Stop Planting Churches in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Ybor City.jpg

I had every aspiration to write an article about the adventure and pioneer ethos of church planting. I’ve spent the summer reading books about adventure and straying off the beaten path. At times these adventurers were brutal colonizers and oppressors as they made their way throughout the New World. Other times adventures came from living a life on the run from the U.S. military as in the case of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apaches. Or they’re people like Everett Ruess who, in the 1930s, instead of going to college and fitting in nicely with society opted to live life as a vagabond wandering the Southwest desert of Arizona and Utah only to meet his untimely demise at the age of 20.

These stories and more captivate me. There’s that explorer or pioneer impetus within me that wells up. In church planting parlance we’d dub it as apostolic. Whatever the term, all of my life in ministry and outside of it I’ve always been drawn towards the new (for me) as well as to go new places and experience new vistas. To say it’s a hunger would be an understatement. Instead, it’s more like an unsatiated thirst that cannot be quenched. It is no surprise that my route would veer left and trek down the path of church planting. It is my Everest, my lost city of gold, and my blank space on the map.

However, the landscape of church planting has and continues to change. Whatever we may deem as the frontier is certainly a moving target. Even in my short tenure of involvement in church planting over the past 16 years I’ve see that frontier move. I’d contend it’s moved again … but we’re still operating 15-20 years behind the curve.

This morning I started reading a friend’s PhD dissertation from Portland State. Right away in his abstract he writes:

Findings indicate an overrepresentation of churches in gentrifying neighborhoods. A “back to the city” movement is occurring as church locational preferences have shifted from up-and-coming higher income neighborhoods in the 1980s to lower-income neighborhoods in the 2000s, reinforcing the overrepresentation in gentrifying neighborhoods.[1]

Since arriving in Portland in 2011 if there’s one trend in church planting I’ve seen up close and personal it could be summarized in that quote above. There’s an oversaturation of church planting in the urban core and in particular in gentrifying neighborhoods. I plead … it is time to stop. While space in this article doesn’t permit, there are a multiplicity of reasons why we need to stop that goes far beyond the idea of oversaturation. There’s growing evidence that in actuality church plants may be doing more harm than good. This could range from furthering racial divides to deepening economic inequality and in the end contributing to displacement. We need to stop.

Obviously this is a subtle … or not so subtle call for white church planters to stop planting in gentrifying neighborhoods. In it’s stead, we want and need more churches of color planted in these same neighborhoods. These new churches (along with established ones) will have better bridging and bonding capital to help people navigate the changes wrought on in their communities.

Back to the pioneer and explorer ethos.

I understand why many (white) planters do plant in gentrifying neighborhoods. While I’d contend most are simply unaware of most of the dynamics in the gentrification process, many church planters have great motives … but they just simply don’t know. For them the urban core is their frontier which even framing it that way can run the risk of couching in terms of colonial expansion. Again, most white planters I know simply are not operating on that level. But what do we do when church planting is then an intrinsically pioneer or apostolic endeavor? That means there is a frontier somewhere to be explored.

Obviously this is a layered and complicated conversation with many different threads to it. Again, space doesn’t permit to follow them all today. Instead, it’s a call to (a) continue and encourage a pioneer or apostolic ethos in church planting, but (b) to also encourage sensitivity knowing that in places you want to plant in you may cause more harm than good. Maybe it’s time to look elsewhere.

Tread wisely.

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  1. Kresta, “Can Churches Change a Neighborhood? A Census Tract, Multilevel Analysis of Churches and Neighborhood Change."