The American Protestant church began in small towns in the early 17th century when people from England emigrated to America. Believers brought their religion with them and built many small-town churches.
Because of this beginning, the small-town church has a rich heritage in America, and still represents the significant portion of churches across America. These churches usually attract fewer than 100 people Sunday morning, operate as a family and are actively lay-led.
Typically, these churches see Christianity as the vehicle that makes America great. Unfortunately, these types of churches don’t assimilate a varied people into the church body very well. Often, they envision ministering to a certain portion of America.
When the American highway was developed, the suburbs emerged soon after. This movement began in the 1950s and 1960s and was later known as white flight, because it was whites who moved from the city and away from poverty, different ethnic groups and crime that was characteristic of urban places.
Roughly, around this time, pastors and scholars of religion noticed declining numbers within the Christian church. They surmised that something needed to be done.
Out of this situation emerged the work of Donald McGavran, who wrote the book “Bridges of God,” which laid the groundwork for the church growth movement. Many redeeming qualities developed out of the movement, but one of the severe flaws that emerged was the “homogeneous unit principle.” Now the seeds were beginning to be sewn for the suburban church model.
The central idea in the homogeneous unit principle, according to McGavran, was that churches function best when “all members have some characteristic in common.”
If one wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the small-town church model, which was significantly informed by the various church denominations, they looked to megachurch suburban models such as Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church to grow their churches.
Today, we live in a world that is dramatically secular and doesn’t look like the worlds where the small-town or suburban churches emerged. The world we live in today is dramatically and unapologetically secular.
The philosopher Charles Taylor has shown that 500 years ago it was difficult NOT to believe in God. Today, it is difficult TO believe in God.
What model offers an answer to ministering in our current culture? I say the church needs to adopt an urban ministry model. I will list six reasons for this, but could mention many more.
First, the urban church sees clearly the need for gospel-centered ministry, not just establishing moral values in society. J.I. Packer once said that the most significant need for the church is a recovery of the gospel. The church needs to embrace fully the idea that the gospel is what has been done for us, not about what we do.
Stanley Grenz offers a helpful reminder when he says Christians should be people who “are people committed to hearing, living out, and sharing the good news of God’s saving action in Jesus Christ and the divine gift of the Holy Spirit, a saving action that brings forgiveness, transforms life, and creates a new community.”
Urban churches understand that the urban environment presents a pluralistic challenge where many people honor many paths to spirituality. Therefore, the Church must continually inform and deepen their people’s understanding of the gospel, so the truth is not lost, both in the head and the heart.
Second, the urban church understands that it needs to preach apologetically to its people.
One of the points Charles Taylor makes in his book is that we live cross-pressured lives. The cross-pressured life offers certain temptations for the religious and irreligious.
For the religious, because the secular view predominates, many people who come to church are tempted all week to adopt, at least in part, a secular view of the world. There temptation is NOT to believe.
There are others who come to church who have fully embraced a secular worldview. Meaning and significance for them rests totally in the resources that this world provides. God need not be sought to find fulfillment.
Yet, despite this commitment, secular people can’t do away with a gnawing hunger for the transcendence that lingers in their heart. Therefore, to fulfill this heart longing, their temptation is TO believe.
Therefore, the Sunday morning sermon must be constructed to meet both needs.
Third, urban churches understand their multicultural environment. They understand that they must relate to a variety of people.
In an urban environment, there are a diversity of people groups. Homogeneity does not characterize its ministerial context.
Consequently, the church, while holding firm to the tenets of its faith, must learn to relate with a diversity of people. They must love their Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and LBGTQ neighbors as they reach out with love and compassion to all people.
Fourth, the urban church understands that the church must contextualize its faith. When I was serving as pastor of a small, urban multicultural church in the Chicago area, I attended the Willow Creek conferences. At the meeting, they inferred that the Willow Creek model could work anywhere.
I saw the deficiencies of this model right away, mainly because I wasn’t serving in a white middle-class suburban context. It was clear to me that this model would not work where I ministered.
To contextualize one’s ministry, said pastor and New York Times best-selling author Tim Keller, means to give “people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them.”
Therefore, churches must become increasingly culturally intelligent and learn to see the world beyond their white Western eyes. Conservative and progressives Christians are both guilty of this, also in different ways.
Fifth, urban churches are aware of their need to incorporate a biblical view of social justice in the vision of their church. White Protestant churches, whether conservative or progressive, have not done well to meet this need.
One example is the social justice issue of poverty. Typically, conservative Christians see poverty as solely a moral problem, while progressive Christians follow the lead of secular academics and see poverty as almost exclusively the result of unjust social structures. The Bible’s view of poverty is much more nuanced, however.
Last, the urban church understands that the Christian nation motif is not a given in the urban world. The church must earn the right to be heard. Therefore, the church must follow the model of Jesus and not Pat Robertson and learn to engage culture humbly when interacting with people outside of the faith.
Tim Orr of Taylorsville is an adjunct faculty member in religious studies at IUPUC, where he has served for more than 10 years. Information presented in this article reflects his 20-plus years of experience in multicultural ministry and the truths he has gleaned over the years from reading many of Tim Keller books and listening to his sermons. Orr’s website at timorr.net.