Urban Churches and the Challenge of Sustainability

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : September 24, 2006

Many churches that portray themselves as “urban churches” are really “city churches.” Urban churches focus on particular urban neighborhoods or populations. City churches happen to be in an urban area but have a metropolitan draw. City churches seem to increase as gentrification increases. In Minneapolis at least, urban churches continue to be in the decline, in spite of the growing sensibility that urban churches are noble, neccessary, and desireable. Some folks think that urban churches are on the increase because they simply don’t understand the difference between an urban church and a city church.

But does the difference even matter? If a church in Neighborhood X is a city church and has a large number of congregants from all over, doesn’t it still serve and benefit Neigborhood X? Sure. But not as much as an authentic neigborhood church would. City churches are not indigineous. They are usually lead by middle class folks and have middle class leaders. Often, these churches operate with a power differential, where the haves minister to the have nots, but not vice versa. And the church culture is determined by the affluent, rather than upon the ministered to in the neighborhood. Urban churches are much more likely to be indiginous or at least to operate with less of a class power differential.
In our increasingly pluralistic, fragmented urban areas (and suburban areas too by the way), we need more localized urban churches. Why aren’t there more? Because there are no self-sustaining urban churches. At least not in poor neighborhoods. Dispute me if you want. The truth is that if a church is made up of neigborhood folk, they won’t have the resources to adequately serve the neighborhood. Urban churches often rely upon the good graces of suburban Christians. But more and more folks seem to believe that if a church is a good one, it will pay for itself.

And because we have such a mentality, people would rather serve urban areas by starting City Churches rather than urban ones. And insodoing, they don’t empower indiginous leaders and they have churches that don’t adequately reflect the host culture. What has long been considered inappropriate on the foreign missionfield is ok at home.

If you want to do urban work, you must secure outside funds. Urban areas have big needs that cost lots of money but are populated largely by folks without means. In response to this dillema, one may either start a city church hoping against hope that the diffuse congregants can all focus their hearts, minds, and money enough to adequately serve the needs of the neighborhood. Or one could start an authentic urban church and seek additional funding. A middle ground is to encourage gentrification and draw upon the new urban gentry.

Here’s my question for you all: Is it better to be a city church with a big draw that “adopts” a neighborhood or an urban church that is of the neighborhood? Is this a false distinction? Am I misguided in my belief that a church like Missio Dei will never be self-sufficient and will rely upon outside funding to do some of its neighborhood ministry?

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


5 Responses to “Urban Churches and the Challenge of Sustainability”

  1. fernando on September 24th, 2006 3:34 am

    William Booth (founder of the salvation army) reflected on this problem when explaining why congregationally funded churches struggled in the inner-city.

  2. James on September 24th, 2006 3:01 pm

    Some missionary friends of mine are associated with a mission organization that goes into an African village, spends time getting to know the people and becoming part of them and their culture. All the while they share the message about Jesus and also analyze agricultural, medical, and religious practices.

    Once they have been their a while they begin teaching the people better farming techniques, to trust modern medicine, and begin building a church. The purpose for them is not to build an American church in the village, but to build a village church. They accomplish this by training, equipping, and maturing believers in the village who will then end up being elders, deacons, and ministers for that congregation. At that point the missionaries have worked themselves out of a job, so they move on to other villages and begin again.

    I think that model is consistent with the early church, and can be effectively applied in America, not just overseas.

  3. o2thoughtful on September 24th, 2006 3:48 pm

    Why can’t the city churches then fund a church plant into the urban areas? We’ve seen that happen time and time again in Edinburgh and once the plant is up and running, the city church begins to step back.

  4. Van S on September 24th, 2006 4:41 pm


    Some do that. But it is a rare church that gives its resources away like that. Those that do are great. And its not as though I think city churches are bad, not at all. They are simply not enough.

    James…that is a good approach and is the sort of approach that we need to see more here. Incarnational instead of attractional approaches are what the urban areas need. Look here for an article that I wrote about this.

  5. Steve Hayes on September 30th, 2006 11:25 pm

    Thanks very much for that, I found it very illuminating and helpful.

    We have just such a city church and some have a vision for it to be an urban church, but in all the talk about it, the options have not been clarified. Your posting certainly helps to clarify them.

Got something to say?