By Dave Smith
For almost six years, students from Ozark Christian College have attended class in New York City. They have overcome their fear of urban areas, learned from diverse church leaders, and begun to discover their fit in this globalized world. This journey from Joplin, Missouri, to New York City traveled by way of California.
In 2000, Ken Idleman, Ozark Christian College’s president at the time, took a one-year sabbatical to help his son, Kyle, plant a church in Southern California. President Idleman experienced firsthand how God uses new churches to reach people far from God.
He returned to Ozark determined that the college would do more to develop church planters. Ozark Christian College called me to become its first professor of church planting.
In the fall of 2003, I began developing and teaching church planting classes. By the fall of 2005, we had a church planting specialization with a full schedule of classes.
However, by the fall of 2006, it had become clear we needed to make changes. Many of our students had no concept of healthy church planting.
And many of Ozark’s students grow up in small towns in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. There is nothing wrong with this, but our world is becoming increasingly urbanized. Studies indicate that over the next several years, more than 75 percent of the world’s population will live in major cities.
Given these realities, I believed it was essential to give our students a vision for healthy urban church planting. This conviction gave birth to the New York City program.
Great Numbers, Great Influence
Why take students to New York City? Consider that Washington, D.C., is the capital of our nation, while New York City is the capital of the world. The city itself is home to more than 8 million people, while Greater New York City boasts more than 20 million. That is greater than the combined population of Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Iowa, and Nebraska (19 million) and slightly more than the number living in Texas (20 million).
But New York City is more than great numbers. She is great influence. Though other cities may compete in areas like finance or fashion, education or power, no city excels in all of them like New York. She is the influencer of influencers. What happens in New York impacts the Northeast, our nation, and the world. She is to our day what Rome was to the first century.
New York City is home to Orchard Group, the New York-based, church-planting ministry whose workers and associates serve as the primary teachers for Ozark’s students when they are there. But being in New York City also provides access to church leaders from other movements.
New York City is ethnically diverse. She is home to people from every tribe and tongue. It reminds our students that God is creative and that he loves all people. Students see they do not need to go overseas to reach other nations.
God is bringing the nations to our cities. And as we plant churches among them here, some of them return to plant churches among their own people. And some of those churches are planted in countries closed to outside missionaries.
How does the program work? Students enroll in one of the New York City classes. Some of the initial teaching takes place at Ozark Christian College. Then the students visit New York City for a few days to a week, depending on the class. They get over their fear of the city, learn from leaders and their teams who are planting churches, and seek to discover where they fit in the urban and church planting world.
Another benefit of these experiences is the relationships the students build with the planters and their teams. This leads to dialogue throughout the year on all kinds of issues: how to connect with lost people or how church planting impacts the planter’s family. Some of my students are already returning to New York City and other urban areas as interns.
Others serve as leadership residents for one to two years. Still others graduate and join church planting teams in cities like New York, Milwaukee, or Raleigh, North Carolina. Others have joined overseas teams in cities like Nagoya and Osaka, Japan, (Osaka is the ninth most populous metropolitan area in the world). One graduate is pursuing his master’s degree in urban planning. He hopes to move to a major city and use both his ministry degree and his master’s in the context of urban church planting.
Developing the Next Wave
It has been encouraging to see God work through this program to develop the next wave of church and urban leaders.
What are the plans for the future? We want to expand the program to other colleges and other cities. In March 2011, students from Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University joined Ozark students for an “Exegeting the City” class. Lincoln students returned in March 2012, and will again this month. Other colleges are considering participating, and we are looking to expand the training to other cities.
This past December, I resigned as director of the New York City program. My wife has multiple sclerosis, and it reached the point where it made sense to return to her hometown of Indianapolis and to East 91st Street Christian Church.
What will happen to the New York City program? I’m convinced it will grow into something even better.
Nick Parsons, a student in my first Ozark church planting class in the fall of 2003 and one of my sharpest students ever, has become director of the newly formed Orchard Institute. Ozark decided it was best for God’s kingdom for Orchard to oversee the training and open it to other schools.
Ozark is still committed to this equipping ministry. It has signed up for six classes a year with close to 100 students participating. And Nick will move forward with expanding the training to more of our colleges.
Already, there are other college leaders committed to come to New York City to meet with Nick and experience class in the city. And other cities are teaching students. Students will learn about poverty this year in Indianapolis, and there are plans for training in Chicago and cities like San Francisco.
God is moving in our cities. He is gathering people around the world into great urban centers. We must prepare our students for the world in which they will live and lead. I am excited to see what God will do as students from across our colleges experience class in the city.
Dave Smith is executive director of community outreach and church planting at East 91st Street Christian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.