Growing urbanization shows impact on church planting

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP) -- Many church planters -- Dhati Lewis and D.A. Horton among them -- define urban as the meeting place of diversity and density. Both men are urban church planters and have been described as practical missiologists.

"I have a passion for urbanization -- it needs to change the evangelical landscape," Lewis, director of Send North America's Rebuild Initiative with the North American Mission Board, said. "You can't talk about urbanization without talking about globalization and how it affects the church."

As an example of urban trends, USA Today reported that in 2013 public transit use in the United States rose to its highest level in a half century. Since 1995 the number of people who ride on buses, trains and subways is up 37 percent, surpassing the population increase of 20 percent over that same timeframe.

In most cities, Lewis noted, people will find a shift in urban communities toward wealthier residents, businesses, and an increase in property values.

"In Atlanta they moved to decentralize poverty by eliminating concentrated low-income housing, dispersing people as much as possible," he said.

A trend of more people living in poverty in rural and suburban areas than in cities began in 2006 and continues. Lewis cites an Aug. 9, 2013, article in USA Today reporting on a study by The Brookings Institution on suburban poverty and how its rise impacts the political, social and economic landscapes. There is a redistribution of the poor taking place, he noted.

According to the Brookings report, during the last decade "major metropolitan suburbs became home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population" centers in the United States.

Tapping U.S. Census data and the American Community Survey five-year estimates from 2007 to 2011, the study found poverty increased in the vast majority of congressional districts during the 2000s. Poverty grew in 388 of the 435 districts. Many of these included portions of the "suburbs within the largest 100 U.S. metropolitan areas."

Rebuilding

When Lewis isn't leading Send North America's Rebuild, an effort to help urban churches create systems for healthy discipleship, he pastors the inner-city congregation, Blueprint Church.

"Through Rebuild and Blueprint, and in everything we do, we understand urban in terms of density and diversity," Lewis said. "We define success in terms of whether or not God confirms that we are doing things His way."

D.A. Horton, who was named by Christianity Today magazine in a recent July/August issue as one of the most influential Christians in the U.S. under the age of 33, is a partner and contributor in Rebuild. Among his many endeavors beyond church planting, he serves as Send North America's urban strategist. He has spent much of the last year engaging college students.

"Any time you look at the issues surrounding urbanization you have to look at our poor stewardship of racial reconciliation," Horton said. "It has been an issue for decades -- centuries. You have to confront the issue of why the North American evangelical church remained white for so long.

"In his article 'How Support Raising Keeps Parachurch Ministries White,' Eric Robinson outlines some astounding figures, which allows a more focused recognition of some barriers," Horton added.

Robinson cited the 2011 Pew Research Center study, "Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between White, Blacks, Hispanics." The report analyzed data from the U.S. government and found that "the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households ... the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009; the typical Hispanic household had $6,325 in wealth; and the typical white household had $113,149."

Horton said, "When a black bivocational pastor has to work three jobs to support his family, he is not on level ground."

"There are systematic circles of influence and finances that are just parts of the equation," he said. "It takes time for us to work through these issues and navigate. We need to continue to have practical, deep conversations about what all of this means and petition God to help us work through them."

No longer a majority

The speed at which the U.S. is moving toward a plurality population is increasing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Lewis said that change brings another set of challenges.

"The census calculates that by 2043, Americans who identify themselves as Hispanic, black, Asian, American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander will together outnumber non-Hispanic whites," Lewis said. "Four years ago, officials had projected the shift would come in 2050."

The U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043. While the non-Hispanic white population will remain the largest single group, no group will make up a majority. Minorities, now 37 percent of the U.S. population, are projected to comprise 57 percent of the population in 2060.

"Old models have permeated our view of church multiplication," Lewis said. "We need to make sure we are adjusting our models to reflect reality. When God plants a church in a city, the church should look like the city. That is what we are trying to do at Blueprint. We do look like the city we are in."

Lewis added that in the realm of race relationships the church needs "an ethnic missiology and a neighborhood theology."

"You don't make race the main thing," Lewis said. "The Gospel is the main thing and we need to be about making it the main thing. Contextualization is important. Back to the church reflecting the community where it is. There is no such thing as an un-contextualized Gospel.

"It is ultimately about God's story, telling His story through my personal story in my community, in my city. We are moving from a strategy of simply reaching and moving toward becoming. When people become they are grafted into the body. It is not 'us' or 'them,' it is the church being the church in the city where God planted it. How can we become the church in the city?"

Horton shares Lewis' vision for bridges that build upon an authentic representation of the Gospel.

"People recognize the need to champion the Gospel and understand that God is glorified when every race is represented in His worshipers," Horton said. "Racism is not normative -- it is embraced. But God is nudging His people in North America. He is saying, 'You did not go quickly enough, so I am bringing the nations to you.' The nations are here. They are our neighbors. They are at our doorstep. And God is doing great things. We translate His Word and God transforms our hearts because the Gospel transcends all cultures."

Learn more about the Rebuild Initiative at sendnetwork.com/rebuild. You can connect with Send North America at www.namb.net/mobilize-me.

To view a panel discussion on urbanization with D.A. Horton and Dhati Lewis from the Send North America Conference, go to www.namb.net/video/urban1. To see an interview with D.A. Horton and hip-hop artist Lecrae on translating the Gospel into the language of the urban context, go to www.namb.net/video/urban2.


Joe Conway writes for the North American Mission Board. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of On Mission magazine. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).