Urban Hinterlands (4/10): Place and Identity

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Place shapes our identity.

We can argue about how this is shallow and self-centered thinking that only reinforces insecurity, but it is still there. While I know I am shaped by the gospel and that I am the aroma of Christ to God, I am still influenced by my environment.

Our identity is directly influenced and impacted by place.

When I travel, I sense a certain gravitas when I say I am from Portland. People don’t really know I grew up in small-town Iowa. There are perceptions about people who are from Iowa, and there are perceptions about people who are from Portland. One diminishes your social standing, while the other gives you kudos. Particularly since I’m passionate about biking (as transportation), when I say “I’m from Portland,” people listen. I’m the same guy I was in Iowa or Tucson, but if I tried to sell those ideas without the Portland label, I don’t know that anyone would buy them.

Unfortunately in ministry or church planting circles, the conversation is the same. As I’ve said more times than I can remember, all of the cool cities or cool spots in the city are on the receiving end of a glut of church planters. Yet we continue to shy away from uncool cities and uncool parts of the city. Do you mean I should plant a church among uncool people? People who don’t get my fashion, who don’t get my sophisticated music tastes, who don’t get my fine coffee or beer palette, or who generally don’t get my chic urbanite leanings? You mean plant a church among those? Those people who drink Folgers, pound Miller Lites, drive beat-up pickup trucks, shop for clothes at Walmart, listen to country music, and are not educated? Why would anyone throw away life to plant a church in those cities and in those neighborhoods?

If we find our identity in living in cool places, we will keep planting churches in the neighborhoods where we bump into many other cool church planters in the same coffee shop. It is not uncommon for me to hear of two, three, or four church planters all planting in the same cool neighborhood. While each came unaware of the others, they are planting their denominational flags into the soil of this trendy neighborhood (or one that’s transitioning into a trendy district). If we want to address this trend, then we need to peel back the layers and get into the heart of things, namely our identity.