Unique Challenges Facing Urban Church Planters
by J. Allen Thompson
Paul G. Hiebert, a keen observer of the mission of the church worldwide, pinpoints the unique opportunities for witness in the urban sphere. He notes that in the age of globalism, in contrast with other periods in history, we face both secularism and postmodernism. Secularism, a view that denies the existence of God, marginalizes those who continue to hold religious convictions, because it relegates religion to the private sphere of personal opinions and feelings. Postmodernism, in contrast, affirms spiritual experience but views it as pragmatic and relative.
The basic religious debate in city culture, therefore, centers on the uniqueness of Christ and his claim to be the only way to salvation. In dialoguing with non-Christians to help them discover and appropriate truth, church planters need to examine their approach carefully. For non-Christians the usual form of gospel communication may be totally unfamiliar, like learning a foreign language. Also, postmodern people may require a different approach because of their method of making personal decisions.
Tim Keller has extensively studied ways to address postmodern non-Christians in both one-on-one and worship contexts. He believes the best context for worship is a mix of Christians and non-Christians together. In a mixed group, when the preacher speaks somewhat more to non-Christians, the Christians present learn how to share the faith; on the other hand, when the preacher speaks more to Christians, the non-Christians present come to see how Christianity “works.” Keller adds that more deeply secular postmodern non-Christians tend to decide about the faith on pragmatic grounds; they do not examine it in a detached, intellectual way.
Also, they are more likely to make their commitment through a long process of mini-decisions. They will want to try Christianity on to see how it fits their problems and how it fleshes out in real life. The process may fol- low a pattern such as this:
+ Awareness: “This is it.” Clearing the ground of stereotypes. Distinguishing the gospel from legalism or liberalism, and distinguishing core truths from peripheral issues.
+ Relevance: “I need it.” Showing the slavery of both religion and irreligion. Showing the transforming power of the gospel and how the gospel “works.”
+ Credibility: “I need it because it’s true. ”Reversing the modern view, which says, “It is true if I need it.” Seekers must see the gospel’s reasonableness, or there will be no endurance to their faith decision.
+ Trial: “I see what it would be like.” In group life and in service ministries, they try Christianity on, often talking like Christians or defending the faith.
+ Commitment: “I take it.” Sometimes this is the point of real conversion. This may have already happened in the past; or it may happen later on.
+ Reinforcement: “Now I get it.” Typically, a period of follow-up is the time when the penny drops and the gospel becomes clear. We will now examine some of the more specific challenges using New York City as a case study.
SOCIAL CLIMATE: ETHNIC DIVERSITY REQUIRES “PEOPLE SENSITIVITY”
Primarily through attracting new immigrants, New York City is the only U.S. northern industrial city with a sustained net population gain in the last one hundred years. While the population grows, the city also experiences a large turnover in population, which creates change in the social and demographic makeup. Tony Carnes, president of the Values Research Institute, articulates the following concerns.
+ Migration is a catastrophe for newcomers to the city. It disrupts marriages, children, and families. Newcomers will either accept new customs and habits or reject, synthesize, fall apart, or go another path. During the first two years as they are seeking assimilation, immigrants tend to be open to the gospel.
+ Newcomers struggle with income and education: 35% have incomes below $22,000; 52% are ages eighteen to thirty-four, but only 17% have college degrees; 46% are single, and 33% are single mothers; and 39% attend religious services regularly.
+ New immigrants include 30% Caribbean, 26% Asian, 25% European, 5% African, 4% South American, 2% Central American, and 1% Canadian individuals. These new immigrants represent dozens of languages and cultures.
+ The Hispanic population is 27% of New York City’s residents, which is larger than the African American population. Most are from Puerto Rico (38%) and the Dominican Republic (27%).
To plant churches in this city, we must develop great sensitivity to the ethnic groupings mentioned above, as well as to their social networks. Communities in the city are a patchwork quilt of neighborhoods, representing a large mix of people from various nations. Odd as it may seem, since identities are unknown there is a great deal of intimacy among strangers; however, they relate in distinctive ways, depending on their education, occupation, wealth (or lack thereof), and language preference. For example, Hispanics and Asians possess the commonality of entering into a white world; yet individuals’ social standing will make them comfortable in some groupings and uncomfortable in others.
To design the model of church that will reach these communities effectively, church planters therefore need to do extensive demographic and ethnographic studies. Assumptions should be avoided and conclusions must not be drawn too quickly, especially not until people profiles of particular neighborhoods are completed.
CULTURAL LEARNING: A PREREQUISITE FOR CHURCH PLANTERS
Missionaries entering a new culture abroad often realize the necessity of learning the language, customs, and lifestyles of the people with whom they will live. Because New York City is in North America and the major language is English, church planters from within the United States sometimes fail to realize the importance of “putting on the missionary hat” and learning new ways of thinking, acting, and relating. This is a significant mistake.
Paul Hiebert describes the “bicultural bridge” as the quality of interpersonal relationships between human beings—between missionaries (church planters) and the people they serve. The biculture is a new culture that arises in the interaction of people from two different cultural backgrounds. Church planters coming to New York City from other parts of North America bring with them their own cultural maps: they have ideas of how to dress, what to eat, who should raise their children, how to worship properly, and many other things. No matter how hard they try, they cannot “go native” in New York City. They cannot fully erase their child- hood culture, even if they attempt it, and they are also influenced by the new culture they enter—the culture of New York City.
