The Geography of Church Planting: The Influence of Agglomeration Economies (Part 2)

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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.


The first influential factor as to why and where church planters decide to plant where they do ties into the concept of agglomeration economies. For starters, agglomeration economies is defined as, “savings which arise from the concentration of industries in urban areas and their location close to linked activities. E.g. a car factory attracts component suppliers to locate close by, saving on transport costs. Other savings are made in labour and training costs, and the use of the services found in urban areas, e.g. housing, banking, roads, electricity, etc.”[1] In essence firms locate close to one another to reap the benefit of spillovers. “Economists have speculated that this concentration of economic activity may be explained by cost or productivity advantages enjoyed by firms when they locate near other firms.”[2]

In other words, there are many advantages to locating firms or manufacturers close to one another. “Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.”[3] It is to this agglomeration or clustering phenomenon that Richard Florida traces the collecting of talent. “Today's key economic factors–talent, innovation, and creativity–are not distributed evenly across the global economy. They concentrate in specific locations. It's obvious how major new innovations in communications and transportation allow economic activity to spread out all over the world. What's less obvious is the incredible power of what I call the clustering force. In today's creative economy, the real source of economic growth comes from clustering and concentration of talent and productive people. New ideas are generated and our productivity increases when we locate close to one another in cities and regions.”[4] The same applies to church planting on many fronts.

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.

  1. First, it is possible that firms (and workers) are attracted to areas with high concentration of other firms (and other workers) by the size of the labor market.

  2. A second reason why the concentration of economic activity may be beneficial has to do with transportation costs. Firms located in denser areas are likely to enjoy cheaper and faster delivery of local services and intermediate goods.

  3. A third reason why the concentration of economic activity may be beneficial has to do with knowledge spillovers.

  4. It is possible that firms concentrate spatially not because of any technological spillover, but because local amenities valued by workers are concentrated.

  5. Finally, spatial concentration of some industries may be explained by the presence of natural advantages or productive amenities.[5]

Let me rephrase each point inserting and using church planting language. “First, it is possible that church plants (and church planters) are attracted to areas with high concentration of other church plants (and other church planters) by the size of the labor market.” At first glance this may seem somewhat untrue. Church planters most often look for neighborhoods, districts, or pockets with little to no church or Gospel presence at all. There is certainly a pioneering spirit among planters regardless of modes or methods. Certainly church planters won't locate in neighborhoods experiencing a high proportion of church planting. However, what may not be applicable on a small neighborhood scale does not negate this reality on a larger city-wide or regional scale. In other words, there is most definitively a magnetic pull in cities that are experiencing a high proportion of church planters compared to other cities. The reasoning behind this has not been documented or researched, but I will set forward several hypotheses as to this phenomenon.

First of all, cities that are more attractive draw more church planters. “This begs the question: Why do creative people cluster in certain places? In a world where people are highly mobile, why do they choose to live in and concentrate in some cities over others and for what reason?”[6] When a decision is made as to where to locate a church plant is it surprising that such cities as Austin, Seattle, or Los Angeles top the list? These cities also rank high in terms of livability with abundant cultural amenities. They also are hotbeds for creativity and innovation. While beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder there is little doubt that strictly in terms of appeal and desirability San Francisco ranks higher than Cheyenne or Bismarck.

There appears to be a direct correlation between a city's built environment and cultural climate and the amount of church planting within. Gentrifying neighborhoods hold a special allure. This then leads into the second hypothesis, that church planters are influenced by the same cultural and social forces that others in the Creative Class (hipsters or neo-bohemians) experience. What my research revealed was that outside of the top response (“God's will”) the primary motivating factor for site selection among church planters was cultural identity, compatibility, and familiarity. They simply planted churches in those places they most enjoyed and identified with. When a combination of spiritual and cultural dynamics round out “God's call” it becomes challenging to differentiate and analyze, as I alluded to in Metrospiritual:

As a researcher, to study the motivating factors for church planting site selection becomes problematic. What are the criteria to be used? How do I navigate through those who take a methodical approach versus those who felt God prompt them in a certain direction? Often times I liken God’s calling or will to the black box found on passenger jetliners. The whole plane may crash leaving nothing but flaming debris but somehow the black box is always intact. Often times, when everything around us crashes and burns, it is that calling we cling to.[7]

Church planters are drawn to an “agglomeration dynamics” of existing networks, affinity, and support structures present in cities as the above quotation from Greenstone et al reveals. In the same way high-tech companies are drawn to Bangalore or the Silicon Valley, church planters are drawn to cities and neighborhoods within cities where “it is happening.” Such cities provide ample educational opportunities from seminaries to conferences, existing and emerging networks of church planters, and the ability to rub shoulders with one’s peers. “Highly skilled people are highly mobile. They do not necessarily respond to monetary incentives alone; they want to be around other smart people. The university plays a magnetic role in the attraction of talent, supporting a classic increasing-returns phenomenon.”[8] Glaeser affirms this when he writes, “Ideas move from person to person within dense urban spaces, and this exchange occasionally creates miracles of human creativity.”[9] The agglomeration dynamics found in many cities prove to be a strong drawing point for potential church planters whether they rise up from within or relocate from outside.


  1. Barcelona Field Studies Centre , “GCSE Industry Glossary.”

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

  3. Glaeser, Triumph of the City, 6.

  4. Florida, Who's Your City?, 9.

  5. “Identifying Agglomeration Spillovers,” 542-544.

  6. Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, 223.

  7. Benesh, Metrospiritual, 92-93.

  8. Florida, Cities and the Creative Class, 151.

  9. Triumph of the City, 19.