The church’s urban focus overlooks working-class whites

Churches | More enthusiasm and funding is needed in small towns and rural areas
by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Monday, July 25, 2016, at 6:33 pm

Christians have a clear Scriptural mandate to love and serve those who are suffering wherever they find them (Deuteronomy 15:11, Ezekiel 16:49). In recent years, the church’s well-intentioned excitement about urban city centers has created a substantial blind spot, where the suffering of people living in working-class white communities, small towns, and rural areas—where the prince of this world is at work—are often overlooked.

The church must do her best work outside the cities as well.

When it comes to their vision of the 21st century church and church planting, many prominent Reformed and Calvinist church leaders cite the missionary work of the Apostle Paul and point to the teachings of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

“Tim Keller is … a big proponent of targeting cities with the gospel through church planting,” wrote Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research. Amanda Adams of The Daily Beast observed, “[M]ost likely, the rise in urban church planting is due to a guy named Tim Keller.”

While Stetzer does caution about being too urban-focused, his warning may not go far enough.

Keller and other leaders who focus on reaching urban professionals are free to promote their perspective using their particular interest, skill, and expertise. There’s nothing wrong or sinful about their preferences. In fact, Keller’s influence and work in New York City and around the world should be celebrated. But the definition of “missional” has inadvertently been reduced to the pursuit of urban professionals in cities and has become the church’s default vision for a generation of young Christians.

Earlier this year, Stetzer described “missional” in light of Keller’s emphasis on Paul’s mission to target urban centers, evangelize the city, and plant churches. In this view, Christians target cities because cities have, according to Stetzer, “the greatest potential for gospel impact and gospel multiplication.” After all, evangelization and multiplication were “the missional model of the Early Church.”

While the city church planting emphasis emerged as a needed corrective to the suburban focus of evangelicals in the 1980s and ’90s, today’s “missional” efforts tend to neither encourage future leaders nor raise money to reach the white underclass, people from Rustbelt towns, and working-class white populations in metropolitan areas. Why? Because those people don’t live in urban centers, and there won’t be much “multiplication” due to low population density. These communities, however, are the very communities where we get America’s white police officers, construction workers, truck drivers, mechanics, teachers, and active voters.

By overlooking the working class and small towns, we are inadvertently missing new opportunities to bring the gospel and holistic redemption to areas where the majority of America’s poor people live, where suicide rates are surging, where we find the new frontier for America’s worst HIV problems, where the mortality rates for middle-aged white women are at all-time highs, where manufacturing is dying out, where Americans are the most depressed and nihilistic about life, where America’s drug use is the highest.

To move away from suffering people in rural or suburban areas for the purpose of reaching urban elites has no prescriptive basis in the Bible or the Christian tradition.

Do we need to revitalize and plant more churches in large cities in light of current international population shifts. Yes, absolutely. However, to move away from suffering people in rural or suburban areas for the purpose of reaching urban elites has no prescriptive basis in the Bible or the Christian tradition.

I don’t believe that those who champion the planting of churches in cities think we shouldn’t go into white working-class areas. But these leaders don’t offer the same amount of enthusiasm, training, fund-raising, and sending outside of urban areas and inadvertently blind people to real needs beyond their city focus. Working-class white communities, rural areas, and small towns must be included in the American Christian mission—not based on Paul’s travels but by looking for areas that are affected by brokenness of the Fall, where the Devil is busy, where God’s people are, and where there is a need for salt and light.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 07/25/2016 07:47 pm


  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 07/25/2016 09:05 pm

    Very insightful.  I used to live in Lebanon, NH.  We saw much of what Prof. Bradley talks about in this column.  Outreach does require more effort because population and resources are sparser.  The culture is also different.  People are more self-sufficient by necessity, so there is more of a tendency to be ambivalent about one's need of God.  So rural outreach requires a special kind of patience that wears down walls of granite.  That is not very exciting.

  •  Shelley Tuttle's picture
    Shelley Tuttle
    Posted: Mon, 07/25/2016 09:47 pm

    Yes, yes, and yes. Thanks for giving a reason to go to all communities and not even especially urban areas but simply every place where people all and more so when the need presents itself.


