From Rural to Suburban to Urban, or The Kellerizing of the SBC

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?

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12 Comments on “From Rural to Suburban to Urban, or The Kellerizing of the SBC”

  1. It’s a strange thing, because Keller’s stuff has influenced me (like it has so many) and I have long desired to minister in an urban center. But the Lord seems to keep moving me back toward the suburbs. It’s a struggle, because I think Keller makes so many good points, and urban living appeals strongly to me. I’m not sure where God will move me in the future — suburb or city — but I do know that all people everywhere need to Gospel. Maybe for Southern Baptists in some ways rural is Judea, suburban is Samaria, and urban is beyond. Many are now being pushed into the beyond. Maybe my place is still in Samaria.

    Anyway, good thoughts.


    PS — I haven’t had a chance to respond on the other post, but I would love to get together sometime. What’s your schedule like (besides crazy)?

  2. David Wayne Says:

    Timmy – I think you just need to go ahead and make the switch to the PCA – I’ll gladly be your sponsor if you decide to do so 😉

    Keller is having a tremendous influence in the PCA with his emphasis on the gospel and urban ministry, but don’t be too quick to anoint us as something special. I’d be interested in knowing where you got the info that we are the fastest growing denomination in the U.S. I know at one time we were one of the fastest growing denominations but over the last few years the reports of our growth have been pretty dismal, at least from what I have heard.

    One of the interesting stories floating around the PCA is that there was a time when some influential Southern Baptists met with some of our leaders to learn how we do church planting. But as things stand now, you SBC’ers are doing a far better job of church planting than we are.

    Still, I know your post wasn’t about that, but about urban ministry and I think you are right on – Keller and others have rightly reminded us of the need to go to the city and hopefully this is a movement that will catch on.

  3. H2 as a doorprize? Probably someone was a GM dealer and a deacon somewhere and thought it would be a good idea. Talk about tin-ear. Honestly, how can we sing, “let goods and kindred go” when we drove to church in a Lexus?

    Back to topic, maybe someone should field a resoution “urging” that denominational leaders either have or acquire a few years’ urban ministry experience when Indy rolls around this summer.

  4. Jeff Lash Says:

    Good reflections Timmy. I have been challenged with some of these same questions and thoughts myself. And honestly I was not challenged much with these issues until I reached the bible belt. When I lived a little more north, it seemed normal to interact with “messy” individuals. Why? Because I realized that I wasn’t much different aside from Christ. But I live in Nashville now. And Christianity is a subculture (I know, I’m preaching to the choir). Everything down here has a feeling of professionalism and production. There seems to be a consistent facade with people. Everything is “together.” It has been a real struggle at times. But I think I have grown a lot through this experience. It has given me a different perspective and I am thankful for that. The tendency is to blast the south and point out all the deficiencies. There are a lot of good things happening here. I know some good churches who are really making strides in reaching their community with the gospel. However, Southern Christianity is probably in the greatest state of denial when it comes to influence, impact, and mission. What does it practically mean to fully engage the culture and yet be countercultural? I’m still learning.

  5. Bill Lollar Says:

    Thanks for this, Timmy! Not many church planters seem eager to jump into the deep end of urban ministry for a lot of different reasons, but one glaring difficulty is the lack of financial support for the long-term presence needed to “crack the nut” and develop the relational networks necessary for sustainability. Drug addicts, prostitutes, homeless persons, and others inhabiting the inner city cannot provide the sort of income stream that can support a church plant when the money from NAMB runs out (usually after three years). The same is true in low-income suburban communities. Suburban doesn’t always equate to affluence.

    Most denominational funding—whether on the local, state, or national level—seeks to get the “best bang for the buck” so they can point to their successes and justify next year’s budget. That’s tough to do in the mission field you’re describing, but our sickening obsession with numbers and baptisms makes it virtually a no-win situation for everyone. Glad you brought this to the front burner!

  6. Danny,

    Let’s see if we can make it happen soon. Later during the week would be better for me. Monday and Tuesday is a big train wreck, and Wednesday is recovery day.


    The post I was referring to was by Mark Dever on the T4G blog. Here is the link:

    42% growth ain’t bad for ‘dem Calvinists. 😉

    Oh, and thanks for the offer to recommend me. I’m happy as a Baptist, but your recommendation gives me a warm fuzzy on the inside.

  7. Jeff,

    I am with you man. Learning and growing, feeling frustrated and yet hopeful. Keep pressing on for the sake of the gospel!


    It’s funny how a comment leads into my future post. When you see today’s post, you will see what I mean. I think of the parable Jesus gave in Luke 14:12-14 where he told his disciples to not have a banquet with guests who can repay you, but go and invite the lame, poor, blind, and deaf, and God will repay you in the resurrection of the righteous (my paraphrase). I guess it’s hard to budget in the repayment from the resurrection, so I guess that’s why we are less likely to find the lame, blind and deaf at our dinner tables. 😉

  8. Chad Says:

    Great post. Keller said something that has really convicted me about deciding where we choose to live. He said that a major factor in deciding where we live should be based on where we would be best used by God. This, to me anyway, was radical and challenging. In the USA, comfort and security are key. We choose where to live based on the best property values, to be closer to a job, to be in a safer community, etc. It’s all about us. Heaven forbid we think “where should I live that would provide for the best missional opportunity to engage and change the culture around me?” And, in answer to that question, Keller makes a great case for living in the city.

  9. dslavich Says:

    Timmy, how does Friday look for you? I’m off work at 1:15.

  10. Danny,

    Sounds good. We need to email each other Wednesday or Thursday to remind one another. Those who know me know that my left hand is my day planner! My email is outpostministries[at]yahoo[dot]com.

  11. […] , missional , planting , thegospel , theology , worldview Tags: church planting, urban It looks like the Southern Baptists are moving this way, […]

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