Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Big Apple Versus The Growers of Big Apples

Always the provocateur, Darryl Hart has written an interesting piece for Front Porch Republic titled "If Cooking Slowly and Growing Organically are In, Why Is Rural Ministry Out?" In it, Hart highlights the irony that amid all our praise of Slow Food and organic food production, our attitude toward ministry is one area in which we are still unabashed city folk.

Signs are not encour-aging ... that the growing concern among evangelical Protestants about the environment is having any effect on their church’s estimation of the people who work on farms and live near them. A recent story in Christianity Today on Tim Keller, a popular Presbyterian pastor in New York City, suggests that for all the desires that evangelicals have to be cutting edge and socially aware, a ministry accessible to the rhythms of farming and local communities does not qualify as hip. The story fawns over Keller for his ability to carve out a multiple-congregation structure in the Big Apple, for a theology of the city that says cites are where redemption happens, and for the model of ministry he exhibits to a crop of younger pastors who aspire to make an impact.

According to the news story, “New York attracts the best and the most ambitious.” Keller senses this and ministers accordingly. He told the reporter, “Suppose you are the best violist in Tupelo, Mississippi. You go to Manhattan, and when you get out of the subway, you hear a beggar playing, and he’s better than you are.” One of Keller’s former colleagues puts Keller’s understanding of ministering in the city this way: “Paul had this sense of, I really should go talk to Caesar. He’s not above caring for Onesimus the slave, but somebody should go to talk to Caesar. When you go to New York, that’s what you’re doing. Somebody should talk to the editorial committee of The New York Times; somebody should talk to Barnard, to Columbia. Somebody should talk to Wall Street.”
(No offense intended to the violinists of Tupelo, I'm sure. I mean, you're from Mississippi, for crying out loud! Surely you didn't expect to best the Big Apple's beggars, didja? Know your place, is what I'm saying.)

Perhaps lurking behind this infatuation with The City (yes, I capitalized it on purpose), Hart suggests, is the desire to "elevate one's status by hobnobbing with the influential" coupled with a "born-again infatuation with celebrity." Then, when you factor in evangelicalism's absolute fear of the ordinary, you've got a perfect recipe (ahem) for the kind of elitism that sees the inexperience of young ministers as disqualifying them for urban church planting while not standing in the way of their ministering to simple farm folk (at least until they graduate from fly-over country to the corridors of power).

Evangelicals are disposed to understand grace and faith in extraordinary categories and so overlook stories of ordinary believers, routine piety, and even rural congregations as insignficant. Discontent with the average and routine aspects of natural life and of grace appears to breed a similar dissatisfaction with humble ministries in places of little interest to the editors of the Times.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: The appreciation for the ordinary that amillennialism produces is as difficult to reconcile with postmillennial transformationism as faith is with sight, and as the cross is with glory.