When people ask me where I live, I tell them Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s not really true. I live in Andover. To get to Minneapolis, you’ll drive for 35 minutes without traffic.
I’ve not seen too many books on missions, church planting, and ministry strategy that addresses a city like mine. It’s not a small town that people romanticize as a “sacrifice” to serve. Neither is it an influential urban center. It’s a sprawl. There is no racial diversity. I have lived here eight years, and I recently realized that I have seen probably a dozen people who have a different skin color than I do. I have seen one Muslim and no Hindus. There is no one I know of from Africa or Asia. My city is Scandanavian with a little bit of German. I thought about getting involved in some refugee ministry, but the nearest I found is 45 minutes away. When I interviewed at the Christian school that brought me here, the first groups of kids I met all had blonde hair and a last name of Larson, Olson, or Carlson. I am not exaggerating. There is no university here; there is a community college 15 minutes away. But you won’t find any college students in the churches. I don’t see many single young professionals on Sunday morning. I live in a city of families. And churches. Within three miles of my house there are at least a dozen.
Moving here required an adjustment. I grew up near Washington, D.C. My neighbor was a congressman. My dad was a high-ranking military officer. The high school I attended was diverse racially and economically. After I became a Christian I found that the evangelical churches included members that were making major decisions for our country. But Andover is no such place.
Does this sound like a place a strategic ministry should plant a church? Probably not, which might explain why there is no church within 25 minutes that teaches expositional messages from Scripture with an overall Reformed perspective.
The “probably not” is what scares me. My neighbors are not poor enough to attract support from mercy ministries. I can’t hand them a book, because they don’t read and have no interest in doing so. My neighbors work at Walmart. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a picture of them on the internet. Every house on my street has a truck in the driveway. Almost everyone here does manual labor and depends on the upper middle class and the wealthy to landscape their property and remodel their homes.
Meanwhile my friends and I read books on shaping culture and influencing future leaders. Most of the Reformed ministry with which I’m familiar aims for fellow thinkers. We love reaching young, educated, globally minded, influential people who live in diverse cities. So who will reach the lower ends of the middle class?
Should I place value on sinners based on their influence? Ann Coulter does. We read with disgust her article criticizing doctors who treat Ebola patients in Africa. How dare she say we should focus on the United States when the world has so many more pressing needs for spiritual and physical healing! But I wonder if we do something similar, just on a different scale. Who are the trophies of grace in your mind? Athletes? Actors? Government leaders? I don’t want to lessen the miracle of salvation God works in the lives of these high-profile figures. But do you have a pecking order? Do you start with the influencers and pop culture icons, move on to the college students, remember the poorest of the poor? And then somewhere down the line think of . . . everyone else? I live with “everyone else.” Some of them don’t even use the internet!
To be clear, I’m pretty sure the apostle Paul, if he were working today, would not come here. Plenty of books have been written about his strategy, and it did not include places like Andover.
Yet few of us share Paul’s precise calling. Not all of his ministry priorities be ours. We are the people Paul left behind—the elders, the converts, the senders. It’s okay to be these people. When we think of doing something “big” for God, it’s okay to stay put. I can live here without guilt. I can also look at the people around me as people God has placed here. Indeed, God has placed me here to serve, to consider others more significant than myself (Phil. 2:3).
Let me be specific about what I believe is part of the problem especially for Reformed Christians when reaching my neighbors. Think of your favorite preachers. How many of them are academics? Same for me. I love learning, and I love a well-constructed sermon.
But when by saying a sermon is “deep” or “powerful” you really mean “scholarly,” we have a problem. I pray God would raise up many more brilliant men! But many people I know can’t follow their sermons. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying to water down the Bible. I am saying we must labor to help the congregation understand the message. According to the Department of Education only 13 percent of Americans are proficient readers. How will you craft your sermon for the 87 percent? Will you complain they can’t handle the message, or will you press them into the intellectual waters gently?
Think of sermon applications. Do you know blue-collar workers with little influence but tremendous faith? By all means address everyone from the humble janitor to the amazing CEO. How do you speak to parents about having someone stay home with the kids? Do you think of dual income families as greedy, trading money for their kids? Most people in my neighborhood are dual income families—not because they want to, but because they feel they need the money to survive. How should you address what you might consider the frivolous spending of the wealthy when that same spending employs my neighbors?
You will find sin and brokenness wherever you travel and live from Dubai to London to Andover. As much as anywhere else my neighbors need Christ. They live somewhere even many Christians would consider boring and bland. But we call it home. And we share the same struggles common to humanity. A friend’s daughter just got married to another woman. Someone down the street has two kids and is not married. We had the SWAT team on our street a few years back because some drunk guy beat his daughter and had a gun in his hand. I had a swastika painted on my house. The local high school kids chanted “food stamps” when playing another school in a lower social class (both almost all white schools).
There is need here. There is need everywhere. Can you see it?