Is a Wave of New Churches Helping or Hurting America’s Cities?

A Q&A with an urban church planter.

It’s a familiar story by now: after decades of white flight from America’s urban cores, well-to-do white people have been moving back into cities. And they’re bringing lots of change with them, for better and for worse. The situation is no different among the nation’s religious leaders, especially young evangelical pastors who are planting churches in cities. With gentrification comes an increase in racial and economic tensions, which newly transplanted church leaders need to carefully consider as they minister to the inner city.

Sean Benesh lives in Portland and is the author of Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters.
Sean Benesh lives in Portland and is the author of Vespas, Cafes, Singlespeed Bikes, and Urban Hipsters.

I recently put some questions to Sean Benesh — a mountain-biking, urban-cycling church planter with experience in Tucson, Vancouver, and Portland — about the problem and promise of new churches participating in urban renewal.

Why not help people from the inner-city start churches in their neighborhoods, rather than sending in outsiders (read: white pastors)?

That is a question that is oftentimes asked regardless of whether it is a gentrifying neighborhood or not. It represents one of the criticisms of church planting in general in that many simply assume there is little need for starting new churches or having “outsiders” come in, instead arguing that we should focus on building up established congregations. When it comes to planting in gentrifying neighborhoods, is it better to have “insiders” or “outsiders” plant churches? I believe the answer is “both/and.”

Every church planter will be able to reach certain population segments, while other planters will reach different ones. This becomes a sociological conversation about who the planter naturally gravitates towards. We can have a separate conversation about whether this is healthy or not, but by and large church planters plant churches among people most like themselves — whether that is an ethnicity, worldview, value system, mutual interests.

The bottom line is that we need planters from within the neighborhood and those coming from the outside to plant churches among the longstanding community. The same applies to planting among the gentrifiers.

Vespas_cover_2013 (1)
Read more in Sean’s latest book.

This one comes from a chapter in your book — “Do you really think it’s a good thing that the only way for a community of color to experience these ‘benefits’ is for white people to move into it?”

No, and this is where it gets complicated. Anytime there is a “lifting” process in a neighborhood, whether it is done by the established population or incoming gentrifiers (whites), it elevates the appeal of living there. Many neighborhoods that were allowed to decline and bottom out were strategic locations in the central city that are accessible to downtown jobs and other urban amenities. The more desirable (safer, better amenities and services, etc.) these neighborhoods and districts become the more people want to move there to experience life in the city.

So whether these changes are wrought on by the established community or gentrifiers, the results appear to be the same . . . making these communities more desirable, safer, and thus more valuable means more people want to move in. In other words, fortunately or unfortunately, if a central city neighborhood leads the charge to make its neighborhood safer and more livable it simply creates ripe conditions for others from the outside to want to move in.

Should pastors plant churches for the “old” neighborhood — essentially the displaced — or the gentrifiers? Is it possible to cater to both despite cultural differences?

This is where we bump up against sociology and human nature in that we all gravitate towards people like us. As an example, for me personally I connect with mountain bikers and that grouping transcends socio-economic lines.

When it comes to planting in gentrifying neighborhoods, one of the first questions that a church planter needs to wrestle with is whether he is going to be demographic-focused or geographic-focused. Meaning, will a planter simply allow this “natural” gravitational pull to be the basis of who he plants a church among — whether it is a black planter who grew up in the neighborhood or an incoming white creative-class-type planter? Conversely, if a church planter opts to be geographic-focused (think parish model) that means his focus will be on the neighborhood as a whole regardless of race and socio-economics. However, it will require significant intentionality to keep from gravitating towards people only like themselves.

What’s the biggest thing a church planter can do to not alienate the people who were born and raised in the neighborhood?

While intentions for church planting in gentrifying neighborhoods maybe be good and helpful, there are some key habits, postures, and actions steps that a planter can take in these settings to ensure health and success for the neighborhood. Maybe a foundational question that a church planter should ask is, “what is God’s vision for this neighborhood?” Usually church planters are keen on their vision for the church, but God’s desire to redeem both urban people and urban places is larger than one church. How does your church fit into the needs, dreams, storyline, and vision for the neighborhood?

