up and urban areas like I live in now. I think your post was a little too accusatory of the “metro-evangelicals”.

21 Mike Leake January 22, 2013 at 9:44 am

A couple of comments:

1. My focus is much wider than NAMB and the way that resources are being divvied up. My main concern is that metro-missions are being hailed as more important than rural missions. Again this concern is not centered on NAMB.

2. I understand that nobody is outright saying, “one soul is more valuable than another”. But the metro-missions focus that I am seeing almost communicates that. I understand being good stewards of our money.

3. I am arguing for a both/and. I believe that in an effort to say, “Don’t neglect the cities” we have started to neglect the rural communities. And I don’t buy into the idea that if we win the big cities then they will shape the culture and win the rural communities. It is two different mission fields. In some ways part of the great division in our country right now is divided among rural and metro. Two different worlds.

4. I don’t know how this would work out…it’s just an elementary idea. But, I believe it would be wise for NAMB to create two different departments (not sure if departments is the right word or not). One that would focus on metro-missions and the other that would focus on rural-missions.

22 Zack Stepp January 22, 2013 at 9:59 am

Mike:

I really enjoyed this post. It’s definitely a subtle and nuanced issue, but it’s one which, if left unchecked, could grow into a real problem.

23 Richard Beal January 22, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Full disclosure – I am an IMB missionary for 35 years in Venezuela. I have planted churches in both rural and urban settings. I fully agree with the current emphasis of metro missions. Most new church starts for the entire time I have been here has been outside Caracas, although one-fourth of the entire population leves here. Most of my seminary students are from the country-side, and plan to return there after graduation. We missionaries feel like voices crying in the concrete wilderness when we call for a priority of urban missions. We have five huge spiritual centers of darkness in our capital city where there is little or no sharing of the Good News. To say that Jesus did not have an urban strategy is to ignor His guidance of the New Testament church as it ministered from city to city. One of our motivating verses is Acts 19:10 where Paul stayed in the city yet an entire region heard the Gospel. I also agree with the “economy of the gospel” expressed by Lottie Moon asking why do preachers go where there is already so much witness and not go to where they can impact lostness to a much greater degree? To accuse those with an urban heart to value less the souls of those in the rural areas is dishonest at best.

24 Jess Alford January 22, 2013 at 3:03 pm

We need to reach people everywhere for Christ. I think if we are to change the course of this nation we will have to win the cities for
Christ. People need won to Christ and taught to live a Christian life.

The other day my son was going through our little town and saw a van
with a sign on the side of it which said Government assisted cell phones.
He asked what that meant. The government is supplying cell phones to those who don’t work. I also found out that internet is also supplied to those who don’t work. People need to know they are suppose to work.
Free housing, free food, free cell phones, free internet, free medical and free money. I think I’m doing something wrong. The cities need won for Christ.

25 Eric Futrell January 22, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Mike, I liked what you posted when it was over on your website, and I like it still.

A friend of mine and I just did a little research. We looked at the populations of the largest cities in 8 states compared to the population of those states. From our research, we concluded that no more than 50% of a state’s population resides in its metropolitan areas. And this was going down to cities with a population of 100,000. California had about 30% of the population living in cities above 100,000. New York came in at about 50%. This data doesn’t seem to support an exclusively metro-focus, and also calls into question the 83% number listed as living in metropolitan areas that NAMB has on its site.

States examined: Califonia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, New York, Georgia, and Florida.

It seems a more effective use of resources would be to allocate those resources based upon ministry needs as opposed to basing it on population statistics that vary from study to study and year to year, neither emphasizing nor neglecting any population whether urban, small city, or rural.

26 Keith Price January 22, 2013 at 6:26 pm

While NAMB’s 83% sounds a little high it could be accurate depending on how you define a metropolitan area. In your study you used 100,000 as a cut off for your definition. But, if you use proximity you might find a lot of suburbs of less than 100,000 next to cities greater than 100,000. In your study those would be excluded.

For example Bakersfield, CA has a population of approximately 350,000. But the greater Bakersfield metro area is closer to 600,000. These folks reside in suburbs and county area adjacent to the city limits. Another example would be Los Angeles Co., CA. Total population is just over 10,000,000. Population in cities 100,000+ is about 6,000,000. But LA County is a whole lot of cities in one big metro area and then a whole lot of nothing in another area. I would guess you could count 95%+ of the 10,000,000 as “metro.” (Just Los Angeles Co. alone is nearly 30% of the population of CA). And just for the record, those of us in the open west see most of everything east of the Mississippi as metro.

I agree we should allocate resources based upon needs, but one could argue that each person represents a need; therefore the focus is back to the metro areas. I don’t think it is a matter of neglect, but maybe pragmatism.

27 Eric Futrell January 22, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Stats are great. But how many of those areas of somewhat lower population around these cities are actually rural in nature? They may be included in metropolitan areas, but their nature is not urban and they would not be included under such emphasis.

