Church Planting and the Urbanization of the Rich

For many years I have prayed for new churches to be started in the city of San Francisco where I live. Recently God has been answering that prayer as church planters of various denominations have moved here. They bring with them great teams, coveted expertise, and more church planting dollars than have ever been seen in this place. Denominations and church planting organizations have joined the bandwagon too. Urban church planting is creating a buzz in many other Western cities. While I am thankful, and even overwhelmed by the burgeoning interest, I am also a little cautious. I trust that the Lord of the Harvest is responding to our Luke 10:2 prayers and sending laborers to this harvest, but I cannot help wondering if the recent popularity of urban church planting is as much a sociological phenomenon as a spiritual one.

Several months ago, Ed Stetzer graciously invited me to blog on his site about the suburbanization of the poor (http://www.edstetzer.com/2011/01/thursday-is-for-thinkers-linda.html). The impetus for the article came from personal observation and was validated by a study from the Brookings Institute (http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2010/0120_poverty_kneebone.aspx). Today’s blog is a companion piece to that one, which focused on the new suburban poor that are being displaced from cities to the far regions of larger metro areas in the name of gentrification.

Not only are the poor being displaced to suburbia, but conversely, the middle and upper middle class are finding their places in cities. They are young people with mini families, singles and empty nesters who all require smaller living spaces. Backyards are optional if not a nuisance. These new suburban style urbanites show great interest in their cities’ arts and entertainment industries, boutique restaurants and shops, and they have enough money to take advantage of these privileges. They are increasingly conscious of their carbon footprints, and do not wish to spend time in traffic driving to work, so they trade in their SUVs for earth-friendly public transportation. They are displacing the poor as fast as old city warehouses districts and government housing can be replaced with high-rise apartments and condominiums.

The church knows how to reach the suburbanites now living in cities better than it knows how to reach the old kind of urbanites. The newcomers are more likely to be politically conservative and culturally Christian. But by the end of the last decade, it was the suburbs that housed the largest, fastest growing poor populations. My question: Does the new found success of urban church planting really indicate a spiritual breakthrough, or are we still reaching the same people who now live in different geographies? Decades ago, many churches abandoned cities. The public sector moved in, offering social services, schools and health care, and some churches did remain to engage in Christ-centric city transformation. In most metros, these same sectors of society have not yet awakened to the shifting patterns mentioned here, and sadly, the poor are once again abandoned.

  • I wholeheartedly agree Linda and your assessment is right on. The disturbing trend is that the urbs are the new burbs in some ways as far as the popularity of church planting in the collective psyche of church planting across North America. Stats still show that roughly 70% of new church plants are in suburban settings but that is because 70% of most metro areas’ populations are also in the suburbs as well. On a positive note what this highlights is that church planters are pretty research-savvy and go to the hotspots of influence in metro areas. Whereas that had been the suburbs the tide is shifting towards the city now.

    On the other hand, you opened up the Pandora’s Box that I’ve been interested as well that I documented in “Metrospiritual: The Geography of Church Planting.” In that, the pull factors of where church planters decide on where to plant is indeed more sociological than what we’ve let on. Surprisingly “God’s call” has the same shaping influences that even non-believers are drawn to. Meaning, the “where” of the location that new planters are moving to runs parallel with the desires of those in the same strata is drawn to as well. Unfortunately, many of the underlying issues of people, whether moving to the burbs or trendy districts in urban areas, is more related to consumption patterns than deeply spiritual desires. If a young church planter is “hip and trendy” then more than likely he’ll plant among those like him which draws him to the city. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, it would simply be helpful for us all to “fess up” and at least admit it.

    The downside is that, whether urban or suburban, we’re still leap-frogging over parts of the city that is “less desirable.” Again, if this is tied to consumption patterns then who would want to move into a more dangerous ghetto or to the urban periphery where poorer minorities are being displaced through gentrification. These are areas which are full of ugly looking strip malls with check-cashing stores and coin-laundromats where people drink gas station coffee and not $4 lattes.

    Church planters are pushed and pulled by the same cultural forces that everyone else is. No surprise, but when everything becomes “God’s call” then we run the risk of saying God prefers gentrified hip neighborhoods or nice manicured suburban master-planned communities because He is certainly drawing a bumper crop of church planters there.