Along with that foundational question here are some other steps to ensure your new church is a blessing to the community as you link arms alongside the existing populace for a healthy and wholesome neighborhood.

1. Research the storyline of the neighborhood.

2. Get to know church leaders in the black community.

3. Fully integrate into the community. Don’t just hang out with the white folks.

4. Pray through Jeremiah 29:4-7 daily asking God to show you how you can bring peace, blessing, shalom, and prosperity to the neighborhood.

5. Fight for continued affordable housing (join advocacy groups).

6. Buy and support local as much as possible.

7. Think deeply and pray fervently about the DNA of your church. Will you be purposely multi-ethnic? Homogeneous? What would that mean? If you end up gathering mostly whites, figure out how to be integrated into the larger faith community.

8. Determine what amenities or services are needed. Figure out how to make it a reality.

Which scripture speaks particularly well to the phenomenon of gentrification and how Christians are to respond to it?

Many default (and rightly so) to citing Jeremiah 29:4-7 and the idea of dwelling in our cities for the long term and seeking it’s peace or welfare. Plus the idea of planting gardens in the city (and having chickens or goats) is a very Portlandy thing to do. But I am going to break from the norm and note Jonah. Obviously Jonah was blatantly xenophobic and despised his call to preach repentance to Nineveh. He’d much rather have the city burn than be spared by God’s grace and mercy. He is a good (or bad) example of allowing prejudices, racism, hatred, and nationalism cloud the work and ministry God had for him.

I believe many church planters deep down struggle with some of these same issues, although not to the degree that Jonah did. Maybe black church planters resent incoming white gentrifiers or white church planters resent the longstanding black community. We need to continually preach the gospel to ourselves — to remind ourselves that Jesus sacrificially gave himself for us even though it wasn’t comfortable, but he did so because he desperately loved us. We need to take a note from Jesus and not Jonah and remind ourselves that it is not about us, our comfort, or what part of the city elevates our coolness. Instead, we should be willing to go wherever we need to go to preach repentance and embody the gospel.

How do you wrestle with the critique that church planters often wait to come to inner-city neighborhoods once they’re already gentrifying — or “safe enough”?

This is something that I have spent a significant amount of time thinking and writing about in terms of site selection for church planters and their motives. To me this conversation is paramount in church planting, yet it is a topic that is brutally uncomfortable. The focus of my dissertation was on analyzing this trend and surveying church planters about why they chose to plant where they did. If we removed the obvious answer (“God’s will”) the survey results and research revealed that church planters started churches in places they liked and among people who were like themselves.

This explains why up until church planting in the city became cool most (white) church planters opted for the suburbs. Through urban renewal, gentrification, changing value systems of Americans in that it is desirable to live in cities and enjoy an urban lifestyle, more people are moving into city centers, which means a simultaneous shift in the where of church planting. For the most part, white church planters plant churches where it is cool and desirable — which means, whether planting in the suburbs or inner cities, we continue to leapfrog the unsexy, undesirable, and uncool parts of the city.

Can you think of a model situation of church planting in a gentrifying neighborhood?

In Portland I applaud the efforts of Cole Brown (he wrote a chapter in my book which can be found here) who planted Emmaus Church a few years ago smack dab in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood. It continues to be a racially mixed church that has people who represent the changing nature of inner-Northeast Portland — from longstanding blacks who grew up in the neighborhood to incoming white hipsters. Not only are they ethnically bridging the gap, but the church is bridging a cultural gap as well. The leadership team is purposely ethnically diverse, and through the gospel, they are speaking to these issues and are involved in serving their neighborhood.

Image courtesy of Wojtek Witkowski.

Corrie Mitchell
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  • melvinbray

    corrie, great questions! please take time to interview folks involved with the ccda (the christian community development association), who have been wrestling with (and succeding regarding) these question a lot longer than most. they’re annual national convention is in raleigh, nc, next month. ~melvin bray