Cities and Urban Centers are the focus in the world of Church planting. The strategy is that you plant in large population centers, hubs of culture and government and then let your influence begin to spider out through the suburbs, small towns and eventually the surrounding countryside. And it’s not a bad strategy. After all, more than 80% of Americans now live in Urban areas. This is where the action is, this is where all of the people are living, except…that it’s not quite as simple as we thought it was.
According to the federal government, all of the pictures at the top of this post were taken in the middle of an urban Metropolitan area. There is clearly a problem with the way we define urban and rural in America, and this is the problem. We define it by county. For the most part, this works ok in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, but in smaller cities and particularly in the Southeast and the Midwest, the places that pass for urban would surprise you. Take Iredell County in North Carolina, for example. Mooresville, the largest town in Iredell county is just a few miles outside of Charlotte, but Northern Iredell county is extremely rural, and to classify this whole county as urban is absolutely ridiculous. I actually know a card-carrying member of the KKK who lives in Northern Iredell County, you can’t use the same strategy to reach him with the gospel as you would with a 20-something agnostic hipster who lives in Mooresville and works in Center City Charlotte. Burke County is classified urban as well since it neighbors the city of Hickory, which I also question being classified as urban. Here’s the problem, with all of the focus among mission sending organizations and church planters on urban centers, the rest of the country is being left behind, and it’s not a tiny minority of less than 20% like we hear about when we look at Federal statistics. Somewhere around 120 million souls live in the in-between areas like the ones that are pictured above. And most of them need Jesus.
If you look at the numbers honestly, North Carolina has about 5.5 million people who live more than 25 miles from an urban center. In Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee, the numbers are roughly the same. In our rush to engage the cities, we are skipping over more than half of the people in these states, 15.6 million souls of whom – by most statistics – somewhere around 12.5 million are on their way to hell, and this is the bible belt. This is where things are good, where we have a church on every street corner. This is also where most of those churches have given up on evangelism, walled themselves off from the rest of the community, and are waiting to die. The situation is dire. I don’t know if any seminarians or future Church planters are reading this, but if you are; we are dying, the natives have breached the walls, and we desperately need help.
During her 39-year ministry in China, Lottie Moon continually wrote back to Believers in the United States urging them to take seriously Jesus’ command to go to the nations. She was quick to point out that, in her early days she was one of only eight Baptist missionaries in China, while “[there were] five hundred Baptist preachers in the state of Virginia. “Oh that we would have active and zealous men who would go far and wide…preaching to the vast multitudes of this land,” she wrote in a letter in 1874. A few months later she would write, “a young man should ask himself not if it is his duty to go to a heathen land, but if he may dare stay home.”
If this sounds like a shameless plea…I’ll admit it, that’s exactly what this is. The bible belt is crumbling. In most bible belt counties drug overdose deaths outnumber conversions year after year. Churches are closing and the ones who are staying open have lost any desire to evangelize their community or even, in some cases, to reach their own children. I’m not saying we shouldn’t go to the cities, we should, I’m just saying there are millions of people dying and going to hell all over rural America. Most of them live less than a mile away from a church and many of them will be buried in a Church graveyard. Some will even be sitting in one of those pews the Sunday before they die and the pastor will promise their family the hope of seeing them in heaven, but none of those things are going to matter in eternity. We need the gospel, right here in America. The sending grounds of the modern mission movement in the 19th and 20th centuries is quickly becoming one of the largest untapped mission fields on earth. Where are the “active and zealous young men and women” who will rebuild the faith amongst the crumbling remains of the institutional Church? Would you ask the Lord, if it may be “your duty” to go to the “vast multitudes,” or can you dare even imagine that it might be permissible to stay home? The harvest is plentiful, and the workers are so very few, so I’m praying for the Lord of the harvest to send workers into this field.