    • Sean, Bingo- and yes, your book Metrospiritual is full of great insights- I highly recommend it! Thanks for this post!

      • Haha, I didn’t mean for it to sound like an infommercial … but if you act today we’ll throw in a set of Sham-WOW towels.

        • Tusiime Herbert

          church plant need a person / someones who understands leaving his or her native land to a place that need a church.

          • Tusiime Herbert

            how can ministers of the gosple who have passion and vision to plant churches in town and villages be supported ? because most people are not reached especially in Africa

    • Kirk Davis

      I agree with all of what’s being said. I’m a African -Amerrican in the Bayview watching this. I’m born and raised in SF. It kind of bothers me to see another hipster Anglo only expression of Christ that only reaches out to that group. It specifically is attractive to that group. Now I know that this is important and that group needs to be reached for Christ but very few of these new upstart have black or Latino representation in there leadership. Thats right I said leadership. Linda is right, I’ve watched the Black population fall to 3.5% in SF when less than 15 years ago we were 12% of the population, which was the national average. This group now lives in Antioch, Vallejo, Stockton, Pittsburg, and Sacremento.
      In the next few months we will be starting a church in the city for the city.
      New Generation Church will be a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-class fellowship of people drawn together by Jesus. We are a new church plant, that believes that God created all ethnicity and culture and paints with very broad brush. We looking to plant in the Bayview or Potrero Hill area. We see these areas fitting the multi-demographics we are looking for.
      We believe that Instead of saving them from something, they are saved for something.
      Kirk D.

      • Jason

        Totally agree with Kirk…one of the strangest phenomena in the Western Christian context to me is the propensity for ‘outreach’ to be done in predominantly ‘ethnic’ communities but very few healthy, vibrant church plants happen in those areas. This has been a point of not only curiosity to me but also some angst. I here too many people touting their calling to minister to the “rich” all the while shunning those in the projects….or at best, doing a coat drive, canned food drive for the needy. Its time to plant churches in the projects and preach the unadulterated Gospel EVERYWHERE!

  • Great insight and great post Linda! The church should always be looking at how it can be biblically cross-cultural and counter-cultural. In other words, looking for those blind-spots that continually beset us.

  • Linda,

    yes, yes. sure, its wonderful to see churches being started in urban and suburban areas. but you rightly point to the indicting evidence that most of these churches are being planted in desirable or early gentrifying neighborhoods.

    those that are planting among the poor and in neighborhoods of disinvestment seem to be overlooked in the church planting literature or church planting is altogether scarce in such communities.

    church planters that relocate among the poor (whether they be in the inner cities or suburbs of America), and plant their lives and their churches there is missing, and needed.

  • Raquel R. Major

    Linda,

    My husband and I attempted to get connected with you because we, too, have a burden for the city. Unfortunately, our attempts have fallen by the wayside because of various things. At the moment we are visiting churches and have attended the First Baptist Church at Octavia St. and the Grace Fellowship Community Church affiliated with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. In both of these churches, we see the diversity that is reflective of the city’s population and we like that.

    You are so right on in your blog about the present trends we see in recent church plants. In fact, a couple of years ago, my husband and I visited a group that was laying the groundwork for a new church. However, we felt that it was targeting the young and upwardly mobile. As far as we could determine, the average age of the group must have been 30. We are in our sixties and stuck out like sore thumbs. The following week, we had lunch with the couple leading the group. They confirmed our suspicion that having us in their group would be a negative since they were trying to reach younger, upwardly mobile folks, which we are neither. When we parted ways, something bothered me, but I couldn’t put my finger on whatever it was. I believe we should try to be as effective as we can possibly be in our outreach – do research, learn the demographics, etc. etc. but where are we heading?

  • Matthew, You may be interested in the work of movein See http://movein.to – They are also on facebook. I just lifted this from their facebook page: Company Overview: MoveIn is an effort to see praying teams of Christians moving into some of the most broken neighbourhood patches in Toronto and beyond. With a cup of cold water in one hand and the good news in the other, we are praying that these communities will discover Christ’s love and pass him on. In some cases, churches will be planted. In others, missionaries will be raised up. In every case, we are praying for Christ’s “Kingdom come” to lives and communities from “[Toronto] … to the ends of the earth.”
    Mission: Moving into unlikely neighbourhoods to share Christ’s love

    Raquel, my e-mail address is [email protected] – I would love to meet you!

