Where Have All the Pioneers Gone?


What drew me into church planting was a missionary ethos. It wasn’t a career move. I wasn’t some frustrated youth pastor ready to break free from the shackles of an established church and pastor. It was a step farther down the path of what I sensed as a missionary call that happened simultaneously when I came to faith in Christ as I entered college. It certainly wasn’t a move towards financial stability. Several times over we’ve packed up, sold homes, cleaned out savings and retirement, and up and moved where we sensed God was leading us. Foolish and irresponsible? Possibly, but we were compelled.

I saw church planting as missions but instead of moving overseas we stayed. For the past 10+ years I’ve been all-in on the city. Not only that, but the urban core or city center. Why? Because for decades it was more or less not the focal point in church planting where instead planters were flocking to the suburbs en masse. It doesn’t mean ministry and planting wasn’t happening in the city … which was not the case at all. A drive around most cities reveal a lot of buildings where churches have been meeting for decades.

Some could contend that suburban church planting was a missionary enterprise because of population growth (or explosion) that ramped up significantly post-WWII. I would agree on some levels. New communities were springing up from scratch and new churches needed to be established to keep pace with population growth. Sure, there are also underlying narratives like who moved to the suburbs and why as well as who was left in the city and why. In other words, it’s not so cut and dry and easy to put into tidy boxes. But the point of this article isn’t about that (although I recognize and have studied and taught on these subjects for several years now).

The point? Once population growth began slowing in the suburbs as more and more people moved back into the city center it also meant church planters followed suit. Instead of most church planters moving to the suburbs like in previous decades it is as if most are now planting in the city. There are several reasons … (1) cities are cool and alluring (it’s that whole livability conversation that I tackled in Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places), (2) many have become weary of the suburban experiment and automobile dependency, and (3) denominations and church planting networks have gone all-in on cities which means planters are constantly being redirected that way. Never mind that in some instances 4-6 planters from different groups all end up planting in the same neighborhood without knowing it. But that’s another point …

So I ask the question … where have all of the pioneers gone? Maybe a better question … are there any places left for a true pioneer church planting endeavor? While places like Portland are hyped to the rest of the country as one such place, once planters land in the city they quickly see how erroneous that is. We may not have the thickness of a churched culture like the South but we’re hardly what denominations and networks paint us as. Most people have been exposed to an aberrant form of the church and the gospel and simply say, “no thanks.”

A follow-up question would then be … are there any places left in the U.S. and Canada for pioneer church planters? I’d answer with a resounding “YES!” But the problem though is … they’re not cool nor alluring nor would be a pathway for a self-sustaining church. But should those then be the determining factors?

Church PlantingSean Benesh