A recent church leader’s conference in Belfast had as its theme the idea that cities are strategic for the growth and continuation of the church. This along with similar themes heading our direction from across the pond got me thinking about church life in rural Yorkshire; after all I don’t want to be wasting my time in the ecclesiological wilderness.
It does seem that the largest congregations in the UK, and indeed across the world, have church planting policies with a defined city focus. We might have Hillsong-London but it’s hard to imagine Hillsong-Dibley.
The idea appears to be set against the back-drop of, what commentators have called Salvation and Lift. Particularly relevant amongst churches that have been started in the poorer areas of our society during the mid to end of the last century, it suggests that once individuals have found the ‘salvation’ offered via the church they move on to experience a widening of their personal horizons; leading to greater aspiration in everything from education, healthcare, and career, to property ownership.
Although their newfound spirituality begins in the inner city church they soon wish to move to the suburbs in order to build better lives for themselves and their families.
Perhaps some church leaders feel the need to reverse this trend by encouraging congregation members to move back to the city.
So is this a valid claim and should I pack up my family, sell my lawnmower, and head for the high-rise flats of Leeds.
I suppose the bible does mention cities an awful lot and these examples are often trotted out as proof that cities are important.
A quick bible word search reveals that the word city is mentioned six times more than village; although things are evened up somewhat when you add the results for town. It needs to be added, however, that multi-storey car park isn’t mentioned a single time whilst manure has two references. At this point I could rest my case but it needs to be considered that very few of the initial Jesus followers would have been seen as the influencers of their day. The comments made about Peter and John being uneducated in Acts 4 seem to hint at this.
These biblical references are usually followed by a series of sociological ‘facts’ concerning the nature of modern life; not least of which is that people who live in cities are the movers and shakers of society and therefore city churches have a greater opportunity for influence.
At first glance this might seem true, yet when you consider that not all cities are the same you start to realise that perhaps the idea is somewhat flawed. The major capital cities of the world have a distinct role to play in their respective nation’s sociological make up that others smaller cities do not have.
No disrespect to the people of Cornwall, but Truro ain’t no Paris.
Therefore to present cities as a focus without specifying any of the potential differences perhaps misses the point. Secondly, most of the movers and shakers suggested as influential do not surely live in the cities but have built their homes in the towns and villages that fill our countryside. They may well commute to the city to fulfil their chosen role but they live elsewhere.
In this respect the church with the greatest opportunity of influencing such people must be the rural congregation.
So, if the real driver of this city focus is not biblical or sociological, what could it be?
Perhaps it is what the business world calls ROI or Return on Investment.
For those involved in commerce this is generally related to finances though I am not suggesting that this is necessarily true for those groups that focus their energies on cities.
It could be said, however, that any community based project demands a certain emotional, social, physical, and spiritual investment and that the human condition needs the encouragement of some level of return on this outlay.
In this respect the city offers the greatest opportunity for return on investment. Whilst the project might have more competition, so to speak, from other churches, it has a larger population from which to gain new members. There is also a higher chance of gaining disenfranchised members from other churches to give the launch a little more momentum.
The rural church plant can never match such an ROI and in many ways may always be called upon to give more than it receives. But this in no way lessens either its potential influence or indeed its value.
Having said all this it does strike me that there is another reason for questioning the idea on offer; namely it does not reflect how contemporary life works.
People are no longer making social connections merely by geography. In fact the evidence suggests that geography is becoming the lowest driver of connectivity for those under thirty. In this respect the opportunities for influence are not limited merely by the churches postcode.
It doesn’t seem to work either biblically or sociologically; although it may well work from a business perspective. Perhaps this is why the energy of some of the world’s largest churches is focussed on cities rather than towns and villages. I am grateful for many of those larger churches and their leaders, and I wish them well.
As for me; I will keep spreading the manure and avoiding the multi-storey car parks.