  • Great insights, Linda. We are seeing the same thing where we are. I pastor a church in a suburban context of homes built in the 70’s-80’s. We are seeing a shift of focus toward revitalizing downtown and to people moving to smaller bedroom communities, leaving the suburbs in our area to be inhabited by immigrants and lower income people. People with money continue to move to areas that are more trendy and suddenly, church planters feel called to plant churches among them. Many of these people are leaving churches that they were already a part of to move to more desirable areas for them and their families. I have often thought that I would have no real desire to pastor those people because I know that they are so devoted to safety, security, and wealth, and being trendy that they are willing to sell their home and move their family to be a part of it. At that point, church just becomes another luxury item that can be consumed and they will go to the one that best meets their needs.

    I say that as a general comment, recognizing of course, that there are legitimate needs in every community and often, people will make such a move and be completely demoralized realizing that their search did not give them what they desired. Marriages break up and children rebel because the quest for utopia did not satisfy. Here, I am just talking about moving to be trendy, whether it is to urban areas or to exurban outlying communities full of “sustainable living.” Churches should be there to minister to people, no matter why they made the move – as long as we know what is going on and we address it for what it actually is. If we are caught up in being trendy too, then we will not have real hope for people running after a newer version of the American Dream. We need discernment and to know ourselves.

  • Raquel,

    That church needs you. It desperately needs older people to model to younger people what a life lived for Christ over the long haul looks like. The fact that they don’t know that speaks of a level of spiritual immaturity that is concerning. If a church has a chance to be multi-generational and refuses that chance, it is the same thing as a church that could and should be multicultural because its community is, but chooses instead to just focus on one race. It is the Homogenous Unit Principle run amok and I wish that we could put such thinking away once and for all as damaging to the Kingdom.

    • Raquel R. Major

      Alan,

      Homogeneity anywhere concerns me. One of the issues our ministry in Indonesia faced was whether to have a church for the Indonesian converts and a separate one for the Chinese converts because of the strong feelings of resentment each had for the other. And I thought, is Galatians 3:28 not applicable here? It mentions three things that divide – race, social status and gender. As to mixing generations, I agree with your view. The young can learn a lot from the old. However, the old can also benefit from the young with their energy and zeal for God. We have also sat in a couple of churches where the old could not accept the ways and music of the young and it results in unloving relationships.

      • “We have also sat in a couple of churches where the old could not accept the ways and music of the young and it results in unloving relationships.”

        That is also a problem and many have spoken against it. One reason for the emergence of new forms of church is because older church forms are not interested in changing or accepting younger people. That is definitely a problem.

        But, when churches made up of younger people then turn around and push away older people wanting to join with them, they have completely missed the point. It is not about age, race, gender, socioeconomic status or anything like that. It is about God’s Spirit and Kingdom and if you reject people on the basis of surface things, you are rejecting the Kingdom and replacing it with crass marketing strategies.

        Keep going and striving to be an encouragement wherever you go and don’t worry about those who are missing the ways of the Kingdom. These types of stories bother me.

        • Love the conversation.
          Alan, the new pastor at FBC San Francisco is pretty wonderful. He is a kind and wise younger man who is there to pastor all kinds of people. He also is an excellent preacher. Really thankful that God called him here.

  • Here’s the link to the promo video for a church planting movement that we are trying to launch in Wilkes Barre, PA. The city is only 3.1% evangelical…

    Please pass this along to any pastors, churches, groups, and individuals who might be interested in networking with us!

  • Kehinde23

    One interesting concept that is stated indirectly is that within any healthy, growing church is the sense of community. Whether the church is in an urban area or in a suburban area people that feel welcomed, significant, and valued will return. I’m not sure the “TRICK” is to do it in certain locations. If grace, hope, & redemption are felt within the congregation then people can be healed. Urban areas can be revitalized and can provide a healthy region of habitation.

  • The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy. So many of our low-income, at-risk neighborhoods experience this as a tangible reality on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the church has largely abrogated these places. If we could do saturation planting in these areas that have become Spiritual Strongholds of evil, if we could/would join believers already embedded in these neighborhoods in seeking the good of the city, not only individuals, but neighborhoods, whole communities could be touched and transformed by the love of God. Many years ago as I went into a new neighborhood, I stopped in front of a house that still had Christmas decorations on the window well into spring. As I prayed, the Lord showed me that I was about to land like I was on a beach head without ever having thought about the resistance the Lord had already raised up behind enemy lines. The Lord made me realize that he had been in this community long before I came and that there were people there already praying and seeking the good of their neighborhood. I first needed to get in touch with the local resistance before coming in, to find out what we could do to help them win back their own community. Bless you for caring.

