When Church Planting Harms the City

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Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

The world is urbanizing. Cities are growing at astonishing rates—some estimates claim that by 2050, as much as 70 percent of the world’s population will be in urban centers.

We need churches in cities worldwide, and church planting is needed to keep pace with this move. Heady numbers and figures are often thrown around. But there’s a darker side sometimes hidden within this narrative.

As people move into cities, housing prices increase, and long-term residents can be pushed out, whether through formal means or by natural consequence. Half a century ago, a British sociologist recognized this happening in London, and she coined the term “gentrification.”

Since that time, the modern phenomenon of gentrification has divided opinion. Is it good? Bad? Like much else, it’s not that simple. Urban revitalization and gentrification are more complicated stories than simple statistics can tell.

Importance of Place

Place matters. The Bible’s narrative emphasizes this from beginning (the world God created and the garden he planted; Gen. 1–2) to end (the renewed and restored creation and heavenly city; Rev. 21–22). Therefore, humanity’s longing for home—for a place of rest—is woven into our DNA.

Humanity’s longing for home—for a place of rest—is woven into our DNA.

All of us trace our stories, insofar as we can, back to places. Regions and cities are proud of their music, food, and cultural/historical distinctions. Our city—Washington D.C.—is no different.

It wasn’t until I (Shaun) left the D.C. area that I realized not everyone knew Go-go music or the glories of mumbo sauce. And it wasn’t until I moved back that I learned about the history of migration and flight that lead to D.C. being a disproportionately poor, and predominately black, city. These realities shape not only the city but also its residents—particularly D.C. natives.

Loss of Place

This is where urbanization and gentrification become a justice issue. As the affluent move in—and newer, more expensive housing follows—poorer, under-resourced residents are displaced. Underprivileged residents can no longer afford to live in their home and place—sometimes the place their family has called “home” for generations.

For this reason, University of Edinburgh urban geographer Tom Slater called gentrification “the spatial expression of economic inequality.” At best, in other words, gentrification disregards the poor. At worst, it intentionally disenfranchises and displaces them.

At best, gentrification disregards the poor. At worst, it intentionally disenfranchises and displaces them.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, how we talk about and engage in urban church planting can directly contribute to the injustices of gentrification. When we speak of “transforming the city” while building churches that cater specifically to incoming residents, we are little different from the overpriced organic food mart or coffee shop. When we bring in large teams to start new churches, we can contribute to increased property taxes and living costs, creating extra burdens for the city’s poor.

When we act as though we are finally bringing the gospel to our cities, we often dishonor the work God has been doing through existing churches, and we belittle Christians who have been laboring in them. In short, we compound the problem.

Though our churches cannot change the reality of gentrification, we can lead toward a more theologically sound and just approach to engaging cities. Here are five things we’ve learned as we’ve sought this approach.

1. Test your conviction.

Have you considered that planting an urban church may not be the right thing for you to do? Perhaps God would have you get involved in urban church ministry through pastoring an existing church. Or maybe planting in the rural or suburban community where you grew up is more fitting.

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, how we talk about and engage in urban church planting can directly contribute to the injustices of gentrification.

Cities are trendy. It’s increasingly where the young, cool, and educated are flocking to flourish. But an unspoken side effect of the urban church-planting movement is the neglect of rural communities that need healthy, gospel-centered churches too.

2. Learn and embrace the history of your city.

When I (Bill) first moved to D.C., we would jokingly say it was “the city no one was from.” That’s because the initial core drawn to our new church were part of the city’s swirling transient population, not its long-term rooted residents. There came a point when we realized the implications, and I publicly repented to our church and challenged us to reach all the people in our city. This meant we had a lot to learn, and needed to take a much humbler posture toward the history of this place.

3. Celebrate historic churches.

There’s a common refrain among church planters that goes something like this: “There are only six churches that preach the gospel in D.C., but we’re going to see that change.” Not only is that statement false, it’s also denigrating to historic churches who have faithfully provided a vibrant gospel witness for generations.

We meet in the building of one of D.C.’s oldest congregations, a historic African American church located on the same corner since 1838. We’ve embraced and celebrated that church’s rich history and faithful witness. Our congregations are different in many ways, but we desire to see our host church flourish and for the story of God’s work in that place to be told.

4. Invest in ministries that already exist.

Most cities are home to other good ministries. When we deliberately find and partner with them, we acknowledge a few things: (1) We have something to learn; (2) God has been working in our city long before we started and will continue working long after we leave; (3) We are not the center or savior of our cities.

5. Be patient.

Many long-term residents are rightly jaded toward transience. Church plants in gentrifying cities already face skepticism just by being something new. We can help overcome that skepticism through rooting ourselves long-term, serving our neighbors, devoting ourselves to good work, and celebrating the history and culture of the city.

All of this takes time. It won’t happen overnight. But one effective way to be a disruptive witness in a transient city is to teach and model this kind of humble patience.

Planting Humbly

Urban church plants have an opportunity to step into rapidly changing communities and bring love, justice, and peace. The apostle Paul spent time in Athens, meeting people on their turf, talking to them, learning about what they thought and why they thought it. He was even able to quote their favorite poets back to them.

We, too, have the responsibility to plant and pastor churches that are sensitive to the realities of all our neighbors, especially the most vulnerable. This is key if we are to truly do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before our God as we plant churches for his renown.

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