Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a surge in church planting in cities. As more Americans have moved to the center of the nation’s metropolitan areas, so has the evangelical church. These recent church plants are relentlessly place-centered; in other words, their mission is defined by their geography. They distinguish themselves as a “city” ministry, often even in their church name. They endeavor to be a church “for the city,” encouraging their members to “love the city” and “serve the city.”

“The city” defines this new generation of urban church plants.

But what precisely does that mean to these ministries and their leaders? What histories, cultural symbols, stereotypes, and demographic groups are associated with it? And, most importantly, what influence does that conceptualization of “the city” have on ministry strategies, programs, and relationships?

Imagined City

Exploring these questions is the aim of a thought-provoking new book, The Urban Church Imagined: Religion, Race, and Authenticity in the City. Using an ethnographic analysis of a church plant in Chicago (called “Downtown Church” throughout the book), sociologists Jessica Barron and Rhys Williams examine “the intersections among the cultural understandings and social structures of race, gender, and economic class that are involved with the attempt at founding an urban church” (163).

The book presents the results of 18 months of fieldwork (i.e., embedded participation in the church community by one of the authors); extensive field notes; 55 interviews of pastors, lay leaders, and members; and detailed content analysis of sermons and church marketing materials.

While it tells the story of one church that “self-consciously uses ‘the city’ and aspects of its historical and current imagery as the basis for establishing itself and attracting members” (3), The Urban Church Imagined had me, a church planter, constantly wondering if it might be the story of my church, too.

Racialized Urban Imaginary

The central conceptual framework through which the authors examine “Downtown Church” is one they call the “racialized urban imaginary.” It consists of “a constellation of cultural images and themes” (19) and forms “the backdrop of thinking about what the city is and should be, and how a congregation who wants to be a church of and for the city should look and act” (173).

The racialized urban imaginary is described as an imaginary because it involves “a set of cultural ideas and images that forms a mental picture” (13); it is called racialized because the urban imaginary used is “deeply intertwined with perceptions and understandings about race and diversity” (19).

The Urban Church Imagined: Religion, Race, and Authenticity in the City

The Urban Church Imagined: Religion, Race, and Authenticity in the City

NYU Press (2017). 240 pp.

The Urban Church Imagined illuminates the dynamics surrounding white urban evangelical congregations’ approaches to organizational vitality and diversifying membership. Many evangelical churches are moving to urban, downtown areas to build their congregations and attract younger, millennial members. The urban environment fosters two expectations. First, a deep familiarity and reverence for popular consumer culture, and second, the presence of racial diversity. Church leaders use these ideas when they imagine what a “city church” should look like, but they must balance that with what it actually takes to make this happen.

NYU Press (2017). 240 pp.

So, what are popular notions of “city life” according to this racialized urban imaginary? The city is a place consisting of the upwardly mobile and hip, “a site of trendy excitement—a place for sophisticated, enthusiastic, and fashionable people” (4). “Urban” recalls “images of young people, cutting-edge style, and progressive cultural politics—instantiated in such phrases as ‘Young Urban Professionals’ or in brandings such as ‘Urban Outfitters’” (8). One Downtown Church pastor puts it succinctly: “You know, ‘cause that is what Chicago is: on-the-go young people” (27).

According to the racialized urban imaginary, diversity is assumed to be “‘natural,’ even definitional, to ‘the city’” (4). In the words of the one of the pastors: “Diversity is already built into the city, so people expect it wherever they go. . . . So if you have a church here and you don’t have it at your church, then you are doing something wrong” (72). This association between place and race is seen in the way that “urban” has also become “a euphemism for ‘black’ in describing neighborhoods, cultural styles of music and dress, and social problems such as gangs or drugs” in mainstream discourse (7).

Yet this celebration of diversity is also constrained by assumptions (or preferences) pertaining to economic class. “We are more like a ‘city’ church, you know, located in the downtown area where everything is going on,” one pastor explains. “We are not an ‘inner-city’ church, no way. We are more of a ‘downtown’ church, you know, right in the center of downtown life” (42).

