Remembering the Rural: Do Modern Church Plants Focus too Much on the City?

One of the notable features of this new church planting movement is the near exclusive focus on planting churches in cities.

Yes, Christians evangelized cities in early Christianity, but not only cities.  In fact, there is 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 actually been rural and not urban.

 

One of the wonderful developments in Reformed denominations in the last generation is a renewed emphasis on church planting.  It is a burgeoning movement in my denomination (PCA), and one of the reasons that RTS Charlotte launched the Center for Church Planting last Fall.

One of the notable features 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 and not rural.

And let me say that 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 area for church plants.  There are also strategic considerations.  Targeting leaders and influencers–many of which are located in major cities–makes a lot of sense.

However, in recent years, this interest in the urban has sometimes turned into a superiority of the urban, and even a disdain of the rural. Those who are a part of urban churches can sometimes project an attitude, even unwittingly, that urban centers are where “real” ministry happens.

Now, there have been many rebuttals to this attitude over the years, including my own articles (here and here), one by Jared Wilson, as well as a recent piece by Phil Colgan.

But a new academic book has just been released that is relevant for this discussion: Thomas A. Robinson, Who Were the First Christians? Dismantling the Urban Thesis (OUP, 2017).  I have just finished reading through it and I think it provides a helpful corrective to “arrogance of the urban” phenomenon.

Robinson tackles a wide-spread (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 this), scholars have been pretty convinced that the earliest Christian missionaries focused almost exclusively on cities.

And such scholarship has been used to support much of the modern impetus for urban-centered church planting.

But, Robinson basically says, “not so fast.”  He dives into the typical arguments used to support the urban thesis and finds them seriously wanting. Yes, Christians evangelized cities in early Christianity, but not only cities.  In fact, there is 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 actually been rural and not urban.

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