Culture changes so quickly that it has proven challenging for the church planting movement. Although we seem to be experiencing a period of stagnation, there is hope on the horizon for massive Kingdom growth if we take the time to get it right.
Currently, our greatest area of need is the ability to craft an effective response to contemporary urbanization. The recent shift to cities isn’t merely a demographic reality, but a culturally formative process that has resulted in an increasingly fragmented society. This new reality requires fresh ministry modalities and movements for church planting in North America.
According to Tim Keller, the Church has historically experienced a supernatural resilience to cultural change. After periods of stagnation comes renewal.
The three most notable shifts causing increasing fragmentation are inter-related, shaping and reinforcing each other.
Post-truth epistemology is eroding trust in institutions. “Post-truth” was Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year epitomized by the rise in polarized factions with many claiming and creating their own truth that is grounded in personal experience. Responses are emotionally bounded rather than cognitive, with a shift to a more “I feel” than “I think” mindset. Those living in a post-truth reality are internally incoherent, as “truth” is forever liminal and open to revision, resisting external standards. Adherents are selectively moral as they shift from “modern tolerance” to “modern equality” with enforced moral claims in public and private spheres rather than based on a coherent set of principles.
Increasing polarization contributes to declining institutional affiliation and effectiveness creating echo chambers that reinforce post-truth realities. Population growth in urban areas is double that of its rural counterpart. Cities are disproportionately – and increasingly – economically powerful and socially progressive compared to rural areas. Post-recession economic growth is largely captured by cities with rural areas growing increasingly jobless and more poverty-stricken. With the dramatic rise in urbanization and globalization, the US—with its growing multiethnic and multicultural population—may well become a majority – minority country with a significantly older population (esp. whites) by 2050.
Anemic institutions fail to provide common ground and can’t define truth for diverse constituencies. Gallup surveys trust in social institutions each year since 1973 currently showing that trust in 16 of 17 institutions has declined (exception: the military). The institution of marriage is in shreds as 1/3 to 1/2 of marriages end in divorce and births to unwed mothers has increased from 10.8% in 1970 to 40.3% today.
Renewal will come as we face the challenge of reinventing local church and church planting models specifically to serve those living in cities as they constitute the cultural vanguard causing our current hesitation hence stagnation.
“Christians and churches coming together across racial and denominational lines in a city, unified by a) the gospel and b) a vision to reach that city – which means to see the urban body of Christ grow in quality and quantity faster than the population, so that the salt and light of Christian love and truth with influence the life of that city; renewing it, improving it socially, influencing it culturally, and lifting up Jesus’ name so it’s increasingly respected and honored in that city.” – Tim Keller
The challenge is how we become the family of God in a unity that will demonstrate the muscularity of the church. – Claude Alexander
It appears that a growing number of church leaders are discovering that the emergence of Gospel City Movements could be an effective native, contextual and unified response to the current urbanized, fragmented societal challenges that church planting and missional expression face in dynamically changing and growing progressive cities in the US.
Tim Keller unpacks the framework for Gospel City Movements: When a gospel city movement occurs, the whole body of Christ grows faster than the population so that the percentage of Christians in the city rises. We call this a movement because it consists of an energy that extends across multiple denominations and networks… its forward motion does not depend on any one organization. It is organic and self-propagating, the result of a set of forces that interact, support, sustain, and stimulate one another.
Per Kevin Palau, President of the Luis Palau Association, there are over 300 self-identified GCMs in cities and towns across the US. In my primary research of seven of the most influential of these Gospel City movements, I have discovered that they aspire to be coalitions of local churches operating in unity with a shared sense of mission. In some of my recent initial qualitative research, I have identified some dominant aspirational characteristics. Two of the most prevalent and consistent are: 1) their desire to “thicken” the Gospel in application to their various contexts, and 2) an oft-stated commitment to the both/and of social concern and spiritual outcomes with measurable metrics. There are other valuable characteristics emerging that require further research and investigation, but early indications are producing some positive and tangible missional expressions.
Gospel City Movements could help redefine the image and raise the profile of the Church in a city. Their potential is to revitalize and multiply the Church by providing a holistic, innovative common witness that may answer the intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual needs in a Post-truth context. Gospel City Movements are attempting to architect themselves as socio-cultural epicenters intentionally, and in most observable cases appear to be employing multi-racial and multi-cultural best practices to meaningfully respond to community needs. They may provide a sturdy, localized scaffold to launch ongoing work of institutional renewal, starting with the Church.
Gospel City Movements are emerging as a unique response to the challenges and opportunities that exist, particularly in urban, progressive and pluralistic contexts, and may be a powerful new ecclesiastical conceptual framework for American 21st Century realities. I personally believe they have the potential to create scaffolding that helps revitalize and multiply the Church’s missional efforts in the face of fragmentation and shifting realities.
 Keller, Tim. “Changing the City with the Gospel Takes a Movement,” The Gospel Coalition. Sept 3, 2012.