From Hillbilly to City Slicker, or The "Li'l Abner" Approach to Urban Missions

Few people have ever captured and caricatured all levels of American society more successfully than did cartoonist Al Capp in his classic comic strip “Li’l Abner.” Arguably, the funniest sequences in the series are those where Abner, Mammy, or other members of the Yokum clan venture from their home in Dogpatch into the big city. There they interact with the urbanites, and hilarity ensues. For all of their sophistication and culture, the socialites can never seem to get the best of the hillbillies from the Ozarks.

The purpose of this article is to suggest that Al Capp—unwittingly, to be sure—suggests a viable model for rural/urban church planting.

In today’s evangelical world there is a heartening new emphasis on the church plant. Many of the efforts are being focused on urban centers—with works like Redeemer Presbyterian in New York or Mars Hill in Seattle being held up as examples for others to follow. Cities are the natural choice, it is argued, because they have more people, and because they set the culture for the rest of the world.

Based on those two facts, I heard one preacher affirm that all ministries (and the context was “church-planting”) should be city-focused.

While the above mentioned factors cannot be denied, I would like to suggest that they do not tell the whole story. Let me share two observations gleaned from my formative years in the US and our current ministry in Northeast Brazil.

1. The natural flow of people is from Dogpatch to the big city, not vice-versa. Therefore, while someone from the city may feel called by God to minister in the rural areas, rural people go to the cities because they have to.

2. Unlike the comic strip, when people leave Dogpatch for the big city, they do not normally return. Once again, someone may feel called to go back and minister to his former-fellow hillbillies, but this is not the natural progression of events.

Based on these two observations, I would like to make a radical proposal: an effective way to reach the city is to invest in rural church-planting.

What follows is a real-life case study from here in Brazil.

In 1991 a Brazilian man named Paulo Alves moved his family to a small, interior town called Boa Viagem. He had accepted Christ some years earlier in another interior city where Baptist Mid-Missions missionaries have been working since the 1930’s. Upon his arrival in Boa Viagem he discovered that there was no Gospel-preaching work there. After the state association of churches declined his request to send a missionary (the town was deemed too insignificant for such a major investment) Paulo took matters into his own hands, and in 1992 a congregation was formed.

Not long afterward, Paulo and another layman from Boa Viagem began holding meetings in a nearby village called Madeira Cortada. It was from this smaller, more remote congregation that a group of merchants, looking for greener economic pastures, moved to the major cosmopolitan center of Fortaleza—specifically to a neighborhood called João XXIII. Finding no adequate church there, they asked if Paulo Alves and his co-worker would come and hold Bible studies. This they did, despite the distance and financial hardship involved.

Some time later several young people from the Boa Viagem church went to study in one of Fortaleza’s many universities. Naturally, they gravitated toward the newly-formed congregation, made up of people they already knew.

As it reached out into the community, the João XXIII work grew to the point where they needed full-time leadership. They called an American missionary to work with them, and subsequently it was organized into a full-fledged local church with a national pastor.

Today the rural churches in Boa Viagem and Madeira Cortada are thriving, as is the urban João XXIII church they planted.

What Does This Mean?

A church-planting strategist would have advised starting a church in the João XXIII neighborhood instead of the relatively insignificant Boa Viagem. The end result would have been a church in João XXIII. But Paulo Alves’ initiative in Boa Viagem resulted in a church in Boa Viagem, one in Madeira Cortada, and one in João XXIII.

I could list several other instances where this model played out. Recently I spent a weekend in the megalopolis of São Paulo visiting friends who are originally from this part of Brazil. They were part of a youth group I worked with in 1995 in rural town called Campos Sales. Almost all of the members of that youth group now live in São Paulo within walking distance of each other. They attend a variety of evangelical churches. My friends told me that if we were to send a Baptist church-planter to that neighborhood, they would have a ready-made congregation. Once again we see the potential impact of a rural church-plant on the big city.

Recently a Brazilian pastor tried to convince me that I should choose an urban center as my next field of service with the argument that it was “the biblical model”. He proceeded to cite Paul and his ministry in urban centers.

Granted, Paul does present us with a biblical model. But is it the biblical model?

