Cities have spiritual temperatures. So suggests a recent joint study from the Barna Group and the American Bible Society which ranked 100 cities on their “Bible mindedness.” http://cities.barna.org/americas-most-bible-minded-cities-2014/
Now let’s back up. We know from the Bible that cities have spiritual temperatures. Babylon was a city-state in Mesopotamia which destroyed Jerusalem. It came to personify rebellion against God. Whereas Jerusalem was the city of God, where his temple was. So Babylon had one temperature, Jerusalem generally had another.
But actually, it’s not that simple. Because the Bible portrays Jerusalem itself in many different spiritual states. Under David it was a united and spiritually vibrant, but by Zephaniah’s day Jerusalem is described as a rebellious, defiled and oppressing city.
There are some cities Jesus taught in that were receptive to him. But there were also the unrepentant cities of Matthew 11—“Woe to you, Chorazin. . . Bethsaida” They were hardened to the mighty works of God. And remember Jesus weeping over the Jerusalem of his day? He said, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23.37).
Okay, back to Barna. It ranked 100 cities in the United States for their “Bible mindedness.” On top were Chattanooga, TN, Birmingham, AL, Lynchburg, VA, Springfield, MO, Shreveport, LA, Charlotte NC, Greenville, SC, Little Rock, Ark, and Jackson, MS with Mississippi being the most religious state in America.
By contract, the least Bible minded cites included, Phoenix, AZ, San Francisco, Boston, Albany NY and Providence RI.
Now, granted, studies like this raise questions. How do we define Bible mindedness? Is regular Bible reading and belief in the Bible’s accuracy an adequate spiritual indicator? It doesn’t tell us if such people really embrace Christ or live out the gospel.
But I believe such studies do have value. They remind us that cities do in fact have spiritual climates. Any pastor with working spiritual antennae knows this.
Wisdom in ministry consists in knowing that temperature—doing a little cultural exegesis to understand the climate. As a pastor, one week a year I would gather my pastoral staff and we’d talk about the cultural climate of our city and how we should faithfully minister the gospel in light of that.
Knowing the spiritual temperature of a city will influence how we do ministry. The church I recently pastored was in Denver, Colorado. Denver is near the bottom of Barna’s list. Now I live in Orlando. Orlando is higher on the list. We live on the edge of the Bible belt. In some of our more secularized cities, people know less about Christianity and you have to take that into consideration when you are preaching and doing evangelism. Evangelism in a post-Christian city has to deal with the fact that people are less familiar with the Bible’s story, or they’ve been exposed to it, but reject it.
Reformed Theological Seminary has 6 campuses. Two of them—our Jackson campus and our Charlotte campus, are in the top ten of Barna’s list of Bible minded cities. Orlando, where our campus is, sorry to say, comes in at #69 on the list. And Washington DC, where we have another campus, comes in at 80 on the list!
The point is, cities such as Birmingham and San Francisco have very different spiritual climates. And while people’s spiritual needs are the same everywhere, and the gospel is the same, and Christ is the same yesterday today and forever, it helps to understand the climate were ministering in, just as Paul did in Athens.
The good news is that a strong Christian presence can influence the spiritual temperature of a city. The Barna report notes that most of the more Bible minded cities have sizeable Christian institutions of higher learning there. According to Barna, their influence may explain some of the impact. Just as RTS has discovered that when we plant a seminary campus in a city there is usually a church planting movement that springs up near the campus, which then affects the city. RTS has helped birth many churches and ministries all over the country, but especially here in Central Florida,
While Christians know that “here in this world we have no lasting city,” we also have a long tradition of “seeking the good of the city” where God puts us. Not simply by doing good works, but by letting the light of the gospel shine from our churches in word and deed. That will have an impact on the spiritual temperature of any city.