A couple months ago I had the opportunity to join a few dozen denominational and network leaders in NYC to talk urban church planting with Tim Keller.
If you’re not familiar with Keller, he and his wife planted Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan almost thirty years ago. Despite the challenges of ministering in one of our nation's most progressive and post-Christian cities, Redeemer has since grown to over 5,000 in attendance and helped plant over 250 new churches in 48 cities around the world.
So when Tim Keller speaks on what he sees happening in urban centers and what it means for future ministry, I lean in and take notes. This conversation in particular has been bouncing around in my head a lot since our time together. For those paying attention to what is happening culturally, currently involved in ministry in a large metro area or considering doing so in the future, I think there is a lot here for us:
Five Trends In Cities And Their Surrounding Areas:
In the mid to late 1900’s, many U.S. cities saw an exodus out of the city and into the suburbs.
Starting at the turn of the century, however, this trend began to reverse in what has been called the “fifth migration.” Consider that from 1950-1980 almost no major U.S. city grew in population. But over the past fifteen years almost all but a couple of the biggest cities are growing in population.
Now the why’s behind this trend are many - immigration, new urbanism, capital flow, etc. But one reason I think is particularly worth noting for all in ministry is this: American Millennials are significantly more interested in living in cities and their broader metroplex areas than generations before them.
As someone who planted and pastored a church in Nebraska, we saw a small glimpse of some of the ramifications of this up close.
We planted in the state capital where many Millennials from small towns came for work or to go to school. Many of them never left. The result was a high concentration of young people in our city (big opportunity) and a shrinking number of young people in many of the communities from which they came (big challenge).
Keller would argue this is one of the many reasons we need to be planting more churches in cities and their surrounding areas. And I agree with him.
However, I think it's also worth pointing out that the migration of young people coupled with increased city-focused planting in recent years has also created a growing need in rural areas as well.
Whether you find yourself ministering in rural American, a city center or, as we will see, a suburban context, the opportunities and challenges of “Reurbanization” are significant.
Gentrification often has a negative connotation associated with it when it comes up in conversation. In reality, it's a very complex issue that even those who seek the good of their city can end up contributing to.
For example, if you have a passion to help raise the quality of under-served and under-resourced schools, as the last church we pastored did, you often can end up contributing to gentrification.
Helping to make a place more desirable to live will in time increase demand where supply is inherently limited. This makes it more expensive and in time drives lower income families out as higher income families move in.
“Even when you try to do good,” Keller notes, “it is inevitable.”
Now I realize I am grossly oversimplifying the issue here and not discussing the many variables or decisions that have historically caused unjust and unnecessary gentrification to occur. But my aim here is simply to point out that gentrification is a very complex issue and no one really knows the solution.
However, if you plant in an urban context, it is very important you be aware of the dynamics involved.
As more people move into city centers and many more are driven outward, suburbs, towns, everything in the metroplex is becoming more urbanized.
Why is this so important?
One, this helps explain why Millennials are not exclusively moving to city centers. Many are, but many others are choosing to move into suburban areas around the city as well.
Secondly, It means suburbs increasingly require urban skills to reach.
Consider there was a time when much of a city’s poverty, for example, was centralized in the city. (Btw, this is also why many Boomers in non-city areas still view cities as dangerous places to avoid.) As cities continue to grow and become more expensive, however, suburbs are becoming more and more diverse in all kinds ways - socioeconomically, racially, culturally, you name it.
In other words, the suburbs increasingly look like the city. Urban dynamics now dominate the entire metroplex.
This means ministers and church planters in the suburbs are going to require a set of skills once reserved only for those ministering in the city in order to be effective.
4. The Vanishing Neighbor
In Next-Door Neighbors: The Crisis Of Urban Anonymity, Mark Dunkelman argues there are three levels of human connectivity: the Band, the Village and the Tribe.
The Band are the people you really know. They are the people you are closest with - your family, your friends, etc - those you know most intimately.
The Tribe are all of those people you share an important characteristic with. They are other people of your race, your city, your denomination, etc.
The Village is the place where “you may not know everybody personally, but you know someone personally who knows everybody.” It’s that place that is small and connected enough where you know many people personally and even if you don’t know someone, you know someone else who knows that someone.
If you grew up in a small town, as I did, you know exactly what we’re talking about. It’s the place with one, maybe two degrees of separation. The place where if something happens to someone in the community, everyone seems to know about it. There’s a certain level of trust in business relationships, for example, because no one is really truly a stranger.
Sociologists point out that so much that happens in human society happens at the Village level. It is incredibly important. If you don’t know people on a Village level, for example, transactions become very expensive, businesses don’t get started, participatory democracy is replaced by bureaucratic top-down government, etc.
But what Dunkelman points out is that in urban life today "the Village" is going away.
The result? City areas are increasingly full of lonely people.
They don’t send their kids to the same schools. They aren't connected through what were once natural points of intersection. They don’t know each other.
And while a church planter like myself see a great opportunity here for gospel fruit, this also presents a significant challenge, even for those seeking to reach Millennials who at times vocalize a desire for such connection.
Keller points out that Millennials want the Village and they don’t want the Village. They want the feel of the Village, but not the accountability and social capital of the Village.
So much like their Gen-X and Boomer counterparts, most remain isolated.
The last election has been framed in many different ways - white people versus non-white people, blue collar people versus the poor, etc. Keller notes, however, that the best indicator to how you voted was how densely populated your region was or wasn’t.
The more rural your region is, the more likely you were to vote for Donald Trump. The more urban you are, the more likely you were to vote for someone else.
So while those in rural areas may have been generally happy with the outcome of the election, in urban areas it has created very high levels of tension, division and polarization.
It has also created increased hostility towards professing Christians. Fair or no, those outside of the faith generally associate Christians with the “evangelical” voting block that overwhelmingly voted Trump in office. As a result, Keller points out there is more hostility right now in cities than he can recall in his lifetime.
This obviously represents a whole host of challenges for anyone seeking to minister or plant a church in urban areas.
So here's a summary of what the North American reality increasingly looks like these days:
more into metroplexes
more hostile to religion and faith
more unequal economically
more lonely and detached individuals
more polarized and partisan
Anyone considering pastoring or church planting in a city or its metroplex cannot afford to ignore these realities.
This is increasingly the new normal.
As we move into the future, pastors and church planters are going to need to be able to engage these realities head on while helping those they minister to do the same.
Interested in reading more? Here are some recommendations:
- The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City by Alan Ehrenhalt
- Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser
- Next-Door Strangers: The Crisis of Urban Anonymity (free)
- EFCA Today's Winter 2015 issue (free)
Aaron Loy serves on the Creo Collective Movement Team and as the Associate Director of Church Planting for the EFCA's Southeast District. This article originally appeared on his personal blog at www.aarongloy.com.