The Geography of Church Planting: How Location Theory Helps Us Understand Where Churches Are Being Planted (Part 3)

bike_ride (1 of 1)-7.jpg

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.


Have we ever thought about the geography of church planting and how that relates to other topics like equity and justice? Do where we plant churches do more harm than good? Is that even a topic of conversation for church planters or network and denominational leaders? In the final article in this 3-part series on applying location theory to church planting I will begin unpacking some of these issues.

As Morrill and Symons note, speaking of businesses and site selection, “The notion of distributional equity, or justice with respect to location, is much less clear.”[1] What is equitable or just in site selection in church planting? Is there such a thing? How would we know if there is or is not? Is it even measurable? Morrill and Symon continue, “The idea of measuring equity only arises, of course, if society feels that some of its members may not be receiving fair or adequate goods and services.”[2] Those questions are asked in the business world. Do we dare ask them in the world of church planting? If site selection of church planters means agglomeration dynamics in certain parts of the city and overall neglect in the downtrodden and what is deemed as “blighted” parts what does that mean? Do we have a framework where we can measure or a platform to even have these conversations?

Much of the equity conversation revolves around transportation issues. One of the benefits of living in high-density urban areas is that most often they are serviced by a greater concentration of transportation options. “The location and orientation of transport networks is a significant factor in the real world. Such infrastructure is expensive to build and confers special benefits on particular locations.”[3] For example, where I live I have access to several bus routes, the MAX light rail, plus the area is thoroughly bike-friendly. But most of the city is not like this. Murray and Davis point out such discrepancies: “Most transportation agencies stipulate that an important planning goal is to provide equitable and just public transport services. However, who is to be served and the type of service that should be provided has been ambiguous.”[4] Oftentimes lower income people who have historically lived in dense central city neighborhoods benefitted from transportation accessibility. However, through gentrification and the resultant displacement of many of these families, they now find themselves in neighborhoods with little access to a variety of transportation options. 

That brings up issues in regards to equity and justice. “In general, the notion of equity, justice, or fairness deals with principles that determine the distribution of income, goods, or services.”[5] This is related to transportation accessibility as Newman, Beatley, and Boyer point out. “The evidence of the poor becoming more and more isolated on the car-dependent urban fringe is very clear in Australia and increasingly so in North America as the focus of social policy has been on creating affordable housing on cheap land. The emphasis has not been on creating affordable housing in urban areas that is walkable, transit accessible, and energy efficient.”[6]

Where this conversation and this reality come crashing into the world of site selection in church planting is how aware church planters are of these conditions if at all. Do they know the dynamics that are shaping both urban gentrified neighborhoods and those areas that are on the receiving end of gentrification? How does this conversation affect where and how we plant churches across cities? To try to answer this question I return to the work of Morrill and Symons. While they are writing about appropriately placing public facilities (i.e., hospitals and such) there are some lessons we can glean about an equitable distribution of church plants. Concerned about achieving greater equity in accessibility they set forth three points worthy of consideration as they apply to church planting:

  1. Raising the average level of access of people to a set of facilities implies simply a larger number of perhaps smaller facilities located closer together. 

  2. To reduce the proportion of people more than some critical distance from a facility, facilities must be shifted toward less dense (or poorer) areas from more dense (or richer) areas.

  3. Reduction of the variability of access or distance traveled implies perhaps simply the imposition of a regular central-place-like lattice of facilities, irrespective of variations in density or income.[7]

Would some of these points apply when it comes to the geography of church planting across cities? Or is that simply nonsensical ? Do such dynamics as agglomeration economies and its effect on church planting deter any concept of equally distributing new churches across cities so as to create equal accessibility for all urban inhabitants? Why are all of the great coffee shops found in urban neighborhoods that are gentrifying? In the same way, why are most of the new church plants in the city limits in similar neighborhoods? While we may not get to the point of a spatial equilibrium of church plants across the city we can at least posit that “equitable church planting” needs to be grounded in care and concern for the whole city. If not we'll continue to plant mostly in the suburbs and trendy gentrified neighborhoods all the while neglecting blighted areas. This is not right. But how do we correct the course of the trajectory we're on? DeVerteuil contends that, “Welfare economics makes value judgments about the distribution of resources in society, and determines if such distributions are equitable.”[8] If any group should seem to have a corner on the market of equity in economics, redistribution, and accessibility it would be the church. Does this reflect where we're planting churches?

In the past two article series I attempted to apply the template of agglomeration economies and location theory to church planting. It is a messy process but worth the risk. The church is about extending common and saving grace to the city, therefore we must be concerned with both urban places and urban people. The former affects the latter more than we realize. The place we live in the city is more than an address and a zip code. It affects our worldview and ultimately our lives. Life is markedly different if one grows up on the 17th floor of a run down tenement building in an overlooked neighborhood in South Chicago compared to a lush agrarian suburban setting in The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas, or the upscale False Creek or Yaletown neighborhoods of downtown Vancouver, BC. We find a proliferation of church planting in such places compared to neighborhoods like South Chicago or outer SE Portland. Exploring agglomeration economies and location theory is one way to address where churches are being planted, the push-and-pull dynamics shaping site selection, and then how they correlate with the Kingdom of God. Although its context is the site selection of industrial locations, the following quotation highlights even more so the need for the church to be sensitive and thoughtful as to where it plants new churches: “Whatever reasons promote the search for a new location, the question of how this search is made is clearly important, bearing in mind the optimizing approach assumed by location theory.”[9] Gentrified neighborhoods need more new churches not fewer. However, so do the “blighted” neighborhoods that are experiencing the fallout from gentrification.


Written by Sean Benesh, Director of Intrepid


  1. Morrill and Symons, “Efficiency and Equity Aspects of Optimum Location,” 217.

  2. Ibid.

  3. “Location Theory, Location Factors and Location Decisions,” 42.

  4. Murray and Davis, “Equity in Regional Service Provision,” 577.

  5. Ibid., 578.

  6. Newman, et al, Resilient Cities, 50.

  7. “Efficiency and Equity Aspects of Optimum Location,” 222-223.

  8. DeVerteuil, “Reconsidering the Legacy of Urban Public Facility Location Theory in Human Geography,” 50.

  9. “Location Theory, Location Factors and Location Decisions,” 55.