Growing up in greater Memphis, I don’t think I understood just how complicated my city was (and still is). I had a sheltered view of the city that comes from a comfortable home in the suburbs. But I still say that Memphis is “my city.” It’s the only urban center I come close to claiming. Both in proximity and sentiment, Memphis is my home.
Memphis is a great city. But Memphis is a tragic city, too. While rich in diversity and color, it is forever connected to African Americans’ struggle for equality and justice in the Jim Crow south.
Memphis is a city of widespread poverty, juxtaposed against areas of privilege and wealth. Numerous studies have shown that low income households face significant material, educational and socioeconomic challenges.
Memphis is a city with an identity crisis and a propensity to always expect the worst. As a matter of fact and routine, many expect their lot to always come up short.
As believers, we have an answer for all of it. We can offer real hope and security through Jesus Christ. We can respond to past challenges with His eyes, heart, hands and feet.
But it’s also true that we face a new challenge in our efforts to reach the city. Confront some quick facts about Memphis:
- We are a city of over 1 million people.
- We speak more than 45 languages.
- More than 500,000 people do not know Christ personally.
- There are 170 SBC churches in greater Memphis.
- A majority of evangelical churches are either plateaued or declining.
We have less money, churches, disciples and staff to deploy against the sea of lostness we confront, and few available ministry partners ready to engage the fight. That’s a statement of fact in post-Christian America. Increasingly, it’s also a statement of fact in the post-Christian southern Bible Belt.
If there’s hope for penetrating lostness in cities like Memphis, it’s going to require a change in strategy:
- We must start new churches. Most experts say that we need 1 church for every 1,000 people in urban areas. If so, we need a lot of new evangelical churches in Memphis. The truth is, we need lots of new churches in every corner of North America. Memphis is no exception.
- We must revitalize existing churches. It’s not enough to start new churches. We can’t simply write off the 170 SBC churches that already exist in metro Memphis. We need them for the challenge we face.
- We must produce disciple-making disciples. Without a renewed commitment to discipleship-based evangelism, there just won’t be enough growth to keep up with the burgeoning lostness around us. Only through reproducing disciples will we have the impact needed to make a difference in the city.
- We must do more with less money. Less money means more volunteers and fewer paid workers. It means less full-time staff and more part-time and bi-vocational workers. Effective local associations and city groups will find creative ways to finance ministry in the face of reduced funding.
- We must cooperate like never before. It’s clear that while old models of cooperation are important, new models are needed to cope with lostness in the city center. Large churches, regional resources and urban ministry organizations will complement state conventions and denominational groups. That’s how cities like Memphis will be reached.
- We must go like never before. While we have to invest our lives in our communities and our city, we can’t do that without a vision to share Christ in other places, too. Our commission is The Great Commission, so we must go far and wide.
So what’s the Big Idea?
Penetrating lostness matters across North America and around the world, and it matters in Memphis. We must change our strategy to start new churches, revitalize existing churches, produce disciples, do more with less, cooperate and go like never before. That’s the way to penetrate lostness in greater Memphis…and the world.