In our first post, Mission Field: Church Planting Basics, we discussed what church planting is and why church planting serves as the natural outflow from both the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:35-40) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
Today, we pivot into the opening discussion on what defines the North American context and mission field.
What Is “Urban?”
The U.S. Census Bureau identifies “urban” as two separate, but related areas:
- Urbanized Area(s): 50,000 in population or more;
- Urban Clusters: at least 2,500 in population and less than 50,000 total.
This is straightforward and to the point, however it lacks the appropriate nuance regarding what has evolved into a broader experience in the North American context. Urban areas today can be more fully defined by sprawling growth, the complexity of institutional systems (Governmental, transportation, educational, financial, and business), multi-cultural diversity, globalization, gentrification, cultural influence, and more. All of these considerations come together when identifying urban areas and when identifying missional opportunities to engage urban people and places.
What Is “Rural?”
By contrast the U.S. Census Bureau defines “rural” as, “encompassing all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.” This definition also lacks the nuance and depth that makes up the North American rural landscape, as it faces church planters today.
That said, rural areas are typically defined in a broader sense by being those areas that are something other than urban as defined by the Census Bureau above. Within these contexts, rural typically encapsulates areas with low population density, simple or no institutional systems, and lower income potential. Having said that, we know that rural and urban mean a lot more than a standard definition can provide.
The Paradigm Is Shifting
Though there may be disagreement over what exactly “urban” versus “rural” means at the micro level, at the macro level we have seen and continue to see a general shift in the North American context in the following areas:
- Populations of individuals and families under 30 years old are shifting from rural to urban centers.
- Population centers are shifting from mono-cultural to multi-cultural.
- Population bases are shifting from locally based, to globally transient, to glocal.
- Information flow has dramatically shifted from limited access to worldwide access on demand.
- Information flow has moved from well-defined/simplistic to information overload/chaotic.
- Cultural existence, once defined more by stability, has transitioned to a state of constant change.
With these realities in mind, it places the North American church planter in need of understanding these shifts and what that means when approaching either the urban and/or rural contexts of their chosen field. In the next part of this series, we will take a closer look at the North American urban demographics, needs, and potential approaches in regard to church planting.
Mike is an Assistant Professor of Church Planting and Evangelism, the Associate Director for North American Church Planting for the Center for Great Commission Studies, and a National Missionary of the North American Mission Board (D.Miss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, M.Div., Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary)