I’ve heard that several prominent suburban churches in Minnesota announcing plans to open locations downtown. As an urban dweller – who is also a missionary and student of the church – I thought I’d share some major reservations about this development. At the core this is an issue of culture and world view.
A mentor taught me about the natural reach every minister has. Someone needs to be able to identify with the Pastor and/or staff of a church. It’s that identification that helps them enter into a transformative pastoral relationship. He spoke of the limit of age, and I believe this extends to culture & world view. Few foreign language churches impact outside of their linguistic group. Each of those churches is an important part of Gods work in the world. Yet, it would be unrealistic to expect a non-native church to impact beyond those who are within its cultural purview. We can express frustration about this, but there are only a few examples to the contrary. Even Jesus was intentional about limiting the scope of his ministry – with only a few exceptions.
We have many biblical examples of people leading their own (David, Jesus, Peter, and more). We also have examples of people leaving their culture to lead others (Moses, Paul, and countless missionaries over the millennium). Underlying these 4 issues is my concern that this cultural divide is all too easily overlooked.
I believe there are 4 major issues separating urban from suburban.
Culture and Ideas come from the city, not the suburbs
Simple enough, many people who live in the city don’t believe that you have the right to tell them how to live or what to believe. While I understand that this is not a universal truth, it is a strong underlying perception many people hold. When all of the major cultural institutions are based in the city (arts, theater, government, education, business) it is easy to understand why. The best and brightest head to the major cities to try their hand.
If you are going to try to extend your church into the city you’re going to be fighting this wave of assumption. The fact that your church started outside the urban center means that you have a very large hurdle to overcome. It may or may not be insurmountable, but that is likely up to your own hubris.
Suburbanites embody different values
The fact that you’ve moved to or live in the suburbs shows you have different values then those who choose to live in urban settings. There are no yards, no house work, and people are more socially progressive then their suburban peers. This point is not to shame anyone, or even make a statement of one set of values being better than another. We need to acknowledge that those who chose to live in a different environment and context do so because they simply value different things. I personally love living in the city because I can leave my car behind most days, I can walk to stores, tap rooms, coffee shops, and great restaurants. I like living in the midst of thousands of people. I enjoy that there are nearly 12k people per square mile in Downtown Minneapolis.
It is fine that people choose the privacy, large plots, and off street parking of the suburbs. Yet realize that the tens of thousands who live downtown don’t really care about those things in the same way. When someone walks to the store they don’t really care what the parking situation is.
Re-urbanization changed the game
You might not have noticed if you haven’t been really looking around American cities in the last few decades, but the residents are different. There is a place to have the gentrification conversation – however those moving into urban centers tend to be affluent individuals with professional careers. The median household income in my neighborhood (North Loop) was $95,357 in 2012. Compared to Minneapolis as a whole at $50,563 or $53,897 in Fridley you can see that it is nearly double that of the surrounding communities. This incidated different fields of work, and likely more duel income families to make up the earnings difference.
While there are still pockets of more ‘traditional’ urban issues like poverty and homelessness, the people who are increasingly calling downtown areas home are likely more successful vocationally, and more educated than those elsewhere (30% in the North Loop have Graduate Degrees or higher). When it comes to doing ministry in this context you better be ready for more successful, affluent, smarter individuals who aren’t super interested in what you have to say.
The city is home, not a destination
Cities tend to be more diverse, dense, and vibrant then suburbs. Yet the only reason many suburbanites ever find themselves downtown is for entertainment. But in my home of Minneapolis we are on track to have 70,000 people calling the downtown zone home within the next decade (already 35k+). That is more then all but 3 suburbs (Bloomington – 86k, Brooklyn Park – 78k, and Plymouth – 74k).
That is 70,000 people living in just over 3 square miles. Those 3 square miles are a home, neighborhood, and place to live. When you show up for an hour or two, you’re a guest. Guests don’t often get to tell people what they should be doing with their lives. It’s great that you come to town to catch a game, enjoy a show, or eat a great meal. It’s equally important to realize that makes you an outsider. The example of incarnational ministry seen in Jesus and the apostles should encourage you take pause.
What you’re doing won’t work in the City
I understand that driving a handful of miles into the city might not feel like entering a foreign mission field. Yet the cultural and worldview distances should make you slow down and reconsider that point. People self select where they want to live. Some of this is driven by earning potential, and some of it is driven by values. My hope in writing this is to cause ministry leaders to pause before they commit time, focus, money, and energy into work that will be more difficult than they realize.
The praxis, missiology, and theological emphases that worked outside of the city will not work in the city. This is simply because this is a different group of people whose value and worldview are different. The questions being asked of life are different, the ways that people need God to be present are different, and the individuals that urbanites tend to look up to are different.
Proposing an Alternative
Keep doing what you’re doing where you’re doing it. Praise God that you have a vibrant and passionate community of people, and be content in the faithfulness that God has displayed to you, and you to God. Instead of going into the city yourself you might Pray that God would raise someone up to move into the city, allow themselves to become an urban person with the hopes that some might be saved. To attempt to pastor and lead in both contexts seems to compromise both. Even Jesus limited the scope of his ministry to a specific group of people. Once someone arrises who can be sent support them, and give them the freedom to change as they adapt to urban life. It is going to be more expensive then your suburban ministry (space is a premium) and will likely take more time. And do not force them to teach the same topics you are to a group of people who are very different than those who sent them.
Note: The second and third paragraphs were added later after feedback I received. I also do not expect anyone to change their plans because of what I write here. At the end of the day I hope that anyone reading this will desire to better understand and engage with the communities they are going into from a learning posture. I wish them the best of luck and pray that God would continue to be active in their midsts (as I have done for years).