A little over a week ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “Rural America Is the New ‘Inner City’.” As the title suggests, the article is a feature piece that does a winsome job telling the narrative of urban renewal and rural demise. It relates the dilemmas now occurring in America’s rural areas. It’s a great read if you have access to the WSJ online, except for one thing: it just isn’t true in a lot of places.
While the article does a compelling job speaking about this phenomenon in rural and urban areas, it is really only part of the picture. Richard Florida, a well known urban researcher, recently explained the problem with articles like this in a tweet storm that followed the article. His comments on Twitter are actually what I want you to read.
1 A little tweet storm on the WSJ Journal rural areas are the new distressed urban areas stories. It's a good compelling story but ...— Richard Florida (@Richard_Florida) May 27, 2017
Florida is absolutely right about the common stereotypes being pushed concerning urban and rural areas. Simply put, they are just too flat. While trends can be marked at a macro level (which the WSJ article does well), we live at the micro level, and things are very different from place to place. Florida points this out. All cities are not growing. All rural areas are not declining. In fact, even the cities that are growing are not doing so across the board. The big cities, like Houston, that are getting all of the attention for growing are not doing so uniformly. There are still economically depressed areas, places we would call inner city. Additionally, some rural areas are doing just fine.
This may seem like an odd thing to point out, but it really matters for those of us trying to reach these areas and proclaim the gospel in local contexts. Whether you are a local church pastor or serve a whole network of churches like I do, understanding this tendency to stereotype areas based off of high-level trends is very important.
Fact is, ministry is overwhelmingly local.
Sure, influence may happen at a national or regional level. Messages spread virally nowadays, but real, interpersonal ministry happens between people in a specific place. And yes, I know that real discipleship conversations can happen by email or Skype. I am aware that Paul wrote letters to encourage and admonish churches from a distance. However, consider the content of those letters. He wrote to them about how they should minister in their local context. He wrote to them about the very local witness they were supposed to have.
Even when it comes to international missions. Paul wrote to those churches to thank them for supporting local ministry happening elsewhere. A church with a healthy understanding of international missions realizes that real ministry must happen locally over there too, and that our best work comes when we support very local expressions of church elsewhere. Ministry is overwhelmingly local.
The Dangers of Using Macro Data for Micro Ministry
Pop research is perhaps more prevalent than ever. We find all kinds of articles on Twitter and Facebook telling us about trends. These can certainly be helpful. I regularly point to them (or write them) myself. However, the danger comes when we attempt to execute local ministry based solely on some broad-level research trend. High-level research cannot replace on-the-ground information. Memes about national urban and rural shifts tell you very little about your neighborhood.
In my position, I see churches making this mistake all the time. Church leaders are constantly trying to stay informed and regularly read articles about these demographic trends in America. Past that, there is no shortage of businesses out there that try and sell demographic data to churches so they can do ministry better. Finally, our association has tons of good demographic data, and this information is freely available to our member churches. Nevertheless, all of this is no replacement for the information a local congregation gains from having their members out in the community.
A Church’s Best Data Resource is its People
A church’s best resource for data on their community is the crowd of people in the seats. Of course, the simple platitude to be “out in the community” is not enough. If church leaders really want to know the context where their ministry occurs, then they need to ensure that their membership is out meeting new people and asking the right questions. Just heralding a proposition to be “out there on mission” does not adequately equip people to do ministry well. Tell them what to do, who to talk to, and which questions to ask. Your church does not need cultural experts, it simply needs cultural learners.
Church members should be learners. We know this to be true when it comes to sermons and Sunday School classes, small group meetings, and discipleship trainings. However, many churches seem to forget this is just as true when it comes to changes in the neighborhood, to local culture and context, to neighbor’s faces and names. A mountain of demographic data is no match for a group of committed Christians who genuinely want to understand the neighborhood around their church.