Thursday, March 24, 2011

Census, Cities, and the Gospel

2010 Census numbers are slowly being released (with a picture of one of my favorite restaurants).

Last time Detroit was this small (1910) Henry Ford had not yet started paying workers $5 a day (1914). Some apparently think Ford’s (as the old-timers say) would like to return to $5 a day. But I think that rumor has been greatly overstated.

What isn’t overstated is the sad state of the city of Detroit. The only city in the country to lose a great percentage of it’s residents in the last decade appears to be New Orleans. And they had Katrina. Before you blame the auto industry problems, remember that most of the autoworkers lived in the burbs, not the city. In other words, Detroit’s problems are not separate from the auto industry, but neither are they identical. They are worse; they are deeper; they are systemic.

And there really are no meaningful solutions to the problem. Mayor Dave Bing is trying to downsize the city by getting people to move into selected areas, thus relieving the city of providing services to such a huge area (the city of Detroit is almost 140 square miles). Other areas would be turned into urban farms.

Mayor Bing is also trying to come up with another 40,000 people in order to reach the 750,000 person threshold for certain state and federal aid. That will help get more money—other people’s money—to solve problems Detroit is not willing to take on and solve themselves. Let’s face it: As long as Uncle Sam will shove some dough your way, you can keep wasting money on political enterprises instead of fixing the problems. So 40,000 more people is important to keep the political enterprises healthy.

“Cynical,” you say? Sure, but well founded.

Given Detroit’s ability to work the numbers in the budget, I have no doubt that they can come up with 40,000 people on a census, because as everyone knows with the budget, numbers are just numbers; they do not actually need to correspond to anything in reality.

Now, if they can only find a way to tax these 40,000 people. Except  those 40,000 probably don’t have jobs and that will raise the already atrocious unemployment rate (put by some as high as 50% in the city of Detroit). But they will be mythical people so it really won’t matter anyway.

And at the end of the day, whether 713,000 or 750,000, Detroit will still be a failing city with small-visioned leaders who lack the character and political will to solve the problems.

The Detroit public schools are failing beyond belief and the newest solution apparently involves 60 student classrooms. The school board who got the schools where they are (in part by turning down a $200 million dollar charter school grant) is complaining about the guy who is trying to change it and has taken him to court multiple times. Which goes to show that education is a talking point, not a task, not even a goal.

The house vacancy rate in Detroit is said to be about 22%. I think that’s actually lower than the real number. But it means more than one out of every five houses is empty. Probably 1 of the remaining 4 is probably in a very bad state of disrepair. Burned out houses are more common than you might think, particularly in certain parts of the city (like Delray that I drove through last Friday on the way to Armando’s for dinner).

And when I drive through I wonder, What is the place of the gospel in a city like Detroit?

Detroit doesn’t need more churches. It has churches all over the place. What it needs is more gospel—a gospel rightly defined, a gospel boldly preached, and a gospel practically lived out.

I think there are some good gospel works going on in the city by friends of mine and others whom I don’t know but know about. But I don’t sense there is a big push towards urban church planting or church revitalization in Detroit.

Some years ago I had a “Ten in Ten” concept going on in my head. Ten churches in ten strategic areas (think the parish concept) in the city of Detroit. Start some preaching points and see what develops.

I would still love to see it happen, but it’s going to take some committed people who are willing to live in what amounts to a North American version of a third world country.

“Harsh,” you say? Sure, but well founded.

Drive around a bit in Detroit.

And when you do, look at the faces of the people and dream of a church being built out of them. Dream of the litter of idols smashed by Jesus rather than the litter of trash left by citizens. Dream of the reclamation of lives destroyed by drugs and violence rather than buildings destroyed by time and neglect.

And look for places for gospel churches to meet, where the hope preached doesn’t rest on the city council, the mayor’s office, or the courtroom.

And pray for the souls of these people who are hopeless and trapped, and who mistakenly think living jobless in drug and violence ridden Detroit is their worst problem.

And pray for workers to go out into the harvest. Perhaps gospel people can give “urban farming” a new spin.


Ben said...

I'm with you, brother. Would love to see a more concentrated work of the gospel in Detroit.

Ben Edwards

Mark Ward said...

I'm with you, too. Your article is great. But, I'm concerned with what you said about the gospel. You said that the gospel should be "rightly defined." What do you mean by that? Is it hard to define the gospel? I would hope not. The gospel needs to go to Detroit, Larry. There is no question about that - and that gospel is the simple, child-like gospel found in the Word of God.

I'm concerned in our fundamental (again, I'm assuming you're a fundamentalist) circles that we're so busy re-defining the gospel that we're not giving the gospel.

So, I'd be interested in seeing how you define what the gospel is. It's not hard for us in Tipton, IN. And, it shouldn't be hard for others, either.

Larry said...

Hey Mark, Good to hear from you. Hope all is well.

My "rightly defined" comment is about the fact that some people, particularly in urban ministries, want to include social justice in the gospel. That the gospel includes things like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc.

These are people who believe that word and deed (preaching and service) are equal partners in the gospel, and it is just as much "gospel" to serve homeless as it is to preach salvation in Jesus.

I reject that, and I am sure you do. But not all do.

So we have to define the gospel rightly as not including these other things, though they may be good things to do. They are not the gospel.

Mark Ward said...


You're exactly right. And, sadly, there are some fundamentalists - or, those who claim to be Bible-believing and independent Baptists, who are headed in this direction, too. Soup kitchens are not the gospel - and you correctly defined your direction.

What's concerning to me is you have men that bow down to Northland and some of these other New Evangelical schools that promote a 'social' gospel in their churches and seminaries. I can think of a large church and seminary in the Minneapolis area that used to go door-knocking and be strong and growing, but now, their ministry is just a shadow of what it was because, years ago, they brought in a pastor who promoted this type of 'social' gospel. The church suffered, and is still suffering. Deacons stood up in the church and asked why the church was going in this direction. Many have left over the years, because the 'soup kitchen' mentality was bought, instead of going door-to-door and aggressive evangelism. Today, that church has a new pastor and the old pastor has left to go teach at a school that, recently, just took the name 'Baptist' off it's title. The slippery slop continues, Larry.

What a discerning Christian will do will reject this "elitist" mentality and high acedamia, and simply preach the Word, be fervent in soul-winning, and have red-hot preaching that will stir the people of God to do something.

We need to get back to that kind of Gospel, and I guarantee you - we will see REVIVAL in America!

From your Fundamentalist Friend,
Mark Ward

Yes, I'm still a Baptist and I'm still a fundamentalist - and I'm not mad about it, either.

Larry said...

Thanks Mark,

First, Northland is not a new evangelical school. And they are still a Baptist school (unlike a certain Southern school that never had Baptist in the name and is not Baptist at all, my friend :) So be careful harping about this).

Second, I have heard nothing concerning Northland or the church in Minneapolis going toward the social gospel. I don't think McLachlan ever promoted anything resembling a social gospel. Door-to-door soulwinning is not a measure of gospel faithfulness. IMO, much of what is being "preached" in door to door soulwinning is not the biblical gospel. But there are many ways of faithful evangelism that do not include door-to-door. So unless you have some sort of proof, I am very skeptical of any claims that NIU or Fourth are going the social gospel route.

I don't think it is about elitist mentality and high academia. I actually think it is too little academia ... People who have not been taught the gospel and people who are not thinking clearly about the gospel. The answer to that is more academia, not less.