Church Planting In An Urban Setting

Our leadership team has recently started talking about church plant opportunities in Des Moines, the major city to our south. The concept of planting a church in an urban setting is appealing, and, in fact, the Baptist Convention of Iowa has launched several new churches in the Des Moines area this past year. Most of these, however, have focused more on the growing millennial population in Des Moines rather than on traditional multi-ethnic populations.

For a smaller city (Des Moines ranks 72nd in the top 100 media markets in the USA), Des Moines has a rather diverse population. Over the years, Des Moines has opened its arms to immigrant from Southeast Asia and African nations specifically, and to a growing Hispanic population. Still, compared to cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, or Detroit, Des Moines is plain vanilla.

The question I’ve been wrestling with this past week is a simple one: how can a white, suburban church plant a multi-cultural church in inner-city Des Moines? In many ways, I think it is safe to say that we don’t know what we don’t know. In many ways, this will require a completely different paradigm.

I’m not completely without experience in this area. The first church I joined as a staff member was located in the Drake Neighborhood of Des Moines. While I would like to think we drew a fairly diverse crowd (given it is Iowa), I recognize that the model of ministry we followed in the early 1990s was based on a 1970s and 1980s approach to urban ministry–send buses to ethnic neighborhoods around the city and bring in the children. If things worked as planned, ministry to children would open the door to the parents. It worked to a degree, but in the end, if you visited our church on a Sunday morning, Sunday evening, or Wednesday night, you would find a predominately white church.

In 1992, our church moved from the inner-city to the outskirts of Des Moines. (Not the suburbs, but not in the inner-city, either.) My next exposure to some of the challenges for urban churches happened in 2004 when our church attempted to transition from a traditional Sunday School model to a small group model. The motivation was right, but we ran into some barriers. Most importantly, we quickly discovered that small groups may not work as well in an urban setting as they do in the suburbs. In the Suburbs, folks have nicer homes with space; in the inner-city, folks live in much smaller homes and may or may not be comfortable having a group of people in their home every week. City folk are much more comfortable coming to the church for their activities rather than have them in their homes.

I’ve been reading quite a bit on this topic the last few days, and the difficult reality seems to be that there are no clear models to guide us when it comes to Urban Church Planting. In many ways, it is like cross-cultural church planting–what works with one culture may or may not work with another culture. One article I found particularly helpful was “African-American and Urban Church Planting: a Recap of the Church Planting Leadership Fellowship” published in 2013 by Ed Stetzer. Here are a couple of observations:

  • There are not a lot of African-American church planters, more white planters who go into urban settings and plant multi-ethnic churches.
  • We have to understand it has not been the African-American practice to plant churches. We have to get more African Americans talking about it, leaders talking about it, and introducing it. As we talk about it it will add credibility. There is a need for diversity when it comes to African-American church planting. The African American population is so diverse. One model is not necessarily going to work everywhere. With so many sub-groups even African-American folks have not yet figured out.
  • African-Americans are much less church mobile. A lot less church switching. There are some cases of Black flight commuter churches (commute back but don’t live there).
  • Before you can lead a multi-ethnic ministry you have to have a multi-ethnic life.
  • There is a demographic inversion happening in many cities as the wealthy move into high priced real estate in urban areas to be closer to their employers, the arts, public transportation, etc. This is pushing the middle class and urban poor away from the urban areas. This is a problem because the support systems for the poor are centered in the urban areas and not the suburbs.
  • Church planters often focus on metrics with a specific amount of money for their project and a specific amount of time until their money runs out. This model may not work with the urban poor and middle class.
  • To reach the city we must send in missionaries and not pastors. They need to learn the language, learn the culture, learn the rhythms of peoples lives.
  • We have to send church planting missionaries in as teams. They need to be willing to wait, watch, learn, and work—to see where God is already working. Churches are failing because they try to be copycat-churches of models that work without fully grasping all of the intricacies that make a multi-ethnic church work.

Urban church planting is just one of the many threads that pastors and those who help the church need to focus on in the years ahead. More than ever, I am convinced that the church is undergoing a slow but dramatic change that will result in a different church in 10 years. This is not new, every generation experiences this, it is new, however, for this generation.

Do you have any thoughts or experience with Urban Church Planting? Please share your thoughts. I would be interested to learn from your experience.

    Chris Eller is a Christ Follower, Husband, Father, Pastor, Geek, Writer, Photographer, and Church Technology Consultant.