NEW YORK — Contrary to a time when urban areas were abandoned in a rush of white flight to the more racially-homogenous suburbs, eager and excited church planters are now flocking to cities like L.A. and NYC, holding up the banner of God's call in Jeremiah 29:7 to "seek the good of the city." But, according to urban apologist and former church planter D.A. Horton, his peers mostly seem intent on seeking the welfare of the safe and gentrified urban areas.
Horton is also a former pastor and previously served as executive director of ReachLife Ministries. He currently works as the national coordinator of Urban Student Missions at the North American Mission Board, or NAMB.
NAMB is among numerous organizations and networks (like the Orchard Group and Acts 29) that are on mission to evangelize and revitalize cities by training, supporting and sending (usually male) Christians who say they feel called to start a church. With so many new churches being planted and launched (read about a few here, here and here), some observers have expressed concerns that the movement has become a fad. Others, like Horton, have noticed that amid the influx of Millennial-led churches to major cities, some leaders appear to be avoiding, or overlooking the inner city — frequently marked by poverty, high crime and afflicted education systems.
Horton, who is developing a new mission in Los Angeles, shared in a video discussion with The Christian Post his thoughts and experiences regarding church planting and urban ministry. He also spoke of his desire to see contributions from more Christians of color in both Christian academia and the church.
Below is a transcript of CP's interview with Horton, followed by a video discussion.
CP: Can you define for me "inner city," compared to "urban?" What makes the inner city the inner city as you understand it?
Horton: It's changing. Twenty years ago, "inner city" meant predominantly Latino or African American only, so you have the lower socioeconomic reality, then you have individuals who are Caucasian that fall in that same socioeconomic class that are sprinkled in amongst the minority population which is the majority.
"Urban" now is the rhythm of the United States. Eighty-two percent of our nation now lives in the metropolitan area, the communities. With the introduction of gentrification, the hood is moving out into 'burbs (and) the 'burbs are moving back into the hoods. So what you begin to see now is this melting pot. Individuals want to pursue a better life. Government housing, Section 8 realities, projects are being torn down. Now, people are walking their dogs at three in the morning where the projects used to be... So when we look at the inner city, we have to understand it's the melting pot. God has brought the nations of the world to our cities, and I think He's nudging the church to say, 'Hey, remember that thing I told you about the Great Commission? Y'all didn't go (so to speak). I'm gonna bring them to you.' So He's allowing us to now steward that melting pot between inner city and urban altogether.
CP: Are crime, poverty and education disparities just a part of urban reality or more so an inner-city reality?
Horton: Again, I would say urban engulfs inner city, because you have suburbanites that are moving their kids back into the city limits proper. And they're starting charter schools, they're getting neighborhood petitions to get neighborhood schools for their kids, not the kids that are indigenous that live five blocks away. So they found a way to finagle and block out inner-city kids, if you will, from that school system. At the same time, you have inner-city kids going out to the suburban schools. … You see this reality of diversity that meets density, and my homie Dhati Lewis really articulates that well to say density and diversity, that's the reality of inner city and urban. Those socioeconomic ills and woes — crime, poverty, they go where sinful people go. And where the density is, there's a higher probability mathematically and numerically that you're going to be a victim of some of those crimes. So you can have that happen to you in the suburban haven of yesteryear as much as you can ... at 3 a.m. walking your dog with a Starbucks coffee in your hand in the hood of 20 years ago and be perfectly fine. It's weird to see that still exists, but it's moving in its boundaries.
CP: So urban and inner city are pretty much the same thing nowadays because on the ground they look the same…?
Horton: There's still some segments that have not been gentrified, and in those areas I think there's a high level of neglect, in regards to the "sexiness" of the church-planting movement — because that's the road I'm from. I don't see many dudes or teams running to the neighborhood that I'm from, but they'll run to the gentrified community that's five blocks the other way. I challenge brothers. I'm like, "Hey, that's good that you're there, you got a blog set up, good WiFi spot, great progressive ministry… But come to my barber shop, come holler at your boy over here. Why don't you go door-to-door in this community, reach out to this neighborhood?"
There's just a high level of intimidation, that unofficial wall of separation. But I think God is doing great things through conversations and just burdening His people for lost people regardless of what neighborhood they're from. So I'm starting to see some greater activity in the "inner city" that we talked about that's still untouched by gentrification.
CP: I'm looking at the particular unreached people groups, the dudes that deal drugs, maybe hip-hop youth who worship artists like Lil Wayne and Drake… Do you think the church in America could do more on that end?
Horton: I think we could always do more with people groups in general. The people group that I'm most accustomed to is, again that niche market that I'm from. What I do notice is that it's different regionally throughout the states. Like if you go to the Bible Belt... I'm in The Bluff, which is a very impoverished community in Atlanta, Georgia, and I'm talking to brothers on the street. These are dope dealers getting their heroin off, and they're quoting Scripture back to me. … And I'm like, man this brother is convinced that he's saved. What he's living out is syncretism. He is thinking he is giving worship to God, but he's coupling his worship with paganism. Then you have the heroin addict that he just sold [to] like, "I love me some Jesus as much as I love heroin." And they're both genuine. They are convinced that they're OK with God, that God has kind of struck them a side deal. … So you've got that reality.
But if you come up to New York, you go to L.A., you go to Seattle, people are godless and they're OK with that. They're content with that. So it's not Christianizing my life or my sin. It's, "I'm OK. I don't need Christianity. You're one segment of the reality so stay in your compartment, I'll stay in mine. You do you, and I'll do me." That's the reality.
