The Geography of Church Planting: The Influence of Agglomeration Economies (Part 1)


In this series I will explore church planting in light of urban economics looking primarily at agglomeration economies and location theory. I contend that church planting reflects these trends and influences because of where we see the clustering of church planting today … and why there continues to be places left off the map and radar as viable places to plant.


It was my first class at Portland State University. Urban Economics and Spatial Structure. I walked into a crowded room as nervous as if it was my first junior high dance. My palms were sweating and my heart was racing. To say that I was intimidated would be an understatement. I have been in school pretty much continuously since I graduated from high school twenty years ago. Three degrees later, including a doctorate, and my nerves were still frayed. I had gone to a Bible college and to seminaries where I studied the Bible, theology, church history, church planting, church growth, and a theology of the city ... but urban economics?

I quietly slipped in and to my horror the only spot available was right in the front of the class (gulp). As the class started the professor went around the room and we had to introduce ourselves, our educational background, and what we hoped to get out of the class. I listened as student after student explained their background ... political science, urban planning, sociology, economics, and so forth. When it was my turn I even think my voice cracked like a junior higher ... “Theology and ministry,” I said.

After the introductions the professor jumped right into his lecture. I was soon lost as he drew all of these diagrams and charts that looked nothing like the end-times charts I had once studied or the graphs showing different versions of sanctification. At the conclusion of the class I walked out with my heading spinning wondering what medieval form of torture I had unwittingly signed up for.

Surprisingly I quickly caught up and learned the lingo. It turned out to be one of the most stimulating classes I have ever taken. I learned the relationship between a city’s economics and how it affects its built environment. I was also happily surprised that my DMin from Bakke Graduate University prepared me well for this adventure. What this class did, including thousands of pages of reading, was to open my eyes up to new (to me) ways of marrying an urban theology or urban missiology with urban planning and the social sciences.

Portland is an intriguing city on many fronts. From its abundance of cultural creatives and hipsters to the activist scene to food carts, it is a city unlike others. Church planting is no different. For many years Portland was like a slumbering giant within the city limits (in contrast to the suburbs) with seemingly little effort being made to plant churches in the urban core and first-ring urban neighborhoods. Most church planting, which mirrored most other cities, was indeed in the suburbs. Then something changed; numerous seismic cultural, sociological, transportation and infrastructure, and spiritual forces all coalesced at once to create a ripe environment for church planting in the city. Through gentrification and urban revitalization the city became safer, more aesthetically appealing, and provided the cultural and architectural soil for a flourishing of cultural creatives, hipsters, and neo-bohemians. The central city is truly a fun place to be. “Today successful cities, old or young, attract smart entrepreneurial people, in part, by being urban theme parks.”[1]

A quick perusal through the urban development of the past two hundred years reveals the ubiquitous reality that transportation in many ways dictates urban form. As Glaeser notes, “Transportation technologies have always determined urban form.”[2] Like most other North American cities, Portland has been shaped by the car and still is for the most part. However, retrofitting the city with light rail and a modern streetcar have helped to reshape the city center and first-ring urban neighborhoods. In addition Portland's already robust bicycling commuter scene gave rise to the city's transportation infrastructure which has become internationally known. “The bike network, combined with the city's transit system and planners’ focus on developing amenities in neighborhoods allows people to access work, shopping, and social and recreation destinations without a car. Portland's emerging reputation for a car-free lifestyle is a significant draw for a new creative class, especially bike-related artisans.”[3] Portland State University recently hosted a delegation of Chinese urban planners who spent weeks in the city studying the unique features of Portland's urbanism. Again, ripe conditions for church planting in the city. The only thing needed now was a spark.

I recall hearing how Martin Luther lit the match that sparked the Protestant Reformation. Through such movements as the Renaissance and the creation of the printing press the cultural environment was ripe for change. The only thing needed was a spark. Luther provided that with his Ninety-five Theses. In terms of church planting in the central city of Portland that spark came through the convergence of the aforementioned cultural conditions mixed in with the planting of Imago Dei Community and the release and cult-like popularity of Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Church planting in urban Portland took an enormous leap forward. In the same way technology firms began clustering in the Silicon Valley or Bangalore, India, so the same dynamics began reshaping the church planting fabric of Portland. Innovation of all kinds is directly tied to the urban advantage of density and proximity. “Innovations cluster in places like Silicon Valley because ideas cross corridors and streets more easily than continents and seas.”[4]

Just as artistic talent tends to cluster in certain areas so do various companies and firms. “In most countries, economic activity is spatially concentrated.”[5] The same concept is also true of sports. Those who follow collegiate football know that the recruiting hotspots are where there is a disproportionate amount of talent clustered in various geographic locales; southern California, Texas, and Florida top out the list. A quick perusal through the top-tiered college football programs in the country whether Ohio State, Oregon, USC, Alabama, Oklahoma, or LSU, shows their rosters have an ample number of recruits from these locations.

For numerous reasons I continue to revisit the concept of a geography of church planting. The push-and-pull factors taking place across cities is almost like a series of invisible forces or dynamics at hand influencing people and policies. There are simply a complexity of dynamics that are shaping the built environment of cities, where firms and businesses locate, and by default, where churches are being planted. It is my contention that most church planters are not aware of these influences. This has a direct bearing on the rise of church planting in gentrified neighborhoods. But why?


  1. Glaeser, Triumph of the City, 11.

  2. Ibid., 12.

  3. Heying, Brew to Bikes, 110.

  4. Triumph of the City, 36.

  5. Greentstone, et al, “Identifying Agglomeration Spillovers,” 537.