Between June 14-25, Christian Education Ministries hosted our denomination’s (ARPC) summer conferences for middle and high school students at Bonclarken (the ARP’s conference center). I understand those were two great weeks, and our Lord worked powerfully among the students.
After the conferences were finished, Brad Anderson, the conferences’ director, sent a text to a group of ARP ministers, including me, that read: “We have the next generation of ARPs and need to work on holding on to them. The conferences go well because of everyone that attends and serves. They’re a bright spot in the denomination.” I immediately thanked God for his grace and for the good work of those who led, served, and oversaw the conferences when I received the text.
I also thought about a conversation that Brad and I had with Chip Sherer during our Synod meeting in June. He told us that, as the President of Bonclarken, he believed that Bonclarken’s role in the growth and development of the ARP Church and her youth is a provide a place for inspiration and renewal where our children and youth can encounter the living God, build strong relationships with their peers across the denomination, and make lasting memories that will encourage them to join ARP congregations as they mature and move away from home. That’s a tremendous vision, and Bonclarken does a great job fulfilling it.
As I’ve thought about those two conversations in conjunction with my own ministry context, I think the ARPC faces a singular obstacle, from a strategic perspective, when it comes to holding on to the next generation. There are few to no vibrant ARP congregations in the areas to which our young people move when they graduate high school or college.
The Challenge of Rural Communities
Historically, the ARPC has thrived in rural communities. Our congregations have a familial feel that is rooted in tradition and relationships. Hard-working, independent, God-fearing people living and worshipping together while maintaining the faith and the customs of their ancestors have provided the solid foundation upon which the denomination stands today. But things are changing.
A 2018 report from the United Nations anticipates that 68% of the world’s population will live in urban centers by the year 2050. That is a predicted growth of 13% over the next 30 years. This global trend is also reflected in US population statistics. In 2018, the Pew Research Center published a study that reported a 13% population increase for urban centers and a 16% increase for suburban counties between the years 2000 and 2018. This same report confirmed that rural counties, across the nation, experienced a 3% increase in the same time frame. The reported statistics indicate that this 3% increase was due to migrant workers moving into agricultural communities and a relatively high birth rate among the residents of rural counties. However, this small population increase for rural counties will most likely be short-lived as birth rates across the nation continue to fall. 2019 marked the fifth straight year of decline in the nation’s birth rate. That year there were 58.3 births for every 1000 women aged 15 to 44, and preliminary reports indicate that the number of births in 2020 will be less than 55 births per 1000 women, meaning that there will be 8% fewer children born in the country this year.
Additionally, 88% of rural counties across the nation have lost prime-age workers at an alarming rate since the year 2000. These workers are between the ages of 25 and 54 and when they leave, they take their families with them, leaving rural counties with fewer young children, school-aged children, young adults, and middle-aged adults than suburban and urban centers. Moreover, it means that rural communities have more rapidly aging populations, with 65+ year old men and women being the most prominent demographic. Pockets of concentrated poverty, where at least a fifth of the population is poor, and an unprecedented income gap are the byproducts of this population shift.
These statistics paint a bleak picture for rural counties in the near future. The picture is grimmer for a Christian denomination that makes its home, almost exclusively, in these rural counties. As the prime-age workers and their families move to suburban communities and urban centers the vibrancy and long-term viability of the ARP congregations in these rural counties will be negatively affected. Less children, less young adults, and less wage-earning adults means fewer church members, fewer worshippers in attendance each week, and fewer resources in the offering plates. These effects necessarily have consequences for the denomination as a whole, and we’re already seeing them as the ARPC’s membership numbers and Denominational Ministry Fund receipts are in decline.
The Future of the ARPC
So, what do we do? What do we do about our future as a denomination given this population shift? It’s simple: we have to plant churches where people are.
At present an estimated 82.5% of Americans live in city centers or suburban counties. That is a total of close to 275 million people. We have little to no gospel witness or congregational presence among those people even though 57 of the nation’s 200 largest cities are within the geographical bounds of our presbyteries. 28 of them are in Texas and Louisiana alone with 5 of those cities having a population of over 900,000. The other 29 cities are dispersed all around the eastern seaboard and the southeast. 22 of these urban centers have a population of over 200,000 people and comprise a total population of 29,266,000 Americans or 8.6% of the US population, which means that we have a potentially fertile mission field already within our grasp as a result of the providence of God (chart listed
If our young people and other members are moving to these urban centers and suburban counties for work and play, shouldn’t we? That’s what Paul did during his missionary journeys, isn’t it? He went to Antioch, Derbe, Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Caesarea, Jerusalem, and Rome. He went to the population centers with the strategy of planting Christ-honoring and disciple-making congregations in those city centers because that’s where people lived, shopped, and recreated. As a result, those gospel congregations in the city centers influenced the surrounding communities. If there was a presence of Christ in those city centers, then the testimony of Christ made its way to the rural communities around them.
But this isn’t just about keeping the next generation of ARPs or reclaiming those who’ve moved away. It’s about fulfilling the Great Commission. Christ told his Church to advance his kingdom on earth by going to all the nations and making disciples among all peoples. He has also chosen to concentrate the population of our great nation in city centers and suburban communities, affording us the opportunity to proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, make disciples of all men, and teach them to obey all that Christ has taught us right where our presbyteries already are.
Therefore, I call on our presbyteries to commit to developing and implementing a strategy to plant vibrant, disciple-making, confessional churches in the urban centers and suburban counties within their geographical bounds. I also call upon congregations in rural communities to contribute prayerfully and financially to this effort.
May God bless us as we seek to advance his kingdom and plant biblical churches.
22 Urban Cities and Their Populations
Existing Presbyteries – 29,266,000 people in these 22 of the 200 largest urban centers in US.
New York – 8,600,000
Philadelphia – 1,500,000
Houston – 2,400,000
Dallas/Fort Worth – 1,942,000
San Antonio – 1,600,000
Washington DC/Arlington/Alexandria – 1,107,000
Austin – 1,000,000
Jacksonville – 930,000
Charlotte – 912,000
Raleigh/Durham/Cary – 728,000
Boston – 696,000
El Paso – 685,000
Nashville – 678,000
Memphis – 651,000
Atlanta/Sandy Springs – 635,000
Louisville – 616,000
Baltimore – 576,000
Virginia Beach – 405,000
Tampa – 405,000
Arlington – 400,000
Corpus Cristi – 327,000
Greensboro – 301,000
Pittsburgh – 300,000
Orlando – 291,000
Plano – 285,000
Laredo – 266,000
Lubbock – 264,000
Chesapeake – 250,000
Norfolk – 241,000
Irving – 237,000
Garland – 236,000
Frisco – 225,000
Baton Rouge – 216,000
Birmingham – 207,000
Huntsville – 205,000
Augusta – 200,000
Amarillo – 200,000