Consider the fact that when God sent his Son to Earth, it was not to Rome, or even Jerusalem. He was born in Bethlehem (in a barn—it doesn’t get more “hillbilly” than that) and spent his formative years in Nazareth. Several of the disciples he chose were of the—shall we say—backwater variety (Acts 4:13). Yet it was these men who filled Jerusalem with their teaching (Acts 5:28) and rocked the sophisticated religious leaders back on their heels. Abner Yokum would be proud.

Conclusion

I love strategic plans, especially when they have to do with missions. The task of matching personnel and resources to places of need is thrilling to me. The danger in our planning, however, is that we can miss opportunities based on faulty reasoning. Sometimes the formula “bigger cities + missionary investment=big city church plant” should be replaced by “smaller towns + missionary investment=small town church plant + big city church plant.”

My appeal is this: in the midst of our planning and “strategery,” let us not forget the Al Capp model. Let’s invest in Dogpatch, and watch them turn the big city on its head.


Andrew Comings is a Baptist Mid-Missions missionary in Ceará, Brazil where he serves as Coordinator for Ministry Internships at the Cariri Baptist Seminary. He and his wife, Itacyara, have two sons: Michael and Nathanael. In his spare time Andrew blogs in English at www.comingstobrazil.com and in Portuguese at cadernoteologico.wordpress.com. Despite his field of service, Andrew does not drink coffee in any of its manifold forms.
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There are 13 Comments

Jim's picture

Quote:
Consider the fact that when God sent his Son to Earth, it was not to Rome, or even Jerusalem. He was born in Bethlehem (in a barn—it doesn’t get more “hillbilly” than that) and spent his formative years in Nazareth.

OK but Jesus was not a church planter! (Obviously, I'm not saying He is not the cornerstone of the church!)

Quote:
Granted, Paul does present us with a biblical model. But is it the biblical model?

Well, Paul was the "wise master builder" (ἀρχιτέκτων) (I Cor 3:10). I'm willing to follow his pattern!

Finally .... a couple of missionary anecdotes does not necessarily a good missionary strategy make!

Pastor Joe Roof's picture

To me, the flow of the Gospel is a more important consideration than the flow of the people. What I mean is that the Gospel "flowed" out of many of our cities years ago. Gospel preaching churches stopped preaching the Gospel in these population centers. Other Gospel preaching churches moved to the suburbs. The cities were left to the drug dealers, pimps, bartenders, etc. Now they are full of down and outers and up and outers in desperate need of the Gospel.

It is important to have Gospel centers (church plants) in the places that send people to the cities, but it also important to have them in the city. The people need to hear the Gospel in their small towns but when they move to the big city, they need to continue to hear the Gospel. I recently was listening to a pastor in NYC explain that many of the new converts in their ministry were people who grew up in churches in the country but moved to the city.

Gospel-driven church planting will not bring about conflict between the city and the country. It will be driven by the need of the salvation of lost souls and called ministers will gladly go where God leads.

Charlie's picture

Andrew Comings wrote:

1. The natural flow of people is from Dogpatch to the big city, not vice-versa. Therefore, while someone from the city may feel called by God to minister in the rural areas, rural people go to the cities because they have to.
2. Unlike the comic strip, when people leave Dogpatch for the big city, they do not normally return. Once again, someone may feel called to go back and minister to his former-fellow hillbillies, but this is not the natural progression of events.

This analysis is sometimes right, sometimes wrong. In pre-industrial societies, there is a move to the city, particularly in times of famine. In early industrial cities, there is a move to the city to find jobs. However, at least in first-world countries, the development of the automobile created the "flight to the suburbs," in which the great bulk of the middle class exited the urban areas for cleaner, safer, roomier quarters. Since the lower-class couldn't afford the automobile, there was an economically enforced geographical class segregation. Now that almost everyone can afford a car, however, something of an urban revitalization is currently taking place.

So, I appreciate your creative strategic approach. It's a happy thought that rural America has an opportunity to influence urban America. On the other hand, the direction of population flow isn't always that way. Further, perhaps the sheer numerical flow of people isn't the determinative strategic factor; maybe the flow of culture is, a point that urban city planners often make.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Andrew Comings's picture

Jim Peet wrote:
a couple of missionary anecdotes does not necessarily a good missionary strategy make!

Reply #1 If all I had was a couple anecdotes I would not have bothered to write the article. I have seen this scenario play out often enough to conclude that--at the very least--it is a trend that should be watched.

Reply #2 Am I correct in assuming that you are basing an entire missionary strategy on the use of the word ἀρχιτέκτων in I Cor. 3:10?

