Andy Crouch (or his headline writer) coined the catchy term “metro-evangelicals” to describe the growing urban resurgence within American evangelicalism. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Crouch explains that pastors like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll see cities as the beachhead of a new evangelization. Crouch’s magazine, Christianity Today, has launched an extensive series on this work of God (This is Our City).
My first two reactions are profound rejoicing at the sending of workers into the harvest and profound prayer that these efforts may bear much fruit. To all who are called there (like my two siblings in Manhattan) the great opportunity and great difficulty should always occasion our concern and support.
Yet there is a timbre amidst all of this city-centrism that troubles me.
Maybe this is because the metro-evangelicals are not counter-cultural, but rather a baptized version of New Urbanism. In a culture that idolizes living in a loft in a gentrifying art district, a church planter is not exactly bearing a cross in deciding to “rough it” under such conditions.
Maybe it is that some of its advocates tell a story that previous generations fearfully abdicated the dirty, sinful cities. Thus, all this new “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” generation needs do is show up and things will get better. It’s worth noting that this mythical Evangelical abandonment never really happened and we should be more careful at imputing impure motives to previous generations of believers.
Or maybe the metro-evangelicals’ claims of self-importance are so hyperbolic that they insult the gospel work being done in less densely populated zipcodes. For example, some urbanist church planters claim that cultural transformation emanates exclusively from cities, as Mark Driscoll writes:
[C]ities are of greater strategic importance because they are upstream where culture is made and changed, yet most Christians today are downstream and subsequently are incapable of effecting cultural transformation. (Vintage Church, p. 298)
Incapable. Incapable? I do not think that word means what you think it means. /Inigo_Montoya_voice
I did my time in the Big Apple, but now reside in a thriving metropolis of 8,305. Yet I live alongside a whole lot of faithful Christians who sacrificially love their neighbors, share the gospel, build civil society and raise their families in the fear and admonition of the Lord. It may take some time, but I would wager that these folks will have some kind of transformative impact on the culture when all is said and done.
Remember the story of Abraham and Lot. When they parted ways over business squabbles, Lot chose to pitch his tent near the affluent big city while Abraham sojourned in wilderness isolation. Yet which of them ended up displaying a greater capacity for cultural transformation?
Metro-Evangelicals have developed a kind of “theology of the city” that roots city-centric strategy in biblical proof-texts. Keller’s message, as quoted by Couch, is typical:
“You go to the city to reach the culture,” Mr. Keller tells his congregation. This, he explains, is as old as religion itself, and points to what New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks called “the first urban Christians”—the first-century churches founded in provincial cities all over the Roman world, and very quickly in Rome itself.
Generalizing from Paul’s missionary strategies as recorded in the Book of Acts—hopping from one major city to the next throughout the Roman empire; planting churches all along the way—Metro-Evangelicals argue that our evangelistic strategy must also prioritize cities. Keller has explained that we should do so because “urbanites are much more open to radically new ideas—like the gospel!” Once ideas catch in the urban center, say the metro-evangelicals, they inevitably filter our to the surrounding region.
Of course, God blessed Paul’s urban strategy to build the church, but I’m not sure metro-evangelicals are gathering the right lesson from this history. It is true that Paul avoided the countryside for the most part, but not because he expected to find more open-minded folks in the cities. ‘Cause that isn’t what he found. In Ephesus, for example, some of these purportedly-open-to-new-things types tried to kill him.
One alternative explanation for why Paul chose cities is the locus of diaspora Jews gathered in synagogue worship there. Luke records that Paul always started his ministries in the synagogues where the Gospel message made the most sense. After all, the Jews and pious Gentiles gathered there were already familiar with the one true God and understood Biblical categories like sin and Messiah. Only after reasoning with the Jews, would Paul proceed to preach out in the marketplace as well.
So, if we are to draw missiological lessons from Paul, we could just as well say today’s Christians should first preach the gospel in the heart of the religious subculture before they move out into the mainstream. By analogy, the way we could follow Paul’s model would be to first go into the culturally Evangelical south and the culturally Catholic Hispanic communities before proceeding on to the comparatively unprepared big cities.
All of this may seem to be a pretty counter-intuitive marketing strategy, but we serve a God who has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.