The Geography of Church Planting: The Influence of Agglomeration Economies (Part 3)

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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.

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In the previous article I began to unpack “Identifying Agglomeration Spillovers”  by Greenstone, Hornbeck, and Moretti found in the Journal of Political Economy. There are parallels to church planting that are worth considering. Greenstone, Hornbeck, and Moretti identify five possible reasons for agglomeration in cities. I will list them and then unpack their relevance for church planting in gentrified urban neighborhoods (see the last article for all 5 points). I will rephrase each point inserting and using church planting language.

The next point I've adapted from Greenstone, Hornbeck and Moretti's list is, “A second reason why the concentration of church planting may be beneficial has to do with transportation costs. Church plants located in denser areas are likely to enjoy cheaper and faster delivery of local services and intermediate goods.” How does this directly correlate to the realm of church planting? This becomes problematic in that currently there is little to no research or data available to draw from. We've yet to see substantial research towards urban advantage due to density and proximity in the realm of ministry in general and church planting in particular. But we can find examples elsewhere which parallel to church planting. “There are two aspects to density in the growth of cities. Proximity reduces the time and energy and therefore the cost required to move people and materials around the achieve any objective. When mutually supportive activities are located in proximity to each other, their concentration has a further synergistic effect.”[1] However, church planting is not about shipping or receiving goods whereby this becomes a factor. On the other hand, put in purely economics terms, the religious “goods” or “offerings” that churches provide leads to them being in accessible areas. That is why in suburban settings it is not uncommon to find churches at intersections or just off the on- and off-ramps of a freeway. In urban settings the benefit is to be found in its density. 

Density and proximity create an urban advantage in church planting. As I noted in View From the Urban Loft, “Those who live in higher-density neighborhoods have more accessibility to your church and its body life. Socio-economics no longer is a dividing line, because people are not excluded because they can't drive to any of the gatherings.”[2] The benefit of density is that “church planting and walkable churches in denser urban environments is that the foundation of community is found in the communal.”[3] While churches in urban neighborhoods are not shipping goods per se, transportation is still a shaping force. Oftentimes due to denser environs, the “goods” (the spiritual life of a church) are more easily accessible.

“A third reason why the concentration of church planting may be beneficial has to do with knowledge spillovers.” This directly ties into the first reason that Greenstone, Hornbeck and Moretti mention. Church planters are drawn to cities that offer robust resources, educational opportunities, and networking options because of this spillover factor. Talent collects unequally in cities. “The concentration of inventive and innovative activities in urban areas is often interpreted as providing evidence for the importance of information spillovers in generating new ideas.”[4] Of the seven cities in my dissertation research, those that had the strongest networks, plus ample educational institutions cranking out church planters, had the largest concentration of church planters. These are good examples of this knowledge spillover phenomenon. In cities such as these are ample opportunities for church planters to rub shoulders and network, learn from one another, and have various opportunities for higher education and ongoing training.

Here in Portland we find the same dynamics with a proliferation of great schools and ministries that are church planter and ministry factories. I regularly come in contact with congregants, pastors, leaders, and church planters who were educated at these schools or are currently attending there. This also explains Portland's meteoric rise as a hotbed for church planting and cultural innovation. “To thrive, cities must attract smart people and enable them to work collaboratively. There is no such thing as a successful city without human capital.”[5] The same applies to church planting.

The fourth point that stems from Greenstone, Hornbeck and Moretti's reasons behind agglomeration in cities is, “It is possible that church plants concentrate spatially not because of any technological spillover, but because local amenities valued by church planters are concentrated.” Glaeser points out, “Urban enjoyments help determine a city's success. Talent is mobile, and it seeks out a good place to consume as well as produce.”[6] This reveals something that is all too familiar in today's global economy, which ironically has the same influence upon the geography of church planting. Again, as economists, Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida are observing much of the same trends in that talented people are unequally pooling in specific cities. There are clear winners and losers in this talent arms race. “As humankind becomes wealthier, more people will choose their locations on the basis of pleasure as well as productivity. To understand why cities are succeeding and whether they will continue to thrive in the future, we must understand how urban amenities work and how consumer cities succeed.”[7] This is why Wicker Park in Chicago is more desirable as a church planting destination than South Omaha or South Tucson. “People today expect more from the places they live. In the past, many were content to work in one place and vacation somewhere else, while frequently getting away for weekends to ski, enjoy a day in the country or sample nightlife and culture in another city. The idea seemed to be that some places are for making money and others are for fun. This is no longer sufficient.”[8]

Where conflict arises is over how does the allure of urban amenities that church planters are drawn to correlate with the values of the Kingdom of God? Church planters are unequivocally drawn to cool cities and cool neighborhoods. It is this that Brett McCracken highlights when he asks, “Are the purposes and/or effects of cool compatible with those of Christianity? If we assume that cool necessarily connotes the notion of being elite, privileged, and somehow better than the masses, how can we reconcile the idea with that of Christianity, which seems to beckon us away from self-aggrandizement or pride of any kind?”[9] What should the motivating factor for site selection in church planting be? This becomes poignant in reference to planting in gentrified neighborhoods. “All the cool places in every city are occupied by a proliferation of church planters. Either in the far-flung suburbs or gentrified neighborhoods, that is where we're seeing a bumper crop of church plants.”[10] Does the draw for planters have to do with urban amenities and a lifestyle choice or is it about broken people in need of a Savior? There is no doubt that the answer lies somewhere in between, but church planters need to proceed forward cautiously with humility and gut-wrenching honesty.

The final parallel to the reasons for agglomeration in cities as set forth by Greenstone, Hornbeck, and Moretti is, “Finally, spatial concentration of some church plants may be explained by the presence of natural advantages or productive amenities. This sounds strikingly familiar to the first and fourth points because it highlights the urban advantage of density and proximity as well as spillovers, networking, and the allure of cultural amenities. The reality is that “People with more human capital live in denser counties” whether in business, education, or ministry.

This last point provides a good opportunity to summarize our foray into applying agglomeration economies to church planting. No doubt there are numerous parallels that can be made and applications drawn. My point here is to reveal some of the subterranean influences that church planters face which have a direct correlation to gentrified neighborhoods and districts. As we've seen thus far, there are clear winners and losers in the gentrification process. How well are church planters, pastors, and followers of Christ in general standing in the gap? How well are they acting as the glue holding the neighborhood together which gentrification seeks to tear apart?


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  1. Brugmann, Welcome to the Urban Revolution, 28-29.

  2. Benesh, View From the Urban Loft, 165.

  3. Ibid., 167.

  4. Kim and Margo, “Historical Perspectives on US Economic Geography,” 40.

  5. Glaeser, Triumph of the City, 223.

  6. Ibid., 118.

  7. Ibid., 119.

  8. Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, 224.

  9. McCracken, Hipster Christianity, 13.

  10. View From the Urban Loft, 177.