The racialized urban imaginary is also shaped by the perspective of American Protestantism. While it has traditionally viewed the city as “corrupt, fallen, and potentially dangerous,” the church has also simultaneously viewed it as a “mission field,” a place ripe for reform and conversion (6). Even as we’ve seen a recent shift in attitudes toward the city among evangelical church planters, this latter missional orientation to the city clearly endures. And so, Downtown Church casts a vision to “reach” the “unchurched” in the city (31). As its pastor explains, “Chicago is . . . the most unchurched city in the country.” Then drawing from the well-known trope of the decadence of urban life, he elaborates: “There are more liquor stores in this city than there are churches” (28).

As the church relies on this set of conceptualizations about what constitutes “the city,” the racialized urban imaginary manifests in church programs, norms, and practices. At Downtown Church, this means professionally executed worship services with a deliberately “non-church” atmosphere (30); non-traditional “urban” marketing strategies; the considerable use of technology; the carefully controlled placement of black members in visible places; and a decidedly “Urban Outfitters” aesthetic.

While the ideas and practices of Downtown Church—or any church, for that matter—may be subject to critique, Barron and Williams clearly state that the goal of the study isn’t to determine whether these ideas about the city are “correct” or valid; rather, it is to demonstrate “how these varied and oftentimes dueling imaginations rely on racialized, classed, and place-based understandings of the city of Chicago and of its urban residents” (13).

In other words, the critical, underexamined, twofold question for city church planters is this: What “city” do you have in mind, and where do those notions come from?

Key Ideas for ‘City Church’ Ministries

While many of the book’s discussions of social theory and interactions with prior research may not seem immediately relevant to many practitioners, three key concepts are worth considering.

1. Imaginary

I found the language of the “imaginary” in relation to urban church planting to be particularly helpful. It aptly describes one tendency in evangelical urban church planting: the reduction of “the city” to an idea or abstraction.

Of course, it makes sense to reference “the city” when we speak of the renewal of an urban place’s social fabric, infrastructure, and institutions, rather than of individuals alone (cf. Jer. 29:5–7). But it’s a curious development when city churches often describe their ministries of mercy and compassion primarily in terms of “loving the city” and “serving the city,” when the call to “love” and “serve” in Scripture is directed more typically—and more personally and concretely—toward “neighbor” or “one another” (e.g., James 2:8; 1 Pet. 4:10; 1 John 4:11). When we say we are a church “for the city,” whom or what exactly do we have in mind?

When we say we are a ‘for the city,’ whom or what exactly do we have in mind?

If “the city” has become too much of a concept, it may be owing in part to the “frontier” mystique and grandeur commonly attributed to cities by church planters who didn’t grow up in cities. One repeated theme in The Urban Church Imagined is the location and background of Downtown Church’s pastors. Not only are they new to the urban landscape; they commute to Chicago from Indiana suburbs on a weekly basis.

One congregant comments: “I don’t think people from Indiana understand Chicago. . . . I just don’t think [the pastor] knows what it means to be a church in the city.” Whether or not that assessment is fair, it speaks vividly to the inherent limitations of pastors who are new to a city but whose ministry identity is built on the idea of “the city.” Yet this is the profile and experience of most evangelical urban church planters.

2. Commodification of Diversity

Barron and Williams keenly observe how Downtown Church—a satellite plant of a megachurch in Indiana—indiscriminately adopts the consumer orientation of the contemporary urban economy. This entails shaping its ministry’s marketing strategies and worship aesthetic according to “the imagined lifestyle of a particular demographic—in this case, the highly prized young professionals with disposable income and discerning cultural tastes that crave distinction” (48). These observations raise important questions about the way in which church plants and church planters—in the effort to “gather” and in the name of “contextualization”—may actually be fostering the consumerist appetites of its members.

This consumer orientation also has implications for the way the church relates to racial diversity and its members of color. Not only has “the ‘urban experience’ itself . . . become a commodity for consumption” (7), but due to the racialization of the urban, diversity has also been commodified. The city is a place where the affluent and educated middle class has come to expect to consume diversity “as experience, as entertainment, and as a part of personal identity” (13). This may especially be the tendency of churches who attract educated and culturally liberal “young professionals.” After all, as the authors point out helpfully:

There is a classed aspect to diversity, as it can connote a certain cosmopolitan and cultured status; in that sense, cultural consumers become patrons who consume and appreciate diversity’s contents. Others, of course, then become the “objects” to be consumed. (166)

In his book on the effect of gentrification in Washington, D.C., Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, sociologist Derek S. Hyra makes similar observations regarding the class-based commodification of urban blackness. He describes how housing and commercial developers actively promoted the Shaw neighborhood’s historic black identity as a strategy for attracting white consumers. “Black branding” is what he calls this marketing approach. “Not long ago, an urban community’s association with blackness was mostly perceived as detrimental,” he observes.

