Planting a Church Is Lonely

Editors’ note: 

This article originally appeared in the 9Marks Journal.

For at least the last decade or so, there’s been a deepened interest in urban church planting. Young guys move into big cities with visions of planting a church for the city. They want to live in the neighborhoods that many evangelical churches attempted to escape in previous decades.

In the 1990s, I remember first reading Jim Cymbala’s Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, about the renewal of The Brooklyn Tabernacle. I was mesmerized by the foreign world of 1980s New York City described in his stories. But Cymbala wasn’t giving a vision for the city. He was relaying stories from the front lines.

Famous books about churches in New York City, like Fresh Wind or The Cross and the Switchblade, weren’t calling for a renewed interest in moving to the city. They weren’t encouraging intrepid young pastors to invest their lives there. Instead, they told exotic stories of a faraway land that, at best, excited youth group mission trips.

And if you happened to get up and move to the city, you’d likely receive more warnings about the sexualized and liberal city than encouragements about the prospective good the Lord might do. “What about your kids?” you’d hear. “Do you want them growing up in that environment?”

Things Have Changed

But that was then. Things have changed. To be sure, my wife and I still received those warnings and side-eye glances, but that didn’t characterize my experience. Now, newly minted ministers are coming to the city in droves. Now, it’s common for churches in urban contexts to even have “City” in their name. Now, many churches distinguish themselves with explicit city-oriented mission statements.

This renewed emphasis of urban church planting has even caused weariness among some evangelicals. The weariness isn’t because they believe the city is evil, as previous generations may have, but because they’ve mistaken the emphasis as a focus on the “elites” as opposed to the rural and suburban communities of flyover states.

In New York City, we need a thousand churches planted over the next few decades. That’s not an exaggeration.

While I understand the concern, I’m less than sympathetic. In New York City, we need a thousand churches planted over the next few decades. That’s not an exaggeration. The renewed focus on church planting in cities, especially in New York, is only beginning to see some effect. We probably all know of great stories of churches coming and growing and seeing fruit in the city. But we need more than just a few success stories in a handful of churches. Right now, in Manhattan, only 2 percent to 4 percent of the population claims to be evangelical or “traditional” Christian. To get something close to 8 percent to 10 percent, we don’t just need to hear of three or four great stories of growing churches in New York City; we need 600.

Greater Concern

Yet what may be of greater concern is what’s actually drawing more pastors to the city. Some criticize the “for the city” vision so popular these days as working out to mean “for the white culturally elite of the city.” I’m more sympathetic to that concern.

An enchantment with the city isn’t the same as a biblical love for the city, and it won’t sustain you in the long run.

Even still, I think there’s a more basic problem. Call it a pastoral hunch or a spiritual sense, but for many of us who pastor in places like New York City, we’re enchanted by the city. After all, ministering to elites can mean “being associated with elites.” Ministering to people who work on Broadway or at Google or Twitter or for fashion houses, The New York Times, and NPR can mean we’ll be associated with people who work on Broadway or at Google or Twitter or for fashion houses, The New York Times, and NPR. None of us would ever explicitly say that, but we’re often unaware of the desires of our hearts that drive us to do the things we do.

Strange Loneliness

But what should be communicated to church planters is just how unattractive, humiliating, confusing, tiring, and lonely long-term church planting, revitalizing, and pastoring is, especially in the city. I talk to more homeless neighbors than “cultural elites.” I spend more time calling and waiting for paramedics to help unconscious folks on our front steps than I do giving talks at the Googleplex.

What should be communicated to church planters is just how unattractive, humiliating, confusing, tiring, and lonely long-term church planting, revitalizing, and pastoring is, especially in the city. I talk to more homeless neighbors than ‘cultural elites.’

Office space, if you can afford it, is often makeshift and uncomfortable. Big crowds and white-walled gallery events are primarily found on Instagram and Pinterest.

The transience is breathtaking, too, which makes “church growth” difficult on top of the already hostile environment. One close friend recently explained he led 75 people through their membership class this year. This sounded like excellent news, since we’d been praying his church wouldn’t have to close because of finances. Yet due to the transient nature of city life, his Sunday morning attendance hasn’t changed from last year.

This transience means church planters and revitalizers often struggle with a strange loneliness. Most friends you make will leave within a few years. I was having dinner with a pastor and his wife, and they explained they lost all of their closest friends the past 18 months. Pastors and their wives constantly have to start again with relationships. That can be extremely wearying.

Personally, I’ve struggled with depression for the first time in my life and have found that a common experience among my colleagues. If you know the dynamics of depression, it exasperates the already difficult challenges of ministry.

Church planters and revitalizers often struggle with a strange loneliness. Most friends you make will leave within a few years.

And living spaces are expensive. A one- or two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan ranges from $3,300 to $4,000 per month. And yet most pastors I know serve churches that don’t pay what they need to survive, to take an occasional vacation, and to save. Many pastors go into personal debt. The toll this can take on families is significant.

Before they move, many pastors and their wives aren’t aware of how deep our expectations of comfort are, yet they quickly learn in two-bedroom apartments that are 600 to 700 square feet with no backyard—not to mention little-to-no family support. As a result, pastors are generally as transient as anyone in New York, and transient pastors aren’t a great formula for church renewal.

An enchantment with the city isn’t the same as a biblical love for the city, and it won’t sustain you in the long run.

Count the Cost. Then Come.

I don’t write this description to push away prospective pastors. I’m eager to see a generation of pastors who are aware of and have counted the cost, who have wives who know what it will take and what they will have to sacrifice.

Of course this is true not only in New York City.

My city and maybe yours needs pastors who know what failure feels like and how to respond to it so they will persevere nevertheless. We need pastors with thick prayer lives and an awareness that they may be more insecure than they think.

Success in many churches means having a pastor who knows how to experience rejection, criticism, and failure on Sunday, and yet get back up on Monday to pray and prepare yet another Sunday sermon.

We need pastors who know how to be forgettable and trust God.

We need pastors who know how to be forgettable and trust God. We need pastors who know how to read their hearts and Bibles just as well as they know how to read The New York Times. We need pastors who learn from their mistakes and pray so that they may improve. We need pastors who will be hospitable and listen to their neighbors. We need pastors who pray for their people, pray for their neighbors, pray for the kingdom to come.

Maybe then God will bless us and bring revival. The best pastors doing the best and most fruitful work are prayerful, humble, repentant, teachable, and secure in Christ. We need many more pastors like that.

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