The Geography of Church Planting: How Location Theory Helps Us Understand Where Churches Are Being Planted (Part 2)

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In this series I will explore church planting in light of urban economics looking primarily at agglomeration economies (previous series) 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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As a whole, the concept of the spatial distribution of churches across cities is an intriguing topic. In the course of a city’s history, whether a newer city like Seattle or an older one like Buffalo, NY, or Quebec City, Canada there has always been an ebb and flow phenomenon in regards to the starting of new churches. For example, where I live in inner NE Portland is home to a myriad of old church buildings. Seemingly on every other block one can find an assortment of these buildings punctuate the skyline. The apogee of this construction boom was eighty to a hundred years ago in and among the various ethnic immigrant groups. Throughout the past one hundred years any new church that was established and built ultimately sought to target one of the existing ethnicities or socio-economic demographics whether immigrant Germans or the African-American community. The same can be said of new church plants today, which is why location theory has much to add to this discussion.

Looking back on this neighborhood’s history, site selection for new churches wasn't even questioned. It made sense to start an ethnic German church for new immigrants in the same way later to transition that same building for use as an African-American church in keeping with the shifting demographics. Now that same building is again under renovation for its rebirth as a new mostly white hipster church. Is the discussion on site selection for new churches therefore the same as the reasoning as to why a new Chinese grocery store opens up in a neighborhood with a large Chinese population? What then are the implications for gentrification as well as for those locations as a result of this process? For the rest of this series I will apply some segments of the location theory template to church planting in the city and note how they affect churches being planted in both gentrified neighborhoods as well as those in outlying areas that are on the receiving end of the diaspora. Some of the features to be explored are locational advantages, how the decision-making process factors into social equality and income equity (or the lack thereof), and site selection in relation to transportation availability.

As I've mentioned before, the decision-making process of where to locate a new business in the context of a metro area is of key importance. “First, what is an efficient location or pattern of locations? According to location theory, the location patterns of all activities will be efficient or optimal when profits are maximum in a perfectly competitive system. Any shift in location or intensity of production at a location away from the optimum would reduce system profits and efficiency.”[1] Again, this could be a multi-million-dollar technology plant like Intel or Google, a branch office for a Fortune 500 company, and so on down the list. It is a laborious process indeed that, in some cases, takes years to finalize. Should church plants follow suit? How thorough, investigative, and toilsome should the process be? Is the process already this in-depth or are decisions made mostly on intuition? The reason why companies go through an extensive and sometimes multi-year research process, is that site selection is key in leveraging long-term profit and economic sustainability. However, a church's “bottom line” is assumedly going to be different. If the goal is Great Commission- (and Great Commandment-) driven then the measurables for long-term success, based upon a location, are going to look markedly different than a business start-up. However, location is still key. There are no guarantees either in church planting start-ups or business start-ups. Chapman and Walker affirm this when they write, “Industrial location decisions clearly involve considerable risk and uncertainty.”[2]

What are the locational advantages in the city? When it comes to church planting do some places simply make more sense to plant in than others? Does the proliferation of suburban church plants over the past several decades reveal as a whole North America’s shift in this direction? “Since World War II, much of the industry in metropolitan areas in the United States has moved to the suburbs. The principle reason for this movement is that plants need more land because one-story buildings are better suited to today’s production processes and because vast areas are needed for workers' parking. Since much more land is needed, plants go to the suburbs, where is it cheaper.”[3] How much of that applies to the locational choices for new churches?

As disinvestment took place in urban neighborhoods in regards to banks, real estate, and businesses, I can’t help but think that in some ways this trend also took place in the church as well. That does not mean that the church ceased to exist in these urban neighborhoods or that new churches weren’t started to connect with the changing demographics, but there seem to be parallel patterns of disinvestment, White flight (even among evangelicals), and the rise of suburban church planting. In urban neighborhoods across North America, as reinvestment has occurred and the streets have become safer again, there has been a boom both in business and new church start-ups in these locations which is now bringing church planters back into the city. It was only ten years ago that I didn't hear much about church planting in the city, now it seems as if the urban is the new suburban.

Economically, it makes great sense to position new businesses for maximum profit, and gentrifying neighborhoods are hotbeds for this. From my vantage point this morning at an inner-city coffee shop, the place is buzzing with activity. Trendy (white) urbanites, young and middle-aged, flock to this coffee shop as agglomeration economies on a smaller neighborhood scale draw the local masses to this area which houses not only this coffee shop, but also the new modern condos and numerous other businesses that cater to this growing demographic. The same principles apply in church planting. Planters, like business people, seek to locate their new churches in locations that are on the upswing of population growth and momentum. This is why brand new suburban master-planned communities have a magnetic draw for planters who can capitalize on social and cultural dynamics that can lead to people’s openness to spiritual matters and the gospel.

Where this becomes problematic is when neighborhoods no longer hold wider cultural appeal. What happens when these areas become neglected, disinvested, and forgotten? Is the bottom line for site selection and locational choices in church planting simply about a neighborhood’s desirability and livability? While suburbia and hip gentrified neighborhoods and districts are on the winning side of this equation, are we neglecting our higher calling? That doesn’t mean we cease to plant churches in the suburbs or urban neighborhoods, but what it does mean is that we have to continue to push through the cultural entrapments of comfort, success, and desirability to also plant in locations that are in spiritual, emotional, economic, and social need. 

This is where the church does diverge from location theory as it pertains to the business world. Instead of running away from low-income areas we need to run to them. But it seems as though most church planters shy away from these locations. As Brandon Rhodes notes in a Christianity Today article entitled “Where Church Planters Fear to Tread,” “Hawthorne and other ‘corridors of cool’ are also where you find most of the city's church-planters. In age and technological preferences, they're not too different from their non-Christian counterparts in Portland: mostly smartphone-savvy, denominationally financed white men in their 30s.”[4]

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  1. Morrill and Symons, “Efficiency and Equity Aspects of Optimum Location,” 215.

  2. Chapman and Walker, Industrial Location, 52.

  3. Alonso, “Location Theory,” 58.

  4. Rhodes, “Where Church Planters Fear to Tread.”