Urban Churches and Gentrification

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Thomas Terry and Joshua Ryan Butler share their experiences pastoring in gentrifying cities and suggest several methods for ensuring that churches engage well with existing communities and churches.

The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check video before quoting.

Thomas Terry: I think if we, as Christians, are desiring to engage our cities, then we can’t help but think about the realities of gentrification. I think a lot of people kind of disconnect gentrification, and think, “Oh, that’s just an economic issue. It really doesn’t have any bearing on the church. You know, it’s just the way the world is. You know, people come in. They buy things. They buy a property, and that’s just the way life is.”

But I think we have to look at it from a pastoral perspective, and see how it impacts localized communities where all they’ve known, especially in cities where you have community churches that have been in existence for 20, 30 years, and that’s all these people know. Gentrification has a way of coming in and dismantling people’s whole paradigm, their whole way of thinking about church and community. And that actually does a disservice to engaging the culture, the city that we live in with the message of the gospel. How can they trust that we care for these people’s souls when we care nothing about their buildings, nothing about their homes, nothing about their neighborhoods?

We somehow disconnect their social issues from the gospel, and that really impedes a healthy gospel witness. So, one of the things my church did when we were looking for a church building was that we identified particular areas in Portland that we decided were completely off limits just because they were heightened gentrification areas. And we did not want to ruin our gospel reputation by coming into a neighborhood and bringing in all these people who are not part of the neighborhood.

That would do no good. When we think about engaging our communities with the gospel, we think about the people in our immediate, two-, three-mile radius. How could we, with a clear conscience, engage these people after we just stripped away their congregation, their houses, their neighborhoods, their barbershops? To me, it seems unchristian to go into a neighborhood, dismantle their neighborhood, and then plant a Christian flag, and say, “Now, let’s do the work of ministry.”

What would be better is to be the church that goes into these neighborhoods and help empower these folks who are struggling. Give them resources to maintain their communities, to help them thrive in this community so that they can do the heavy lifting of evangelism in their own context.

I think we, in many ways, we have, like, the white savior complex that says, “Well, we would be more effective if we came into their neighborhoods, and we established all these churches.” Well, maybe that’s not the most effective way to do ministry. Maybe the best way is to empower these local churches who’ve been in these neighborhoods forever who have strong relationships, 20, 30 years, 50 years in some cases.

Help them to sustain their neighborhood churches and their buildings for the sake of the gospel. We only think of the gospel in this just, very word-based, didactic way. “Well, just preach Jesus.” And yes, that’s a facet of it, but what if we came and empowered localized communities to preach the gospel to their people? It will be much more dynamic and helpful, I think, in my opinion.

Joshua Butler: I helped pastor a church for about 15 years. Back in the year 2000, we were part of a church-planting movement focusing on cities and cities where there might be low gospel presence. So I was in Portland, Oregon, and saw a lot, got to do a lot of amazing things. As I think about that first decade, God was moving in some really powerful ways.

But in retrospect, I would say I was naive. I think many of us, we were naive to the processes and realities of gentrification that were occurring all around us and that we were a part of. We were embedded in this return of people desiring to live in cities and move. These were people who tended to be more affluent, raising up home prices, and rental prices, and retail space prices and all that. I was ignorant at the time but still am learning that Portland has a horrible history of racism, particularly toward the African American community. And just some of the realities that the African American community in Portland has experienced historically were just heartbreaking to learn more about.

And then to realize in retrospect that we were a part of bigger processes in our city that were economically pushing many African American families from those historic neighborhoods, homes, and the culture that was embedded within those neighborhoods because of the community that was there. This was forcing African American displacement and relocation to some distant and difficult areas way further out from the urban core in Portland.

And one of the things I found most helpful in that process over the years, though, has really been reclaiming a more significant value of diversity in the body of Christ. For some churches like ours, it was a move towards multi-ethnic diversity within our church body, from leadership all the way down. I think for some churches, that may mean building relationship with other churches in the city that might be more ethnic churches of different minority populations or other populations in the city. The strongest prophetic challenge I encountered was through building relationship with the broader body of Christ in our city. And through those relationships, I began to see the dynamics.

I don’t know any quick one-size-fits-all solution or answer to the problems there, the reality is if we hadn’t planted, gentrification still would have been happening. But because of those relationships now, we’ve been able to partner with some historic African American churches and other churches that have had a vision for church planting out in areas where many of their people have been displaced. And there’s been a partnership with church planting, and ministry, and being more sensitive to the dynamics that we might unknowingly be participating in as churches ourselves.