But nowadays . . . neighborhood-based organizations, real estate developers, restaurant owners, and urban planners commodify and appropriate aspects of blackness to promote tourism, homeownership, and community redevelopment.

A related trend is one Hyra calls “living the wire.” Young people seek the excitement of living in neighborhoods with the gritty, “ghetto” profile of the city portrayed in the TV series The Wire:

Living the wire refers to newcomers’ preferences for moving into an inner-city neighborhood because it has been branded as hip or cool, which, to a certain extent, is associated with danger, excitement, poverty, and blackness: iconic ghetto stereotypes.

This discussion serves as a call to discernment in our present cultural moment, when the pursuit of racial diversity is as popular as it’s ever been in the American church.

City churches and church planters: Are we perpetuating the commodification of diversity?

City churches and church planters: Are we perpetuating the commodification of diversity? Do our ministries slide into a form of “black branding” or “diversity branding” or “living the wire”?

3. Managed Diversity 

Closely related to commodified diversity is the concept of “managed diversity,” which Barron and Williams describe as

the hierarchical control of diversity that maintains its usefulness to the goals of the organization but [keeps] it from threatening either internal church authority or the external religious identity of the church. (96)

For Downtown Church, this means being a church that isn’t “too white” but also not “too black”—a church seeking to legitimate their commitment to diversity while still being “comfortable” and “safe enough to experience for the middle-class consumer” (77) who is “in the market for a ‘less white’ religious experience” (82).

Thus, black members are carefully positioned in visible volunteer roles (e.g., greeters, ushers, musicians, singers), but not all black members—only those who “had a ‘great look’” (76), who “display an upwardly mobile status, which requires the accomplishment of a set of related styles, gestures, vernacular, and behaviors considered culturally appropriate to the ‘downtown vibe’ church leaders are trying to cultivate” (96). Black volunteers are placed in the spotlight, yet church leadership remains overwhelmingly white; thus, “black members experience both hyper-exposure and invisibility” (87).

The preacher commonly makes references to famous black rap moguls, celebrities, athletes, or issues in the hip-hop world. Yet the church makes little effort to provide spaces for substantive discussions about race and reconciliation. Requests by lay leaders to incorporate black gospel music are rebuffed; white evangelical music and worship styles (e.g., Hillsong) remains dominant, an example of the leadership’s pursuit of “diversity” while still “implicitly privileging whiteness and white normative styles of worship” (98).

In the end, even while the congregation’s racial mix is greatly appreciated, “diversity” is perceived by its members of color to be “an object with instrumental value for church leaders in that it may help them gain congregants” (95).

Intentionality is commonly cited in ministry literature as a critical component to building multicultural churches, and rightly so. However, Barron and Williams’s treatment of “managed diversity” and “race management” exposes the effects of intentionality misapplied, particularly when it perpetuates the implicit stigmatization of blackness, centers white middle-class comfort levels with race and blackness, or amounts to the taking advantage of the “racial utility” (171) of minority members.

Limitations of a Sociological Study

The Urban Church Imagined is an academic book. Ministry practitioners will find certain sections, particularly those reviewing prior research, to be a slog. Its target isn’t the church per se. Nevertheless, I found this unique, sociological perspective to be rewarding. The book offers a refreshing look into church planting from an outsider’s view.

Further, as the authors concede, there are limitations to their choice of a single congregation as the unit of analysis, as overly broad conclusions could be extrapolated (18). However, the detailed case study approach makes it easier for readers to compare its observations and analyses with their own context, thus engaging readers in a uniquely personal way.

As a church planter myself, it was at times hard not to get defensive or self-righteous by justifying similarities with and celebrating differences from the church being critiqued. But in moments when my ego was finally overcome, reading The Urban Church Imagined yielded rich insight.

Urban church planters as well as ministry leaders seeking to understand the future of ministry in “the city” will benefit from The Urban Church Imagined. After all, as long as church planting in urban centers and the development of multicultural churches are still trending, the question needs to be examined further: What does “city” mean to the “city church” planter, and how do these understandings influence the ministry practices of the church “for the city”?