Urban church planting is hip right now. Church planters may be taking their cues from the culture. Renewing city centers to attract young, single professionals as the key to economic growth has been the focus of developers and city councils across the nation for a while. As a member of their target demographic, not surprisingly urban love hit me during college. I dreamed of moving to Boston, New York, or DC and living in an old warehouse converted to studio apartments with exposed brick walls and in close proximity to a wine bar, live jazz, and the performing arts center.
These "cool cities" projects have failed to produce the promised financial returns, however, as noted by a WSJ opinion piece yesterday. They failed because the target demographic moves out as quickly as it moves in. Young, single professionals opt with far more frequency than the previous generation to marry and start families. When they do, they abandon the city for the surrounding suburbs. Moreover, it is these "married people with children [not singles who] tend to be both successful and motivated, precisely the people who make the economies go." Thus, affordable housing and short commutes, not loft apartments and nightclubs, are the key to cities creating burgeoning and stable economies.
Our experience in New York City squares with the statistics. The members of our church who live in the city are largely educated professionals who are single or newlywed. As families grow, they tend to leave the city entirely. Indeed, the joke is that professionals leave Manhattan for Brooklyn when they have their first baby, and then move out to Long Island or leave the area entirely when the second baby arrives.
It's not that people start hating the city. They just find it hard to raise a family in a one-bedroom walk-up apartment using public transportation. For the same monthly cost, you can buy a spacious four-bedroom home in Gilbert, Arizona, own two cars, and stock the fridge with twice as many groceries.
Because we believe that children are a blessing from the Lord and an essential element of marriage and because of the economic forces moving married couples with children to the suburbs, Mr. Miller and I have been puzzled by the emphasis on "missional" ministry to the city over the work of the allegedly vacuous churches of suburbia. It's encouraging to see new web resources like Mission to Suburbia (HT: Between Two Worlds) mostly because it means the pendulum might be swinging back to center.
Most troubling in the current urban trend are the ideas that living in an urban area makes one more sensitive to poverty or have more opportunities to evangelize. After living in NYC a total of six months, I've already become immune to the pleas of the countless beggars (as well as the urine scent in the subway and the grime on the streets.) As for evangelism, those opportunities abound just about anywhere; it's a matter of seizing them. My father and sister put me to shame in this regard. Dad, a supervisor for the utility company that provides power to most Arizona suburbs, seems to share the gospel with co-workers and business associates as naturally and frequently as he breaths. And my sister, a suburban housewife, shares the gospel with young mothers she meets through mommy groups and pregnancy classes.
The obvious truth is that people need Jesus whether they live in track homes or high rises. Pastors and church planters certainly face unique issues depending on location because of the different demographics, but the essential need of human beings remains constant.
The distinction for the Christian, then, is not, as the real estate slogan goes, "location, location, location!" but rather "faithful, faithful, faithful." Whether I live in a city or suburb (in God's providence, I've had opportunity to live in both), I am called to faithfully love the Lord by keeping his commands and love my neighbors by caring for them, most especially for their souls.