Pastor Joe Roof wrote:
It is important to have Gospel centers (church plants) in the places that send people to the cities, but it also important to have them in the city.

Exactly!

Charlie wrote:
This analysis is sometimes right, sometimes wrong.

In retrospect I should have put a qualifier in there. However, I believe the current global trend is toward urbanization. Also, in the "white flight" you mentioned, I believe that the people moved, not back to "Dogpatch", but to suburbs which provided some security but still gave them access to the city.

One more observation: My examples come from here in Brazil, where urbanization is perhaps more pronounced. However, have you ever heard an American pastor in a rural community lament "this is the kind of town people move away from, not into"? My suggestion is that this presents an opportunity to impact the areas to which they move.

Missionary in Brazil, author of "The Astonishing Adventures of Missionary Max" Online at: http://www.comingstobrazil.com http://cadernoteologico.wordpress.com

ssutter's picture

I live on Long Island, NY, - by most definitions, part of an urban center.

Oddly, i basically agree with your premise (that not all ministries should be focused on large cities) but I disagree with most of your points.

1) I've seen lots of people move from the big city (NYC) to Dogpatch. It's a natural flow. - Lots of people grow tired of the city. It's really expensive to live. You can by a huge mansion in, say south Carolina for the price of an NYC closet. It's really common for people to move here for a short chapter of their lives (single 20 somethings) then move out when they decide to get a house and get married and have kids - often back closer to their own parents. People like having cars. - (I have antidotes for each sentence.)

2) Cities are naturally transient and flowing in and out with people. It's a lot harder to grow roots (relationally, financially, etc) in the city than it is in Dogpatch. People frequently move out of NYC. This last week in our church, we said good bye to one couple moving to Wyoming, with another couple moving to Northern California. - It happens.

3) I don't know a whole lot about Brazil, but I suspect there are some cultural difference that weaken the analogy when applied to a US context. (I suspect that there are less suburbs in Brazil than there are here.) I'd really hesitate before telling you how to do ministry in Brazil based on my experience in NY.

4) Jesus... raised in the country (I guess) but 1) Most of the synoptic's narrative of his ministry is about him on a journey to Jerusalem. 2) The most important things he did were in that city.

Ultimately I don't disagree - frankly, I love it when we get people coming into our church from other parts of the US, because often they're well-equipped and have good training, and that blesses our Church. I am thankful for their pastors - please, don't everyone leave and come to NY - we need good churches everywhere. BUT, i think your points were pretty weak.

_______________
www.SutterSaga.com

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

First, it's certainly true that "lots" of people flow from city to rural, but it's "lots" in numbers not in percentage. If a huge percentage of urbanites were going to the country, the country settings would be quickly become city. I'm sure this is happening in some places, especially where conditions in the city have become extremely unattractive.

Second, where I live, we are seeing the trend of city/suburbs-->rural areas reverse. Due the the economic collapse (which is probably not going to improve significantly for quite some time), houses are for sale all over our little down. People have to move (though reluctantly) back to cities to find work. Some of these will probably return to Dogpatch someday.
I think what Andrew's article illustrates (as well as the commentary) is the complexity of the situation and the importance of keeping an open mind. It is often possible to reach cities via rural plants. And often vice versa.
But do let's keep in mind that God's calling doesn't necessarily have to do with any of these strategies. God called Philip away from a thriving evangelistic effort in--was it Samaria? (... mind foggy at the moment), to evangelize a lone guy out in the desert.
His ways are not as our ways, but "higher." So we need to be careful not to reduce it all to strategy (though I am certainly not anti-strategy)

ssutter... speaking of "weak points," ( Wink )on that journey, Jesus was going to Jerusalem not to start anything, but to get killed. I don't think that particular sequence of events speaks to the missions strategy either way.

