Train of thought

Recently, I was surprised to hear someone say that Western is not an urban church.

“What?” I replied, “What do you mean? We’re right downtown. We feed homeless people. Our church is a vital part of this city.”

“Well, you’re more like a suburban church.”

Still confused, I asked, “We have people who commute from the suburbs to attend church here, but how can you say we’re a suburban church?”

“Well, there’s not as much diversity. And people are in a different position economically.”

“Huh? Are we talking about the same church?” In fact, in our congregation, there are people from all parts of the globe, and every social strata. On any given Sunday, you can find a CEO worshiping alongside a homeless person.

Then it dawned on me. She’s from an different generation than I am, so she was saying that it was not an urban church because it is not predominately an African-American church. She was thinking of the 1960s “white flight” narrative that a lot of people use to explain the urban context. According to that narrative, young professionals buy suburban properties, live far away from their work, so that they can enjoy white schools and big lawns.

My defining narratives are different. They look more like Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex in the City (well… they would look like that, except that all of the characters in these shows have a startling lack of color). I grew up on the beach, but like many in my generation, I was longing to live in the city.

I don’t mean to portray us as shallow. You know, most women don’t aspire to be Carrie Bradshaw… I’m just pointing out a trend, a reality that the art of television learned to mirror long ago. Urban centers have changed, due to a new generation of young adults who love the arts, desire diversity, and care for creation. Even parents, who formerly fled the city because of education, are often drawn closer now, because they hate what the commute time is doing to their family time.  

Urban ministry looks different now, because urban centers look a lot different now.

I tried to move into D.C. As a pastor in the city, I was determined to move into the urban center. However, the Capitol Hill real estate agent had a perfunctory “get real” conversation with me when she saw my income. There was no way that our family could afford a home in any D.C. neighborhood. In fact, when we lowered our standards and looked for a rental, we couldn’t manage that either.

So, we moved to Arlington, where I have just a seven-minute commute from the church. Arlington’s not really a sleepy bedroom community. We have a lot of industry here (you know… like that little operation we call the Pentagon…), and the city is exceptionally green, so they intentionally build up around metro stops.

Anyways, this is just one more transformation that our churches and denominations will need to get used to. When we think of an “urban church,” our minds cannot automatically shift to the white flight narrative, because our urban centers are much more diverse now. There is a rich variety of ethnicities, ages, and incomes there.

And, as we think about planting churches, we could take a tip from my good city. We can begin to focus our development near the trains–the metro, subways, CTA, Marta, El, what-have-you. Because if we are building a church for the next generation, these hubs are where they now reside.

Photo’s by monitorprop

3 thoughts on “Train of thought

  1. This is true in the suburbs too–more and more development near train stops (or potential train stops). I live in the FAR AWAY, “outer ring” of chicago suburbs. My church is very near an ex-Metra stop (back in the day the train stopped there–by back in the day I mean in the 1800’s–but the Metra stopped service to the hamlet many years ago, and then the station burned down…before I was born). But there’s talk of building a new station and having service there again, and there’s a TON of development going on. New businesses, new subdivisions, new roads, all within walking distance of the proposed new station. Before the station is even really and truly designed, let alone approved or actually built. It’s very interesting–and it makes me hopeful!

  2. Thanks for making me think about expanding my view of an urban church. I live on the westside of Chicago and as someone involved in CTA policy and church policy – I had never quite thought of it this way.

  3. A good post on the changing metropolitan landscape, which includes churches. You might be interested in checking out a great blog on urban planning at Greater Washington

    This blog calls for more of the same sort of thinking that you recommend in your blog. Conversely, what does the church do when poverty moves to the suburbs (after all, more than 50% of the population living below the poverty line lives in non-central cities according to the 2000 Census)?

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