I Stopped Treating My City Like a Shopping Experience — and Planted a Church Instead

What we learned when we decided to invest in our city by refusing to leave.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article indicating that millennials who flooded into Washington, D.C. over the past decade and helped spur an economic boom here are leaving as they grow older and begin to have families and face rising costs. Of the 59,000 people who left D.C. in 2012, over 44% were between the ages of 20 and 34.

This dilemma is not unique to our city — the same article could be written about San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. Young people flock to the city in search of diversity, nightlife, and a walkable neighborhood, but leave as they get married, have children, and become concerned with public schools, proximity to family, and the price of housing.

The article suggests — and I agree — that places like Washington, D.C. are increasingly becoming a playground for well-off singles that consume all that a city offers, but never invest.

We had a choice — to keep criticizing the city or to be a part of the solution.

Two years ago, my wife and I faced this question in a personal way.  Feeling restless, lonely, and financially squeezed, we set out on a cross-country tour to find a new home. We spent three weeks on the open road with the goal of finding a new place to belong. Upon our return, we felt that we were called to stay in D.C., and we realized that something had to change for us personally and for the city as a whole.

We had a choice — to keep criticizing the city or to be a part of the solution. So, we began inviting random people over for dinner and scheming what a community might look like that allowed people to stay in the city and transformed new residents from consumers to investors.

Out of those dinners, The Table Church was founded. I often joke that I’m the world’s worst church planter. I had no idea what I was doing — only a vision of what might be possible if Christians in D.C. were to take seriously Jeremiah 29:4-7. In this text, addressed, appropriately enough, to exiles in the capital city, Jeremiah says to “seek the peace of the city” — and in the city’s peace, you will find your own peace.

Over the past year, a growing group of people has been asking what it means to seek the peace of Washington, D.C.

One of the first things we noticed was that transient residents do not build relationships with their neighbors, especially when there’s a racial or socio-economic difference. So, we created a partnership with Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church, an African-American church that has been in the neighborhood for over 100 years. Douglas had a thriving food pantry and thrift store, but an aging population and decreased giving was making it harder to keep these ministries open. Now we run the ministries together as a team. We hold joint Holy Week services, share pulpits, and get together for an occasional potluck. We are coming together to model that there is another way.

[W]e’ve consumed too much and haven’t invested enough — we’ve over-farmed our cities.

My wife comes from a family of farmers. When we visit, I never know what to talk about, so I find myself asking her grandfather about the land. He talks about the land almost as if it was a member of the family, recalling accomplishments and tragedies — the year when yields were sky high, the year that hail stripped everything to the stalks, and so on. With land, you can over-farm and destroy it, but it is capable of healing and renewing itself if it is given the time.

Cities are the same way. For years, we’ve consumed too much and haven’t invested enough — we’ve over-farmed our cities. They’re in need of renewal.

I believe that God is renewing all things, and we’re invited to be participants in that renewal. God is renewing all creation — including cities. It’s incredible when you think about it. But renewal takes time, and we’re a generation that wants a quick fix. We want the end to poverty — now. We want broken schools fixed — now.

As a pastor, I’ve begun to realize our generation longs for peace, but peace is elusive. I cannot help but wonder if the peace we seek, the life of meaning and purpose we long for, can only be found when we’re willing to commit and put down roots.  Jeremiah says, “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens . . . seek the peace of the city and you will find your own peace.” Perhaps our generation will find the peace it seeks when we stop looking for something better and begin investing and planting roots where God has placed us.

Kevin Lum
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  • Christy Serp

    Kevin, this article is truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing the unique journey that you and Charla have lived so far and how you used your experiences to cultivate the community that you continue to inspire and nurture!
    cjs