Urban Hinterlands (10/10): Loving Uncool Places


This is the last installment in the Urban Hinterlands series. I trust that this series was at least helpful to begin thinking through the topics of place, church planting, identity, calling, the gospel, and loving marginalized people and places (for more on the topic you can pick up the book Urban Hinterlands: Planting the Gospel in Uncool Places). This series (and book) is a call to love marginalized people and communities and look at them as viable (and even preferred) options for church planting rather than the default of middle-class people and communities.

Since I write and teach mostly about the city I’m viewed as the “city” guy and many have told me they assume I’m into renewed city centers, urban church planting, downtowns, the in-migration of the creative class, and trendy revitalized (gentrified) neighborhoods and districts, which is entirely true. The last few years those are the topics I have focused on. I am curious about the trends reshaping urban America and how that plays out in the built environment, urban mobility (transportation), and the rise of the knowledge-based (or artisan or creative) economies. In other words, this perception is true, somewhat.

But really my heart is for the off-the-beaten-paths kinds of places. I’m like that guy who falls in love with a band when they are obscure and playing in front of twelve people in a rundown dive bar. When the band gets big, I move on to another band. I did love all things downtown and inner-city when we weren’t really talking about it or planting churches there. I was one of the people loudly beating the drum to call us back into the urban core to plant churches. 

But now we’re planting in the city. The city is the hotspot to plant churches. That obscure band is now opening up for U2 or Coldplay. So I’ve begun moving on, so to speak, to the next underdog who needs an advocate.

That has been part of my angst as I’ve been writing this series. It is rather scandalous for me to admit that I’m not really interested in urban cores any longer, especially when all of my previous books have been narrowly focused on church planting, bicycles, gentrification, and mobility in the heart of the city. This past weekend it finally clicked for me. The transition has been complete. I’m over the inner city. My obscure band signed a record deal with a major label.

A couple years ago I led some breakout sessions at a church planting conference in Colorado Springs. It was a fun time connecting with planters and others involved in church planting. The focus of my presentations and discussions revolved around how urban form shapes church planting as well as church planting in complex urban contexts. It was a special time interacting with leaders, but I noticed I was especially drawn when I heard of people planting churches in uncool neighborhoods and cities. This helps me understand why I loved ministering in Tucson and since moving to Portland I feel like I’ve been dying a thousand deaths: the city’s so cool that everyone knows it. I’m not.

It is beyond easy to get church planters to LoDo in Denver or the inner-city in Portland, but how about Pueblo, Colorado? No one goes to Pueblo to plant. It’s just not that cool.

I spent a lot of time in each of my sessions talking about the geography of church planting and site selection for new church plants. It’s that same adage that I’ve been saying repeatedly the last few years: the trendier the neighborhood district or city, the more church planters flock there. In other words, you don’t need to actively recruit planters to LoDo or the Pearl since they are already coming in droves. But to get church planters to Ontario, Oregon, or Pueblo, Colorado, or Las Cruces, New Mexico? Good luck.

If we want to plant churches in neighborhoods and cities that we want to live in, then where does that leave uncool places? How do we love uncool places? Here are some starting points:

  1. Move there.
  2. Fall in love with the city and people “as is.”
  3. Find out what makes that place special.
  4. Invite others to move there with you.
  5. When you move there don’t try to make it cool.
  6. See why God finds this place special.

Easy, right?

Surprisingly in one of my sessions there was a woman who was actually part of a core team looking to plant a church in Pueblo. Rightly so she asked me what I thought of the many denominations and networks whose exclusive focus is on “alpha cities” or “top-tiered cities” (or however we want to describe it). Many of these church planting entities have put all of their eggs in the baskets of these cities. Many have channeled funding to give priority to church planters there. So where does that leave uncool lesser cities?

Truth be told, as I’ve argued throughout this series, in each of these top-tiered urban centers there are uncool, unappealing, and uninviting neighborhoods, districts, and parts of the city. Since we focus on significant cities (however we define that) and trending “influential” neighborhoods, that means we avert our attention from what we deem “lesser” places.

There is an assumption that we should spend all of our time, efforts, and money going after the “power brokers” or “change agents” in the city. But with the paradoxical nature of the gospel and how God has worked throughout history, we may need to rethink that one. If not, we run the risk of doing what James wrote in his epistle, showing partiality.

Who are you really? Who am I really? I know I’m just a simple kid who grew up in obscurity in small-town Iowa. No off-the-charts gifts, talents, or abilities. Nothing pause-worthy. Just plain. Average. Maybe I “get” uncool because I grew up uncool in an uncool town in an uncool state.

However, how are we to really love uncool places?

That question really is at the crux of this series and its scope. How do we not only love uncool places, but search them out and plant our lives, the gospel, and churches there?