Over the last several years there’s been one phrase that has both sparked a lot of interest but also really irritated me and some others when it comes to church planting (there’s more than one, really) and it is the phrase “down stream.” The logic is basically, “As the city goes, so go the suburban and rural places.” Thus, we need more church planters in cities rather than the suburbs or farm towns. The points made by some prominent thinkers on this are also convincing, “there are more image-bearers per capita in the city” – go there. “There’s more crime in the city” – go there. “Art, education, and real culture (love how that word gets thrown around these days) is in the city” – that’s why you should be there.” All of these things make good sense. But then terms like “down stream” are used and all of a sudden I feel less than inadequate and inferior to those in the big city. Hi, I’m Alex, and I planted a church, on purpose, in Newnan, Georgia.
Personally, I grew up in the suburban town of Woodstock, Georgia, which is about 35-40 minutes north of downtown Atlanta. My dad commuted downtown every day to Georgia Power and then for the last few years of his life to Coca-Cola. (We are clearly southerners). I spent a good bit of time in the city of Atlanta and my dad taught me to really love being in the city from an early age and for that I am incredibly grateful. The energy of a thriving city does something to me. When I read that heaven is a big city, I want to go there and stay there forever. (And I plan on it!) I’ve had the privilege of living in other great cities such as London and Seattle. Currently, I live in the “Biggest Little City,” Reno, Nevada.
In 2007 I knew that God was calling me to plant a church not in London, NYC, or LA. No. I was called to Newnan, Georgia. Newman? No. Newnan. I had to explain that all the time. When describing Newnan to people, it is an old colonial town that Sherman didn’t burn down in his destruction of the South. Today it’s a suburb but also quite rural. Case in point – my house was one mile from what they call “downtown Newnan.” Yet, one mile in the other direction of my home was massive farms and that’s just about it. It felt rural. Personally, Newnan isn’t a town I’d want to live in for the long-term. This isn’t because the people there were unbearable or that there wasn’t anything to do. In fact, some of the best people you’ll ever meet live in that little town. My wife and I just enjoy a more densely populated urban center. It’s just our personalities. However, when I planted Four Corners Church in Newnan and was living there and hearing other church planters and reading materials about being “down stream,” I was shocked at the arrogance that came with those who pushed being “in the city.”
We had lived in London for a year previously to planting this church in Newnan because I was in school. Being a student in London kept us pinching pennies. No car, meat at dinner once a month, public transport for everything (which has it’s moments), and loads of hours in the Tate Modern Art Museum or at the Portobello Market took up countless hours. We absolutely loved it and would do it again today!
However, to then return to the rural town of Newnan and hear about how “down stream” we were, sounded fairly insulting. Nobody in Newnan is actually waiting on someone in Atlanta to tell them what to eat, what to wear, where they should work, recreate, or go to school. Many people of Newnan commute into Atlanta for work only then to flee back to the life they actually wanted. Furthermore, when the language of “down stream” is used, it makes it sound like those that are planting there just couldn’t cut it in the city. Yet, the reality is that occasionally God calls city people to the rural and suburban areas to live. And you know what? That is a VERY GOOD THING! Significant portions of the Acts 29 churches are currently in suburban or rural areas, and the other half are in city-centers. What we need is not arrogant city folks or annoyed suburbanites.
What we need is faithfulness to Jesus. What we need is the mind, eyes, ears, and heart of God for the places in which he has placed us and then to seek to study that place, serve that place, and see Jesus exalted in that place.