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Tim Keller’s “Country Parson”: The Small Dying Urban/Suburban Church Vs. The Small Country Church as a Training Ground For Mission

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imagesI admire, respect and have learned much from Tim Keller and his ministry in Manhattan. I always learn from engaging his writings, he being a primary representative of the neo-Reformed world, and one intensely involved in on the ground ministry. Engaging his writings gives me an opportunity to locate distinctives of the neo Anabaptist Missional impulse versus the Neo-Reformed Missional. And there should be room for both in the Kingdom of God in our time. Recently Dr. Keller wrote a post recommending that young pastors and seminarians consider being a “Country Parson” as a suitable training ground for future ministry. Here a young pastor can learn the ways of leading a church, governing an elder board, handle fund raising, do counseling, shepherding, teaching and preaching, handle conflict etc. A lot of this post makes sense.
Like Tim, I also meet a lot of men and women graduating from seminary seeking a first time position in ministry. In contrast to Tim however, the young pastors/seminarians I meet are not anxious to take a position on the staff of a large church. Nether are they rejecting the small country church because they have aspirations to work in a large church. They reject the large church setting because they are reluctant to become part of “the machine” which works tirelessly to develop and sustain programming to both achieve certain goals within the existing congregation and grow it ever larger and larger. Many are tired of the consumerist busy lifestyles of cities and suburbs and seek a “Wendell Berry type” setting in farm country.

So with Dr Keller, I also recommend the small church as a place of ministry for young pastors and seminarians. In difference from Dr Keller however, I recommend the small urban and/or suburban church (as opposed to the country small church). Most often, these urban/suburban churches are in a death spiral amidst the vestiges of post Christendom urban/suburban centers. The small country churches are in many cases hanging on and in some cases thriving in a still largely Christian friendly rural culture. I suggest these small dying urban/suburban congregations could be the place for renewal in our times. I suggest that we go there not only to practice leadership but also to till the soil of what is left of old days of Christendom. These small community churches, often in middle-lower income places, have been deserted by middle-upper middle-income evangelicals who have migrated to the local mega church. These are the places where the poor and hurting are most visible. These are the places that are (more) affordable for younger pastor/leaders. I suggest that these places have great potential for renewal because they are desperate. Here we can enter tough situations, congregations with long instilled Christendom habits. Here it will take many years and patience to nurture the renewal of Christian mission.

There are literally thousands of these churches in death mode in this country. My own denomination released some stunning statistics to us a couple weeks ago. Only the top 20% of all churches are growing (I’m rounding off these numbers). Most of these are mega church type churches-or churches in process of becoming a mega church (and excited about it). The remaining 80% is shrinking so fast they shall largely disappear within 5-15 years. The vast majority of the growth of the 20% is transfer growth from the other 80%. Among this large majority of churches that are dying, are small aging congregations who are slowly losing hope, a sense of mission in the urban and suburban settings of N America. Their people are living deep within the Christendom assumptions of the West. They still ask question that address “how can we attract more people into our church services?” They largely see outreach as church building centered. Most know few if any non-Christians in the regular rhythm of their lives. Most of the remaining aging attendees have moved ten to twenty miles away from the church location while they still hang on to. Yet they continually ask “how can we get more young people into our church?” “How can we connect to the culture?”

Like Tim’s “country church”, these churches are often spurned by the young pastor/seminarians, “mega church pastor” wannabe. Many of these old buildings sit on a prime site in a declining part of a little downtown. They have become memorials to a Christendom gone by. Ironically, because of different cultural forces, the country church has remained somewhat immune from these secular cultural forces. The suburban and urban small declining churches however, and there are thousands of them, have not, and they are closing by the hundreds every year. The time commitment here will be many many years as the aging people remaining are (often) deeply set in their ways. Bridges will have to be built. Many years of teaching and shaping missional imagination will be necessary because it take years to build the ethos of a missional community that is vibrant and engaging in the neighborhood context.

Of course, I contend that this new missionary situation demands a totally different approach to leadership than the one Tim describes in his post. As opposed to the hierarchical senior pastor approach more comfortable in the Neo-Reformed world, this kind of task will take a community of pastor/leaders who share responsibilities, who carry on theological integrity of the gospel, and who live bi-vocationally so as to spend time and money in the neighborhood context (see this post here). I recommend these small urban/suburban dying congregations as places for “new” ministry because they most often realize they have reached the end of their rope, haven’t the financial resources to sustain a full time pastoral staff and are open to thinking about staffing differently. For Neo-Anabaptist Missionals, these situations are not the places to learn the “solo-pastor” role so much as places to nurture under God’s grace a community of leadership for the new missionary situation we are confronted with.

In short, I am inspired by Dr Keller’s passion for training pastors and I see the small Country church as a viable option for pastors in the Neo-Reformed mold of ministry. For Neo Anabaptist Missional training however I see equally the dying urban/suburban smaller church as a main option. I’ve seen amazing things among these formerly dying places (see for instance Englewood Christian Community which was a 60’s mega church in urban Indianapolis transformed into a missional center). The situations are plentiful yet take unusual social and leadership skills. God bless both the Neo-Reformed and Neo Missional movements for their unique perspective on the place of the small church in the renewal of God’s Kingdom in N. America.

Has anyone else seen transformation among the dying urban/suburban congregations? We need some stories to inspire imagination here!

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Interested in meeting some people involved in these kind of church situations? Join us at  the Missional Learning Commons. A non/conference gathering of “missional co-conspirators.” Check out info on the missional commons website. If you’re going to show up let us know via the Facebook Page, or e-mail me at [email protected] No other registration needed

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