New Yorkers who interact with the church planter also become part of the biculture, adding their own ideas about child rearing, family values, worship preferences, etc. In relationship with the church planter, however, they are also exposed to new ideas and beliefs. To relate to one another productively, the church planter and the New Yorkers must create new patterns of working, playing, and worshiping—a new culture, or biculture.
Consequently, the first months of the church planter’s life on the new project must be spent in learning the ways of those he seeks to serve and in developing a bicultural community. Questions he may seek to answer will range from personal habits to ministry values:
+ What type of apartment should I live in?
+ What types of clothes should be worn?
+ Where should the children go to school?
+ What values should the new church demonstrate?
+ What should be the philosophy of ministry for the new church?
This process of learning culture—and the incarnation that results—is called “identification” in cross-cultural lingo, but the process does not deny who we are originally. It is a bipersonal state we choose in order to be- come one with the people we seek to serve. The months of learning the local culture will be rewarding and will yield benefits for the future church-planting project. Don’t skip this process or attempt to downgrade it; it is not minority people engagement but urban culture engagement.
FINANCIAL COST OF MINISTRY IN THE CITY
Based on an understanding of Christ’s incarnation (he “made his dwelling among us,” John 1:14), church planters should live in their ministry’s target area. In all global cities, the cost of living is high. For example, a small (800 square feet) two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan rents for more than $3,000 a month. Purchasing facilities for worship is unthinkable; renting adequate places for worship (schools, churches, synagogues, theaters, community centers, etc.) is always challenging and costly. This means a church planter and his family may need upwards of $100,000 to $250,000 a year for living and ministry expenses.
Churches and individuals helping to support a church plant in the city need to understand and accept these budgetary challenges. As they begin the support-raising process, church planters should develop a well-prepared Church Plant Proposal document that includes the following components.
+ an executive summary of the vision
+ a brief demographic profile of the target area
+ a biographical sketch of the church planter
+ a summary of the proposed budget
Donors will respond to a compelling vision of a ministry that meets the needs of people, versus a bland financial presentation.
LIMITATIONS OF WORSHIP VENUES IN THE CITY
The church planter’s action plan may envision a start-up congregation of seventy-five to one hundred, with ample room for growth. Finding a corresponding meeting place in the city at the right hour on Sunday be- comes a difficult chore. Often goals and projections will require modifications because of venue constraints. Flexibility and creativity on the part of the church planter (CP) to enhance a poorly designed meeting place is often required. For example, renting a theater on Sunday morning may be feasible but also tricky, as a dark and windowless site will require additional lighting. Clever use of the large screen, however, could result in a well-lit space.
USE OF INAPPROPRIATE MODELS
Church planters are often impressed by what they have seen other planters do in a new situation. The self-talk goes like this: “That’s impressive; it would not be too difficult to duplicate; I can do that.” The rush to borrow methodologies and neglect the learning stage may result in tragic contextual misjudgments.
To develop the appropriate model, the CP should move to the target area as soon as possible, do a walking tour of the area, begin networking in the community, gain information in the context of relationships, and then summarize and analyze the data providing implications for the right type of model.
PREMATURE TIMING OF PUBLIC LAUNCH
By “going public,” I mean moving from the informal meetings of small-group Bible studies to the full-blown meetings of a Sunday worship service. The timing of the public launch is critical for any church plant, but for church planters in the city, the importance of right timing is heightened by greater financial constraints and sponsor expectations. This pressure can be intense, as missteps at this critical juncture will have serious con- sequences for the church plant.
In addition to gathering enough people to create momentum, the CP must prepare for the many activities and logistics necessary for setting up a site and welcoming people. This takes time and careful planning, with the added pressure of having only one shot to get it right. People visiting for the first time will make up their minds quickly whether or not to return. Thus, the CP needs to make sure he is ready both physically and spiritually for the public launch.
During this time, the CP will benefit greatly from having a coach. Together the CP and the coach must develop a well-crafted plan for the first twelve months of the project, identifying how people will be reached, how often they will meet as a emerging core group, and so on. Before the public launch takes place, the CP must have a solid core of leaders to assimilate, new believers to disciple, and several small groups operating with their own leaders.
Whatever is planned for the life of the church must be in place from the beginning. With the first fifty or seventy-five people, attention is focused on gathering as a congregation, developing an infrastructure, and building a sense of momentum. With emerging momentum and a clear vision for the project, the CP is ready to strike with the public launch!
THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING LEADERS IN HIGH TURNOVER URBAN CONTEXTS
Church planters in the urban context face the added challenge of working in a highly fluid environment. The rapid turnover and high attrition rate of city dwellers poses a major challenge to the CP seeking to develop committed leaders in his nascent congregation. Often the core leaders assume the burden of the many tasks required in a new church, and some burn out. New people are not helping out yet, but the work needs to be delegated to others. The following are some ways to involve others.
+ Take more risks. When you need something done, give it to somebody new instead of relying on old standbys.
+ Learn to recruit. Start compiling a list of workers—bookkeepers, greeters, ushers, social organizers, a setup crew. Among those who take on these types of jobs you will find those who want to go deeper in their responsibilities.
+ Establish apprenticeships. In all areas of leadership training, instill in followers the concept of every leader having an apprentice. In this way, leadership is multiplying and replacements are being trained.
+Develop a leadership training plan for the long term.
What are some of the unexpected challenges that you’ve faced planting a church in a city?
How have you prepared for the unexpected in church planting?
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The Gospel and Life conferences of 2004 and 2005 and is posted here from Redeemer City to City with permission. The image used was taken by Ecstaticist.