Remember the Rural: Does Modern Church Planting Overemphasize the City?

In recent years, however, this interest in the urban has sometimes turned into a superiority of the urban, and even a disdain of the rural.

Robinson tackles a widespread (and near-consensus) belief among modern scholars that the earliest Christians were almost exclusively urban. Ever since Wayne Meek’s The First Urban Christians (and even before it), scholars have been pretty convinced that the earliest Christian missionaries focused almost entirely on cities. Such scholarship has been used to support much of the modern impetus for urban-centered church planting. Robinson basically says, “Not so fast.”

 

A wonderful development in Reformed denominations in the last generation is a renewed emphasis on church planting. It’s a burgeoning movement in my denomination (PCA), and one of the reasons RTS Charlotte launched the Center for Church Planting last fall.

A notable feature of this new church-planting movement is the near-exclusive focus on planting churches in cities. Most church planters, it seems, want to go urban, not rural. There are many positives about this focus on cities. Certainly, and most obviously, cities are filled with lots of people, and for that reason alone make a good target for church plants. There are also strategic considerations: targeting leaders and influencers—many of whom are located in major cities—makes a lot of sense.

Superiority of the Urban

In recent years, however, this interest in the urban has sometimes turned into a superiority of the urban, and even a disdain of the rural. Those part of urban churches can sometimes project an attitude, even unwittingly, that urban centers are where “real” ministry happens. There have been many rebuttals to this attitude over the years, including my own articles (here and here), one by Jared Wilson, and a recent pieceby Phil Colgan.

Moreover, an academic book has been released that’s relevant for this discussion: Thomas Robinson’s Who Were the First Christians?: Dismantling the Urban Thesis. I’ve just finished reading it, and I think it provides a helpful corrective to the “arrogance of the urban” phenomenon.

Robinson tackles a widespread (and near-consensus) belief among modern scholars that the earliest Christians were almost exclusively urban. Ever since Wayne Meek’s The First Urban Christians (and even before it), scholars have been pretty convinced that the earliest Christian missionaries focused almost entirely on cities. Such scholarship has been used to support much of the modern impetus for urban-centered church planting.

Early Christians Were Rural, Too

Robinson basically says, “Not so fast.” He dives into the typical arguments used to support the urban thesis and finds them seriously wanting. Yes, early Christians evangelized cities, but not only cities. In fact, there’s quite a bit of (overlooked) historical evidence that the earliest Christians had a robust mission to the countryside.

Indeed, Robinson argues that, numerically speaking, most early Christians might have been rural and not urban. On one level this shouldn’t be surprising, he writes, because Jesus himself modeled a distinctively rural approach to ministry, going through the countryside of Galilee, moving from village to village.

To be clear, Robinson’s point isn’t that early Christians prioritized rural over urban ministry. His point is that the rural dimension of early Christianity has been routinely overlooked due to a reigning paradigm that insists early Christians were predominantly urban. In reality, early Christians were both.

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