Urban Hinterlands (1/10): Living in an Uncool City


Cities and people are a lot alike. Most of us live with deep-seated insecurities, and we do our best to mask them. Like applying makeup to cover a blemish, we curate the right kind of image to portray on social media. We highlight the positives and for the most part resist giving into the full range of our emotions, frustrations, and struggles online. Sure, there are enough people out there who seem to have left their filters in the third grade when it comes to verbalizing internal dialogue, but most of us are cautious. We simply want to put our best foot forward. We seek to control our image and in a sense brand who we are to the watching world.

Cities are no different. There is a sense among “lesser” cities that they either need to work hard to overhaul their image or fashion one that is loosely based in reality. Tourism magazines most often make cities more desirable and livable than they really are. It is the same as the nerdy girl living next door to the popular girl who is the high school homecoming queen. Our insecurities are only accentuated when we compare ourselves with others. When it comes to branding and curating the right image, cities are slaves to this as well. But what happens when you live in an uncool city or neighborhood?

Maybe you can relate. Maybe your city just isn’t that cool. Sure, through gentrification and downtown redevelopment projects many central cities are trekking toward earning that “cool” moniker, but your city just isn’t that cool yet. Maybe in another ten years when your streetcar is operating, there are ample trendy eateries, and a more robust bicycle infrastructure you will find that those highly coveted Millennials and Gen Zs are arriving in droves and building your city’s reputation as cool and trendy, but you’re just not there yet. While there are signs of hope and movement in the direction of cool, you still have decades of an uncool label hanging over you.

Rest assured. You’re in a good place. I have been to the other side ... and you’re not missing anything.

Again, what do you do if your city is uncool? Or maybe we should reduce the scale. What do you do if your neighborhood or part of the city is not cool? Yes, Portland is trendy and cool, but that is reflective of life inside the city. Once you leave the central city, you will find we have ample strip malls, enormous arterials, and both urban and suburban sprawl even despite our urban growth boundary. Our suburbs are just like your suburbs.

What I am concerned with and think about constantly pertains to doing ministry and more specifically church planting in these kinds of uncool places. If you look at city after city, it is usually the safe and family-friendly suburbs or hip and trendy urban neighborhoods to which most church planters are “called.” That’s to say, for some strange reason God only seems to call people to plant churches and their lives in parts of the city that rank high in livability, and in the case of the urban districts, to those with abundant urban amenities.

But what do you do if that is not you? What if for some strange and glorious reason you buck the trend and plant your lives in an uncool city and in a gritty neighborhood that doesn’t elicit any notion or emotion of civic pride? The kinds of places where you mutter under your breath to people outside of that city or neighborhood that you actually live there. And not only that, but the people you minister among are not fashionable. They may drive old pickup trucks, speak a foreign language, show up at Walmart at 11:30 p.m. with a toddler wearing only a diaper, still listen to ‘80s heavy metal music.

Maybe you’ve gone to seminary to become a pastor, and your contemporaries have gone on to find sweet gigs in the suburbs with congregations full of well-to-do people who drive nice cars and are polite. Instead, you’ve become the pastor of a church that was started in the ‘50s in an anonymous neighborhood. It’s not that it’s a rough neighborhood, but it’s neither urban cool nor suburban safe, just somewhere in between. The address says it is within the city limits. The church building hasn’t been updated since the late 1970s, the congregation is cantankerous and has run out the last two pastors, and the average age continues to grow older. But you’re there. You see the neighborhood full of other declining ‘50s-era housing stock and strip malls that are uglier than the day they were haphazardly thrown together to make a quick profit.

These kinds of places are what I call the urban hinterlands. The in-between places between trendy central city neighborhoods and manicured suburbs. This label can also be applied to other cities, smaller cities, and towns all that are not cool nor trendy.

Maybe you live in a gritty, unkempt, and uncool city or neighborhood, and this all is a painful reminder that there are no trendy eateries or coffee shops in your neighborhood. Rest assured. This Urban Hinterlands series is about you and for you. I am with you.

While cool cities like Portland or San Francisco or Manhattan continue to garner the attention and imagination of church planters across the country, this series is about giving love and attention to the other places. Having lived in Portland for several years now I have lost track of all the coffees I’ve had with visiting prospective church planters and core teams looking to plant here. The city continues to attract young educated Millennials. As the national (and international) media fawns over Portland, it has attracted a bumper crop of church planters.

But your city is not and has not seen this overflow of church planters and people wanting to plant churches and their lives there. Frankly, and unspiritually speaking, it is simply because your city is not cool enough. Ah yes, but you're precisely where you need to be. Let's continue to explore these thoughts, ideas, and conversations in this series.


This is an excerpt from the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places.