Urban Hinterlands (2/10): The Allure of Cool

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For the past fifteen years my life has been defined by church planting and my involvement within this subset of ministry. This ranged from being a lackluster church planter myself to being a church planting strategist to teaching seminary classes at several different schools to writing books about church planting. Sure, I also write about bicycles, gentrification, high-density cities, and the like, but my heart and focus is predominantly on church planting.

I am a friend of church planters, and most of the people I meet in the course of a week are church planters. I love church planters and missionaries. I have given my life to the spread of the gospel.

Yes, church planters are being drawn to cool cities and cool neighborhoods within cities. I get that. I affirm that. We need more, not less. I am not and will not shame people about the decisions they make on the where of church planting. I wrote the book Urban Hinterlands and this article series because the cool places keep getting more and more church planters, whereas uncool cities and uncool neighborhoods still lag behind. We need more people willing to plant churches in the uncool places.

Why are we drawn to plant mostly in cool places?

I’d be a hypocrite to say I am immune to these push-and-pull factors, because that is precisely why I am living in Portland. It is cool. And do you know what? I like it here.

I also know full well the dynamic that shapes where we live and plant churches. I recall when I first encountered Tucson to plant a church in back in 2002, I almost vomited in my mouth. It was gross and unappealing. However, once we checked out Oro Valley, a nice new suburb, I could envision living there. Was that vanity? Is that the same dynamic that influenced us moving to Portland?

How do we reconcile our never-ending appetite to live in vibrant, happening, and cool places? Are we simply seeking the pleasure that gratifies our flesh, which stands in opposition to the gospel? Or are we following how God has hardwired each one of us?

I’ve actually met many church planters who do not plant in cool places. That leads me to believe that not everyone wants to live in inner-city Portland, Wicker Park in Chicago, Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or SOMA in San Francisco. Frankly, more church planters actually do plant in uncool parts of the city or simply uncool cities. So where is the rub?

I have said and taught for years that we self-select where we live based on cultural capability. What that means is that we most often move to places, whether a city or a neighborhood within a city, precisely because it resonates with who we are. For every person moving into the central city of Portland, there are three or four who land in the suburbs. These people view Portland with suspicious disdain and remark to their friends, “I just don’t get Portland. It’s weird.”

Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort gets at the heart of this, “As Americans have moved over the past three decades, they have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics.” What that means, as Bishop throughout his book contends, is that when people move they land in neighborhoods and cities that resonate with the value systems that are reflected and embodied in the neighborhood. In other words, we move to neighborhoods and cities among people who are just like us.

Am I in Portland basically because I am wired for affinity with the city? Is it because I am artistic, creative, casual, and thrive in creative, walkable, bikeable, outdoorsy, and liberal cities? Yes, it would seem so. Then the follow-up question is: Did God make me this way? Am I hardwired by the sovereign hand of God to think and value certain things that are reflective of how he knit me together? Could this explain why I am living in a cool city like Portland? Could this also explain why you are in your city whether it is cool or not?

And what do you do when you don’t have a choice? What do you do when God tells you to plant your life, the gospel, and churches in an uncool city?

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