The Geography of Church Planting: How Location Theory Helps Us Understand Where Churches Are Being Planted (Part 1)

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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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I have always been a geography nerd. I like maps. As an elementary student I had prided myself on knowing all fifty states as well as their capitals. Even today the spatial layout of cities and their relationship to their regions and states/provinces intrigue me. For example, I recall the last time I visited Montreal with others for a week to explore the city. Part of my preparation was poring over maps; maps of the city, maps of the region including other prominent cities up and down the St. Lawrence River, and so forth. Maps give us context and grounds us in a place. Each place has a relationship with other places.

Shortly after returning to the States from Canada at the dinner table we’d bring out a map of Canada and quiz each other about the names and capitals of the various provinces and territories. While not as daunting as knowing all fifty states it was still fun. I’d usually get stuck remembering the capital of New Brunswick or Nunavut. We’d then turn to a map of the world and one by one our boys would take turns picking some obscure country and we’d then have to remember (or guess) which nations border it. They liked to pick nations like Togo, Moldova, or one of the -stan countries (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etc).

I have always had a fascination with place in regards to the geography of church planting. Where are new churches being planted and why? I am baffled and curious as to where people decide to plant new churches. What was their reasoning? Why here? Why there? What went into the decision process? How aware were they of the push-and-pull dynamics at hand shaping and influencing their decision?

Another way to help understand the spatial distribution or clustering of church planters is to delve into location theory as to why firms locate where they do in cities. Whether in reference to large professional sports venues, manufacturing plants, or something seemingly small and insignificant like a gas station, why did they locate where they did? What were the factors involved and how does this apply to where churches are being planted whether in gentrified districts or in what people perceived as the “slums?” “Location theory is concerned with the geographic location of economic activity; it has become an integral part of economic geography, regional science, and spatial economics. Location theory addresses the questions of what economic activities are located where and why.”[1]

Location theory plays a significant role in church planting and ministry in both gentrified neighborhoods or a city’s declining neighborhoods. In purely economic terms the decisions revolving around site selection for new businesses are intended to put themselves in locations which they can leverage for maximum profit. This could be a suburban business park, an industrial site just outside the central business district, or a gentrified neighborhood for a new trendy coffee shop. How much of this factors in to where churches are being started or where new ministries are being launched? We've already explored the concept of agglomeration that is drawing talent to certain cities, which includes church planters. Delving into location theory offers insight into specifically where in cities new churches are located and how that helps or hurts gentrifying neighborhoods. It helps us understand why many rural communities are overlooked. Also, it could very well explain why desirable parts of the city receive more church plants compared to locations like outer SE Portland.

One of the challenges in applying an urban economics template over site selection in church planting is that it is to some degree limiting. On the one hand, new insights can be gleaned by the value of studying location theory and its impact on gentrified neighborhoods or the resultant lower income areas. On the other, the template does not factor in key insights from theology including missiology and ecclesiology. With that in mind, we’ll cautiously seek to reconcile both perspectives and how each relates to the topic of where churches are being planter … and why.

Applying the template of location theory will help reveal why we see an oversaturation of churches in some parts of the city (either gentrified neighborhoods or highly performing suburbs as well as desirable cities as a whole) and why there are many places overlooked and neglected (non-trendy places in the city, rural communities, etc). Are you ready?

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Written by Sean Benesh, Director of Intrepid

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  1. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., “Location Theory.”