Urban Hinterlands (6/10): Wrestling with the Gospel

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Emotions are powerful. They sway our decisions, often more than we realize or would like to admit. For church planters, too, emotions play a significant role in deciding where they will plant a church and their lives. Again, more than we realize or would like to admit.

We look for that spark or aha moment when exploring a city or neighborhood. Having introduced many church planters to new cities and neighborhoods, I am always mindful of that spark. When I was a church planting strategist in Tucson and would host potential church planters, I’d take time before they arrived trying to identify how God wired them, parts of the city that would be a good match, and neighborhoods in the city where there was the greatest need.

When church planters arrived, we would spend a day or two driving around the city, exploring, and talking. In essence, what we were looking for was that spark. Were they the result of powerful emotional responses? Spirit-led? Usually there was a combination of both. I am convinced that while at times our emotions can be deceiving and untrustworthy, they are also the vehicle God uses to move, prompt, and catapult us forward. We’re not merely robots responding to data and logical equations.

Since there’s a certain level of emotion intertwined with calling, church planters are compelled to love where they plant. When talking with planters, you hear them beam with pride about their community.

With that said, what do we do about the reality that most uncool cities and neighborhoods are simply overlooked? If my story is at least a fraction of what could happen in the lives of other church planters, it reveals that God can give us a supernatural love to embrace and cherish the unlovable. I hesitate painting places like Tucson in this light because it certainly isn’t based on what or how I feel about that city, but the perception to the outside world is that it is a bit gritty. But how many places, since they are left off the map of church planting strategies, are missing out on church planters who would fall head over heals in love with them despite their flaws, warts, and idiosyncrasies? Conversely, how many church planters miss out on being exposed to places where they would fall madly in love with and tangibly meet needs but are overlooked because the city doesn’t have a veneer of cool?

The gospel continuously confronts our cultural syncretism. While we can easily identify forms of syncretism in other cultures, it is harder for us to see how we’ve succumbed to syncretism in our own culture. We have cultural blinders. I recall reading about a large well-known church removing their lead pastor for pride, arrogance, domineering leadership, and self-promotion. Syncretism with culture.

The point? We wrestle with culture daily. We are blinded to the numerous messages the world generically and our culture specifically communicates to us. We buy into the value system. Promote self. Look out for one’s own good. Seek the path that will put you on top. Go the route of comfort. Buy into materialism and self-preservation. Or for church planters, plant churches in comfortable and livable settings.

But the gospel confronts us in our syncretism and compels us to daily die to self as we wrestle with this good news that Christ calls us to abandon all for. The Kingdom of God as the pearl of great price or the buried treasure in the field is worth any amount of sacrifice (in this case, more like inconvenience) we may encounter. Christ laid it all on the line for us. He is the one who truly sacrificed everything. He counted our lives as more valuable than his own. His rescue mission required everything. We are to go and do likewise. It is time to wrestle more deeply with the gospel and the implications it may have on where churches are planted. Maybe then we would see a bumper crop of more churches planted in the urban hinterlands.

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This is an excerpt from the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places.