    • Bless you for caring too, Rick. And thanks for telling your story!

  • K Haasz

    Hi, although I am in the UK this is such a helpful article.

    Here we don’t have quite the same sort of situation – yes a lot of rich live in outer suburbs, we have seen the doughnut pattern of the rich leaving the middle and then leaving the inner suburbs for the outer, etc.

    But we also have whole council estates (local government housing) which were a replacement for bombed out areas and slums but which have often been neglected and monochrome. In some cities these areas exist solely on the outskirts and may have wealthier people living closer to the city, in my case there are a number of these estates scattered through the city – Leeds in Yorkshire, but the wealthiest areas may be further from them or have a much smaller amount of such housing.

    Of course there are also older properties which are owned or, increasingly, rented privately.

    We are/were* seeing gentrification, but the new high rise luxury flats (apartments) are in the very inner city, just circling the central shopping area. These tend to replace the old uninhabited retail/industrial areas rather than affecting existing housing or existing communities. Indeed, some luxury building is less than 1/4 mile from Lincoln Green – a very small council estate. The estate has some shops (stores) which is both good and very rare, but the tenants of the new luxury blocks would probably not consider shopping there.

    Town centre stores show more disturbance than populations, in that it is the cheaper stores and those aiming at the poorest that are being displaced in favour of the ultra-upscale department stores – which get long-term low rent deals to draw them in. So, the poor continue to live within 5-10 mins walk or drive of the town centre shops, but can no longer afford to purchase anything there. Instead they must go to out of town malls, even though many of the poorest have no cars.

    *2008 bank crash has frozen much redevelopment/refurbishment in Leeds and in the UK generally. The apartments mentioned above are now being unsuccessfully sold for “any reasonable offer” rather than the utterly huge original prices. However, a huge entertainment venue is still being built, just between Lincoln Green and the main shopping area. This is a venue that most local residents will not be able to afford.

    I live in a rented council house on the next nearest estate and have been aware of this process for a longtime, impossible not to see the building and the reshaping of the landscape, but while being very aware of the issues of poverty and injustice behind these changes, I hadn’t thought about how it might affect evangelism or church planting. BTW My church, which is in a nearby Victorian Terraced area, has a congregation of about 120 – big for inner city UK and has around 34-38 ethnic groups, some of whom, such as myself, are children of immigrants in a past generation, whilst others are new arrivals and asylum seekers/refugees. God gave us a prophetic focus on “My house shall be a House of Prayer ….” We were so worried about praying, we didn’t notice that God was fulfilling the second half ” … for ALL Nations!”

    Thanks again.

    Karoly (Hungarian for Charles)

  • Dave Nelson

    This may be too simplistic…but really, socially speaking, it is generally easier to talk to those who are most like you. If there is a problem in the amount of delivery to the poor, it may simply be economics. It is probably easier to imagine the aforementioned “rich” funding a church plant to people like themselves. Who are the people who tend to invest in business? Those with financial resources. Who is able to pay for the kind of churches we are encouraged to “vision” into existence? Those with financial resources. How many church planters want to go with their families and be truly desperately poor doing it? Maybe too simplistic…but it is part of the problem.

    As a missionary, I also know from firsthand experience that moving into a community where you are distinctly different from everyone around you is an exceptional challenge. To be honest, not many are built to handle this. You will always be different no matter how close/integrated you want to be. This doesn’t mean you aren’t loved or appreciated – but everyone knows you are distinct. You can’t change the culture you’re from and will never become the culture you enter. This may be why Paul encouraged believers to choose leaders from their own communities. There is truly only one “cultural” re-birth and Jesus initiates us into it. Live the Gospel of the Kingdom in all contexts and places, before all those you meet.

  • Tusiime Herbert

    I believing God to plant a church in one of the town called IBANDA TOWN here in uganda stand with in prayer for provision and break through . the CHURCH WILL BE ALL IBANDA COMMUNITY CHURCH . I ask to pray for me and our proposed budget need to launch church plant