For example, we live in the DFW metroplex, which taking the entire surrounding area would be far larger than the aggregate total of a few cities. However, many of these suburbs which are considered part of the area under the “metro” tag actually function as independent small communities and would not fall under the purview of a “cities” emphasis. For example, Burleson, Richardson, Azle, TX: these would not (with the possible exception of Richardson) fall under the metro emphasis for they are rural in nature.

Also if you look at the states we mentioned, Georgia has only Atlanta, outside of that there is not a city that qualifies as a metro area, and even throwing in all the suburbs, you do not reach 50% of the state’s population. It is very clear that a large percentage of the population of the US, while residing in a city, reside in smaller cities that would not be included in the metro-focus, such as places like Abilene or Amarillo, TX, which are considered cities, but nowhere near “metro.”

As for everything east of the Mississippi being considered metro, such a perception is not an accurate representation.

28 Keith Price January 22, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Stats are great… (I have a minor in statistics which makes me a numbers skeptic, even my own!)

So what is the definition of “metro?” For example, from my understanding the focus here in the NW is the I-5 corridor from roughly Eugene, OR to Seattle WA. That is where 80% of the people live. That area includes some very urban cities to very remote mountains all within a short distance. All lie within the general focus area, maybe it is called metro, but it could hardly be described as such.

Even the definition of rural can be very different. I have done a lot of work in Georgia, in some pretty rural areas, but it is a different rural than here in the NW.

Maybe a better question to help clarify things would be: Is the metro focus based upon a lifestyle or a population center? I would say if the focus is to put resources where the people (generally) are located, great. If the focus is to target a certain metro lifestyle, that doesn’t make sense to me.

I think you have really hit a very key, important point. Each community is different, even those that are proximate to each other. I could definitely see how this could be so in Texas. One could even go so far as to say the neighborhoods within communities can vary greatly and approaches and ministry can be vastly different. I would propose that some of the methodologies deemed successful in the SBC Holy Lands do not work well here in the Gentile diaspora.

By the way, the east of the Mississippi comment was made as a joke…I grew up in Michigan, there is plenty of remote there. I should have used one of those smiley faced things, but our internet in the vast frontier doesn’t support those yet.

29 Dale Pugh January 22, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Dave Miller will rejoice to hear that emoticons are unsupported in some geographic locations.

30 Dale Pugh January 22, 2013 at 7:51 pm

About 15 years ago, I pastored in Bend, OR. In a 10 year time span it had grown from 20k to almost 50k people. It was well on it’s way to 70k residents and the housing market exploded with prices going up astronomically.
We were trying to start a new church there, as the city and surrounding area (considered rural) was the fastest growing place in the state. Getting funding was like pulling teeth. Had Bend been located along the Interstate 5 corridor stretching north to south through the larger metro areas then church planting leadership would have bent over backwards to help. We finally got some help, but it was minimal. The SBC work in Bend wasn’t getting the job done and, in my opinion, an opportunity was missed. The SBC churches in that town are now weak and struggling.
Only one SBC church remains inside the city limits proper with two more in the outskirts. All others have closed their doors or merged with others. The churches on the east side of the mountains were largely ignored, and there is only one strong SBC church over 200 in attendance from the Cascade Mts. to the Idaho border. And yet other denominations have established large, strong congregations in that same area.

31 Jim Pemberton January 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Jesus traveled from village to village as part of his rabbinic ministry. But I think his selection of Capernaum as a base of operations is interesting. Capernaum wasn’t large in and of itself, but it was a significant crossroads for travelers and even had a Roman garrison nearby. You can do rural and still be strategic.

32 Greg Harvey January 23, 2013 at 4:05 pm

It is hard for me to read this without thinking a few thoughts:

1. It’s God’s plan of salvation. How do we involve him in the planning/strategy?

2. Evangelism–or maybe we should call it seed broadcasting–always aims at the part of the ground that isn’t already cultivated. I’ve mentioned in the past that first-term missionary Jerry Rankin asked to be assigned an area that was–at least from Southern Baptist perspectives–entirely unreached on the eastern end of Java. There is definitely a special spirit for wanting to reach the unreached wherever they might live and being excited especially by large numbers of unreached.

3. I wonder if sometimes we evangelize our brand rather than Jesus Christ. None of the discussion even hints at the idea that there are other laborers. The good news–not Gospel-like, but common good news–is that in remote areas like-minded people regardless of brand seek ways to work effectively to reach the same area.

4. This is the worst one: despite Southern Baptist success in international missions, both the Catholics and the Mormons are vastly more “present” in the areas they’ve entered. Some of this has to do with resource utilization: both have lower costs and better systemic finances just due to organization.

I personally find the Mormon model extremely effective largely because it gets quite young people extremely involved and requires family commitment and support. Extreme involvement is its own social good especially within a religious faith. Romney is rather much proof of its effectiveness in tying the adherent to the faith in a very active way. I think Southern Baptists traditionally did better at doing this than perhaps we do now. And if we want to talk about strategy, this one is more core than which areas we reach.

Not that I’m advocating we should be like Catholics or Mormons, by the way. But we need a fundamentally more effective framework for missions and it needs to start earlier and be less encumbering and more–for lack of a better word–’addicting’.

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