When I look at that in my generation, again the Millennials, we are the most diverse generation in our nation's history ethnically because so many of us are mixed with all kinds of different things that were segregated a generation ago. So when you look at that, there is still the need for the church to engage and reach out to the Millennials but not so in a way that we're only reaching to Millennials. We have to show Millennials that the Gospel transcends our age group, it transcends our generation. So our churches should be a brochure of heaven, which I believe is multiethnic, multilinguistic, multigenerational. Because the power of the Gospel is not divided by racial blood lines, socioeconomic ties, educational status or the lack thereof. People need Jesus.
CP: Some of what you touched on just now is related to you being an urban apologist. Define that term, and explain how it comes into play.
Horton: When you look at the reality of just apologetics in the urban setting… Number one, I try to educate believers that we're not called to win arguments in Scripture. When we look at 1 Peter 3:15, if Christ is sanctified in our hearts all we're called to do is defend the faith (the Greek word 'apologia'). So when people ask us, or they antagonize us or they're aggressive towards us, we're not out to win arguments. We're there to present the case, the reason for the faith that we hold to and our hope in Christ Jesus.
In the urban context, you're gonna get barraged from the Moors, the Nation of Gods and Earths. You're gonna get barraged from Black Hebrew Israelites. You're gonna get barraged from JWs (Jehovah's Witnesses) or you're gonna get barraged by individuals that may be half-Mormon half-agnostic. I've talked to brothers that classify themselves as agnostic-Buddhists and they don't even know what it is, and they'll tell me that. So it's basically about looking at the core root and the belief system and how it is in opposition to the Word of God. The majority of those cults and those philosophies and those ideologies set man up to be deified. Even within a lot of the word of faith churches, which I know it's not a denomination, but the churches that go to the extremes to advocate that we're 'gods.' They'll take scriptures out of context, put words in the mouth of God that were never there, and they advocate a teaching that is anti-Scripture, anti-Gospel, which is anti-the character of our God.
An urban apologist is one who is just looking for the root system of that belief, filtering it through a Biblical worldview, and then giving a reason for a Biblical faith and a Biblical case to say this is why I'm in opposition to that. And then making the plea, "Embrace Christ who can forgive you in the depth of that philosophy that you're ingrained in."
CP: Going back a bit to the issue of church planting becoming trendy, and maybe some ministers feeling intimidated by that inner-city wall… I'm wondering then, how organizations and networks can empower guys like yourself who are hungry to go back to the areas that they came from or to areas they feel are neglected?
Horton: That's what I love about NAMB, is the fact that our national strategy is we're looking at 32 cities; five in Canada, 27 in the United States. … This is where God is gathering people, these are metroplexes that millions of people are gathering to. Here's the amount of churches to the population of people. Here's what it was in the '40s, here's what it is today. There is a huge gap. As the population of America has blown up, the amount of church attendees has plummeted.
So God is arousing the hearts of people that hear the plan that we have, and saying, "I want to go to one of these cities." We have a developmental system, a farm system that we want to plug students, young people, church planters, people who are curious about that, and we want to plug them into the system to develop them, to launch them, train them, resource them to go into these 32 cities.
CP: You're a minority in Christian leadership, so I'm guessing when other minorities see you, they are attracted to you. So when you travel, when you speak at different conferences and with different groups, what do you find are the needs being expressed by minority Christians?
Horton: I think one of the things that I hear a lot is there's a high level of hope. If they see a person of color, if they see a Latino, African American or Asian on the main stage at a conference, writing books, then they feel like there's a sense of ownership, like, "Man, we've made it." So there's a collective victory in that. At the same time, they're praying for opportunities. They feel like, "I'm not gonna be you. God has given you that space to leverage our voice in the conversation."
I feel a responsibility, and that's honestly what I sense. A deep burden in my soul is to see diversity within our denominational leadership, within our seminary faculty and administrative staff, in presidents' cabinets, and in leadership at our local churches. Fighting for that also allows me to build relationships with other brothers that are qualified, with other sisters that can serve in their credential. When I'm in a conversation, normally what happens is: "Man, can you move to Memphis?' or "Bro, look the Bronx is calling you" or "Brooklyn is calling you" or Seattle, whatever city or metroplex, they're saying, "D.A., this is where you need to be." I can say, "No, I know where God has called me. But I've got like 10 dudes that just ran through my mind when you told me." So then it's about networking, it's about letting them know I'm not the only one. That keeps me from tokenism. That keeps me from being the token minority, the token anchor. It keeps me from being the black voice, the brown voice, the yellow voice.
It allows me to be a voice as a believer first, who happens to be ethnically Hispanic. It allows me to cultivate that conversation so that people can say, "Who would you recommend?" And those are the conversations that I'm getting from the people who are empowered that are Anglo to say, "Well, who else is there besides you?" Are you kidding? Who else is there? Who's not out there. I begin to tell them, "I got guys all over the place, sisters all over the place that can be utilized for God's glory."
When those opportunities are opened up and those individuals that I recommended maximize it and come back and they're like, "Thank you." I'm like, "No, God is the one who's opened the door. You just do the same." Basically, all God's called me to do is be a door-holder for brothers and sisters of color to say we can lead, we can shepherd, we can serve alongside, we can contribute academically as well. Just give us an opportunity.