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.