Jim's picture

I observe that much of what we call "missions" today is wrong headed with little real strategy at all. Opinions:

  • Missions money being scarce, we need to wisely use what the Lord has provided
  • If two missions candidates came to my church, and I could only support one. All other things being equal I would support one in an urban area over a rural area. In business parlance: "more bang for the buck"
  • US planters should be tentmakers (because they can work)
  • Many peoples from the 10/40 window should be reached here in a the US. Especially countries that are essentially closed to missions (map below ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/10/40_Window ]Wiki here ; Examples:
    • Minneapolis has a large population of Somali people. While I don't think Somalia is considered 10/40, it is a lawless nation. Best to reach this people group here.
    • Same with the Hmong (Minneapolis has a large group in the metroplex)
  • The black urban people group should be targeted. Little is being done here (where buildings could be bought on the cheap and a suburban church could sponsor an inner city work).
  • The secular university campuses of America are ripe for harvest. Most fundamentalists have abandoned these because they think all young adults should go to a Bible college and be isolated from them.
  • The Christian day school movement has (generally speaking) sapped resources from missions and caused many churches to be inwardly focused.

[img ]http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/57/40_Window_world... ]

ssutter's picture

"If a huge percentage of urbanites were going to the country, the country settings would be quickly become city."

False. The thing about cities is that there's little land mass. The thing about the country - is that it's a lot of space in a lot of different places. If you had everyone living in NYC move to the state of Wyoming... it would NOT quickly make Wyoming a urban city.

Um... I'd like to think that Jesus started something by dying and rising from the dead. Granted, I'm not trying to say that Jesus was planting church in the city, I am saying though that it's a bit of a stretch to argue that Jesus' focus was the country. And if anything pointing out that:

Quote:
Consider the fact that when God sent his Son to Earth, it was not to Rome, or even Jerusalem. He was born in Bethlehem (in a barn—it doesn’t get more “hillbilly” than that) and spent his formative years in Nazareth. Several of the disciples he chose were of the—shall we say—backwater variety (Acts 4:13). Yet it was these men who filled Jerusalem with their teaching (Acts 5:28) and rocked the sophisticated religious leaders back on their heels. Abner Yokum would be proud.

Seems to argue for Jesus sending people from the country to the city when I think his point is the opposite.

_______________
www.SutterSaga.com

Andrew Comings's picture

ssutter wrote:
I live on Long Island, NY, - by most definitions, part of an urban center.

I come from rural Upstate New York (Corning/Elmira area--the actual town I lived in didn't even have it's own post office). While my thoughts on this subject have crystallized here in Brazil they began back in the good ol' US of A.

ssutter wrote:
1) I've seen lots of people move from the big city (NYC) to Dogpatch. It's a natural flow.

Yep, and I would have done a lot better to write "A natural flow" instead of "THE natural flow". It would have been much more in tune with the point I am trying to make. However, any number of articles on urbanization will show you that it is a major natural flow.

ssutter wrote:
2) Cities are naturally transient and flowing in and out with people. It's a lot harder to grow roots (relationally, financially, etc) in the city than it is in Dogpatch. People frequently move out of NYC. This last week in our church, we said good bye to one couple moving to Wyoming, with another couple moving to Northern California. - It happens.

Of course it happens. Once again my overarching statements were probably not helpful.

ssutter wrote:
I'd really hesitate before telling you how to do ministry in Brazil based on my experience in NY.

This is a very important point, and I am glad you made it. Far be it from me to tell Americans how to do church-planting. I just want to encourage a second look at the possibilities of the rural church-plant.

ssutter wrote:
4) Jesus... raised in the country (I guess) but 1) Most of the synoptic's narrative of his ministry is about him on a journey to Jerusalem. 2) The most important things he did were in that city.

Which I think kind of makes my point...

ssutter wrote:
Ultimately I don't disagree - frankly, I love it when we get people coming into our church from other parts of the US, because often they're well-equipped and have good training, and that blesses our Church. I am thankful for their pastors - please, don't everyone leave and come to NY - we need good churches everywhere. BUT, i think your points were pretty weak.

So, instead of thinking "logically to the wrong conclusion" I have thought "illogically to the right conclusion". Hey, whatever works!

Missionary in Brazil, author of "The Astonishing Adventures of Missionary Max" Online at: http://www.comingstobrazil.com http://cadernoteologico.wordpress.com

Andrew Comings's picture

Jim Peet wrote:
If two missions candidates came to my church, and I could only support one. All other things being equal I would support one in an urban area over a rural area. In business parlance: "more bang for the buck"

I so disagree with this. Perhaps the "all other things being equal" saves it, but the whole point of what I wrote was to get people to consider the strategic value of rural areas.

Jim Peet wrote:
US planters should be tentmakers (because they can work)

I think that should be an option, but I have seldom seen a church grow where the pastor is investing a chunk of his time in a secular job. I'm sure there are those who can pull it off, but not everyone can.