  • DCal3000
    Posted: Mon, 07/25/2016 10:40 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Bradley, for this insightful article! As someone from a fairly rural (and very poor) state, I agree with your points.  Sufficient missional efforts to reach both black and white rural populations are lacking, and even though some of these populations have churches of their own, I have been concerned that they have practically no voice in the American church at large or in society as a whole.  How many bright, young seminary students, or sociology students, or any other type of graduate student really listen to the concerns, fears, or other needs of those in the rural world?

  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Tue, 07/26/2016 10:02 pm

    very good. Plus I hate NYC :-)

    I'll take West Virginia any day.

  • Kiwi's picture
    Posted: Wed, 07/27/2016 09:34 am

    Bravo!  As an immigrant to America, who now lives in a rural area, I see the depth of the need, and do feel that these people are spiritually neglected.  Missions here is not 'cool, hip or exciting'. Marriage is becoming non-existent here, with a growing number of young people never aspiring to marriage - having been raised by two or three generations of single mothers.  So many see no hope of a job, and rely on fornication, welfare and drugs to get through life.  Suicide is rampant here, and heroin overdoses are common. 

    Missions here is hard, church planting is hard.  The population is poor and does not have the resources available in the cities to grow new ministries. Efforts to reach out and connect with people are hampered by distance, and the lack of community gatherings. The drug dealers take the time and effort to drive out from the cities to establish networks here, the Christians have yet to do so.

    Many here identify as Christian, if you ask them if they are saved, or Christian, most will say yes, and add that their grandfather or great-grandfather was a preacher.  To them simply being born into a family that used to have religious people in it, and going to church once or twice as children is sufficient to give them 'fire insurance'.  However if you go deeper, most have never read the Bible, do not know who Jesus is or why they need to repent and believe in Him, see nothing wrong with fornication, are completely dependent on drugs and alcohol, and may even be enamored with the dark spiritual practices promoted on TV and the violent video games they are also addicted to.

    My daughter who just returned from a year on the field in a large city in China, is excited to carry on her work here in rural America, but is having a hard time getting others to join her in her outreaches. May God raise up more to come to this missions field, the labourers are indeed few.




  • Encourager Mom's picture
    Encourager Mom
    Posted: Wed, 07/27/2016 11:38 am

    Interesting perspective and definitely food for thought. I am not sure of the solution to this problem except perhaps out of the massive numbers of believers raised up in urban areas, some may feel the call to relocate to rural areas. Perhaps many urban dwellers simply do not consider the needs of rural America. Perhaps you could write a book or start a campaign to build awareness. 

    Many Christians in the the homeschooling communities I am part of romanticize rural living, almost as if it is some kind of Christian utopia. My professional experience dealing with addicts in rural areas tells me ohterwise.

    On the other hand, my pastor feels the upper-class sububrban areas have also been neglected in terms of the true Gospel. That is the population he feels called to and I feel the same. It is shocking to me how many think that this is ridculous, as if those of material privilege need the Gospel less than anyone else! The truth is, we are all given a call to go. And the need is great in all areas. Thanks for sharing.

  • DWayne
    Posted: Thu, 07/28/2016 04:11 pm

    Thanks for that. I have pastored in rual and smalltown America, and see great discouragement and apathy among paricipating Christians. There is a lapse in any real joy, and the idea of numerical growth becomes absurd. How do we minister to 50s, 60s, 70s, a nd even 80s? Who's there for shepherds who have no or affinity for urban minitry?

  •  nevertheless's picture
    Posted: Sat, 07/30/2016 10:06 am

    Thank you for the focus of your article. Isn't is true also, that resulting from a lagging economy, the definition of 'working class whites' or rather 'working class' in general has come to include a permanent underemployed class? Another thought: I recently attempted to integrate into a vibrant inner-city church whose demographics were, remarkably, only one-third working class/poor white. In fact, the white participants who had jobs were traveling into the city from the first ring suburbs which were decidedly working class. Thanks for the though provoking essay.