By most measurements, the church I work for is young. We celebrated our third birthday just this year; only last year, we edged over the this-may-be-sustainable-I-hope line of attendance and giving. The finance portion of our last members’ meeting involved the phrase “Moving out of Mom’s basement.”
And in about a month, we’re going to send out one-quarter of her adult members to begin a new congregation roughly 6.5 miles away, as the cardinal flies. We’re taking on the costs of renting a new building, hiring new staff (such as yours truly), and starting a whole new series of ministry efforts in the city.
Sound crazy to you? It kinda does to me, and I work for the place. Why would a young and just-financially-stable-for-now church make these sacrifices to start a second congregation within driving distance of the first? Couldn’t we at least move out of the city a bit and build one big church?
Because we believe – heartily believe – that urban areas are best reached by “going local.” Here’s three reasons why.
I don’t know where my wife’s cousin got the quote, but we got it from him: Suburban areas are built around the car, while urban areas are built around the walker. Suburbanites are used to driving: it may take five minutes solid to get out of your neighborhood, let alone get to a grocery store. The megachurch is a great way to reach suburban areas: the size makes it a visible landmark, the concentration of resources makes for suburb-appealing amenities, and no one thinks twice about driving twenty, thirty minutes to church.
But urbanites are different. Richer urbanites – those who pay the higher urban-living costs willingly – are paying for, among other things, convenience. They want a grocery store (or farmers market) they can walk or bike or Vespa to. And poorer urbanites usually have fewer mobility options: they may not own a car at all. (And God help them if they rely on Indy’s bus system for transit)
The short of this is that urbanites – either because they prefer it or require it – need churches that are easily accessible to them. Going local for a church may be the only option for reaching those who live in urban areas.
- Cultural currency
Megachurches tend to work well in the suburbs because they’re able to provide a cultural currency that most suburbanites prefer: Professionalism. Even if they don’t have a climbing wall or indoor carousel or whatever – which I’m glad to say my former church didn’t – megachurches can usually use their concentrated resources to make Sunday mornings a crisp, professional-feeling experience.
(Hear me say that neither this nor the urban currency makes a good church; it just lowers a barrier to people experiencing what does make a good church)
Smaller, less-resource-rich churches tend not to be able to provide professionalism to the same extent. We have to make do with what we have. But smaller churches do have a cultural currency that megachurches lack, and it’s actually one that’s more important to urban environments: relational capacity.
Small churches tend to be places where everyone knows everyone. And in healthy small churches, the leaders have direct relationships with lots of people in the church and one-degree-removed relationships with just about everyone. They tend to focus hard on building community, on helping people stick around because they’re known and loved.
And this currency is more important in urban environments. A pastor at my former church put it this way: in the suburbs, people live on their back deck; in the city, people live on the front porch. Urbanites tend to be hungry for people to know them and care for them; urban environments work best when the ties of relationship are thick. This certainly can happen in a suburban megachurch; but it’s much easier and much more visible in a small church, which gives us another reason to go local.
- Missional power
Related to the above points, urbanites tend to be most influenced by things in closest proximity to them. The suburbs were in one sense built to compartmentalize one’s life: to insulate the sphere of home from the sphere of work. A car-dependent life makes me more able to be selective about where I go and what I do. There may be a movie theater five minutes from my house, but if there’s a better one 20 minutes away you’ll rarely see me darken the nearer door.
By contrast, urbanites – again, either by preference or necessity – tend to be impacted more by what is closest to them. Nearby restaurants; nearby mechanics. They’ll be more likely to know and choose what’s nearby.
Going local for churches, then, makes us more likely to be able to reach people in urban areas. If we plant a church – not just a building, but a congregation – in an urban area, pretty quickly two things will happen. First, we’ll become aware of the real and felt needs of our place. We’ll see the suffering and hurt and opportunities in the people who live around us; we’ll become more aware of how we can love our urban neighbors well.
Second, we’ll help people in the area learn that there’s a church nearby and that the people in it live near them and care for them. If we live into our neighborhoods well, we’ll be able not only to invite people to our church service, but also to show them what community-life in Christ looks like. They can see our mess; they can see our struggles; and they can see (hopefully) the beauty of God in our broken lives. Proximity doesn’t equal impact; but in urban environments, it opens an easy door for impact.
So all those are reasons why Soma is going local in Indianapolis, and why we’re excited to be working with them.
As a small, relatively not-wealthy church, they can’t afford to pay me full-time yet – I’m in the process of raising support for half my salary so that I can give full attention to the work of the church. So if you think about it, I’d appreciate prayers for us as we move deeper into the city and prayers for us as we look for God to provide for us in this time. We can’t wait to see what’s in store over the next few years!