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To reach the cities, researcher describes ‘neotribal’ approach

ATLANTA (BP)–Ethnic and language categories are no longer adequate for reaching the diversity of the cities, a church-planting researcher with the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board said, describing an emerging understanding of “neotribal” groups that tend to cluster based on culture, values and attitudes.

Curt Watke, resourcing preparedness associate for NAMB’s church planting group, was among the speakers addressing the theme “Making a Difference in Urban Contexts” with state church planting, evangelism and media leaders at NAMB’s July 28-31 Summer State Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

Other speakers included Charles Van Engen, a Fuller Theological Seminary professor who spoke on the spiritual realities of urban communities, and John Ogletree, a Houston pastor who addressed the influence of politics and economics on work in the cities.

Watke shared details of his research both on how different groups respond to the gospel and how to best approach planting indigenous churches among them. The information — part of the work of a NAMB-coordinated Urbanization and Mission Strategy Task Force — is being made available beginning this month at NAMB’s Internet resource for church planters, www.churchplantingvillage.net.

“Aren’t you glad that all believers do not have to look like you, act like and think like you?” Watke asked. “God is much bigger than all that. The issue is that we have to teach people how to design specific messages and ministries in order to reach specific people.”

Watke recounted participating in a limited “windshield” survey of a community within Kansas City early in his research. It was an area that had been described as including “artsy intelligentsia, yuppie high income, homosexuals, African American low-income and retired Anglo Americans.” While the research was helpful, he considered how much more helpful it would be to be able to share that information with other church planters trying to reach the same groups.

He also realized a standardized language for categorizing the groups of people was essential. In further research based on existing sociological studies, for instance, he determined that two of the groups in the Kansas City neighborhood — homosexuals and “artsy intelligentsia” — could be classified under a neotribal category called “Bohemian mix.”

“We began to understand that in order for us to move this forward, we are ultimately going to have to create people group profiles,” he said. “We differentiate based on culture. We connect ministry programming in context, helping us determine which ministry approaches to use.”

In one of the first research efforts of his work, the “Bohemian Mix” people group was found to be “dominated by mobile, highly educated singles — including an eclectic group of executives, students, artists and writers who prefer to live in rented high-rises.”

Ultimately, while several churches have ministries to this group, there are no truly indigenous Southern Baptist congregations — and 377 new churches are needed, Watke said. Further research pinpointed what types of church planters would be most effective in such contexts, and some of the characteristics of such a church.

“The point is this,” Watke said: “This research said that what we have to do is we have to be able to help people identify groups of people that are culturally similar, map them so we know where they are, identify where we need churches planted among them, go out and talk to them, index our learnings, and network people so they can learn from each other.”

It was the “go out and talk to them” part of the challenge that was addressed largely by Van Engen, a professor of biblical theology of mission at Fuller in Pasadena, Calif. He stressed the importance of “listening to the stories and seeing the faces” as the best way of humanizing the masses that make up the cities.

“If we don’t know the faces and the names, we haven’t taken the first step of reaching the cities,” he said.

Van Engen told a story of one man in Los Angeles who became “the pen man” — selling pens on the streets and in business — as a way of getting to know the people. In one of his encounters the man took the time to not only give a pen to a homeless man, but to talk to him, encourage him to use the pen to write his estranged family members, and ultimately to explain the love of Jesus. The man accepted Christ, was reconciled with his wife, found a job, and even began teaching Sunday School.

“In mission in the city, even a pen can make a difference, and every life of every believer in your congregation can make a difference in the city,” Van Engen said. “If we’re in mission in the city we need to see the faces and the names of the people, and then get involved in their lives.”

For John Ogletree, pastor of First Metropolitan Baptist Church of Houston, the realities of race, poverty and economics in the city also provide their own set of barriers to effective ministry. Effective evangelism by necessity must include a ministry component, helping people overcome economic hurdles as well as spiritual ones.

Additionally, he noted, African Americans now are facing similar dilemmas of shifting communities to those faced by Anglos in an earlier era — this time based on an influx of immigration from Latin America and Asia.

“What we experienced in Houston for years was the dying of Anglo churches because of the change of the community,” Ogletree said. “The reality is that even in the African American community we have to understand that we must deal with the change in dynamics of our community. Will we run? Will we flee like everyone else? This change is causing a new way of looking at even the way we plant churches.”

As the world comes together in the cities, he said, it is essential that churches not forget the importance of this mission field.

“God forbid if we send money and missionaries to try to save every third-world nation and city, and lose our own backyard,” Ogletree said. “The reality for many of us, politically and economically, is that it is more comfortable to send money across the world than it is to develop your own city — and care about the people who are populating your city.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CURT WATKE, JOHN OGLETREE and CHARLES VAN ENGEN.

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  • James Dotson