Jim Peet wrote:
Many peoples from the 10/40 window should be reached here in a the US. Especially countries that are essentially closed to missions

I think you are right, but only because of the lack of options. In this case nationals should be trained and motivated to return to their home country--something they are not wont to do under normal circumstances.

Jim Peet wrote:
Minneapolis has a large population of Somali people. While I don't think Somalia is considered 10/40, it is a lawless nation. Best to reach this people group here.

I'm not sure that "lawlessness" is a good reason for us to stay home. If it were there are certain parts of Rio de Janeiro we should stay out of also.

Jim Peet wrote:
The black urban people group should be targeted. Little is being done here (where buildings could be bought on the cheap and a suburban church could sponsor an inner city work).

I am completely with you on this one. I'm sure you will sleep better now;-)

Jim Peet wrote:
The secular university campuses of America are ripe for harvest. Most fundamentalists have abandoned these because they think all young adults should go to a Bible college and be isolated from them.

Amen, amen, and again I say amen.

Jim Peet wrote:
The Christian day school movement has (generally speaking) sapped resources from missions and caused many churches to be inwardly focused.

My only difference here is that I believe the Christian School movement (and its ever-zealous offspring, the home-school movement) began because the church was inwardly focused. (I get the feeling I am going to catch it for that one...)

Missionary in Brazil, author of "The Astonishing Adventures of Missionary Max" Online at: http://www.comingstobrazil.com http://cadernoteologico.wordpress.com

Jim's picture

Seen recently (North American missions)

Missionary candidate says "There is no fundamental Baptist church in ______________________". You go home scratching your head surprised: "How could it be that in such and such city / village there is no gospel preaching church". You Google map it and search for churches, and you find a handful of Baptist or Bible churches.

Has anyone else seen this?

Reading between the lines (a dangerous thing to do), I wonder are they really saying there is no church with my music standards, or my Bible version preference, or my cultural standards?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

ssutter wrote:
"If a huge percentage of urbanites were going to the country, the country settings would be quickly become city."
False. The thing about cities is that there's little land mass. The thing about the country - is that it's a lot of space in a lot of different places. If you had everyone living in NYC move to the state of Wyoming... it would NOT quickly make Wyoming a urban city.

There are some problems of scale here. Yes, moving the population of a city to an entire state would not fill the state up. However, if this is a widespread phenomenon, we're not talking about one city --> entire state. And Wyoming is the about the lowest population density state there is, too. What actually happens, though, is that people leaving cities move to areas that are more or less clustered around smaller towns and villages. (They don't really want to drive for an hour to get groceries.) If NY moved to Boyceville, Boyceville would then be NY.
My point is a simple one. While there is movement out of cities, there is also movement into cities. Where I live, I see the latter more than the former, though that was not the case even as recently as three years ago.
At the same time, Menomonie, which many would consider a "small town" is still seeing growth (I think), both from "country" and from larger cities. Where I live, we don't think of Menomonie as a small town, though (about 15k).
The situation is complex and in many cases planting a rural church could easily result in another being planted in a more urban area as a result.

Edit: as for Jesus going to Jerusalem to "start something," true enough, but we're mixing categories. He trained the twelve and did most of His preaching in the country, then went to Jerusalem to die. He was not organizing a new community of believers there. That part of His work was already done. Acts is a much stronger platform for arguing for an urban-focused strategy, though there is also nothing there that says "It has to be done this way and only this way."

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Jim Peet wrote:

Missionary candidate says "There is no fundamental Baptist church in ______________________". You go home scratching your head surprised: "How could it be that in such and such city / village there is no gospel preaching church". You Google map it and search for churches, and you find a handful of Baptist or Bible churches.

Has anyone else seen this?

Reading between the lines (a dangerous thing to do), I wonder are they really saying there is no church with my music standards, or my Bible version preference, or my cultural standards?


If you expand your list a little to include a few things like eschatology, calvinism, etc. I think that is *exactly* what is happening. I've seen it too, and like you I've done a little research into the area being talked about. Of course, not having gone there myself, I tend to give a little slack, since the churches I find may have some problems or issues I'm not aware of. However, that opening statement is still misleading in those cases, and I wish candidates would be clearer about that.

It's one thing for those other churches to be churches that the missionary could not work directly with, it's another to imply that there is no true biblical gospel witness there.

Dave Barnhart

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