December 2, 2020

iMonk Classic: Why Aren’t We Doing Inner City Church Planting?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer

NOTE: This was originally posted on February 17, 2009 as an “Open Mic” discussion. I thought it would be good to revisit this question today, especially in the light of recent posts dealing with suburban evangelicalism, materialism, and cultural diversity.

I’m not dogging any churches here. I love my brothers and sisters in the suburbs. But this is a question that needs to be discussed. No blame, but thoughtful consideration. If you want to rant, go away.

I drove around Lexington yesterday, looking at suburban church after suburban church after suburban church after suburban church…..

I know Lexington pretty well. It has a major downtown/inner city area. Universities. Lots of businesses. Lots of housing of different kinds. Plenty of ethnics (Hispanics, especially) and minorities down there. Plenty of young people in the city. Lots of poverty and the resulting problems.

There are some churches in the inner city, but they are mostly Catholics, older, endowed, old money mainline congregations and Pentecostals who are happy to reach out to non-white, non-suburban people.

The big facilities, the new facilities, the nice facilities, the attractive facilities and church-run recreation centers….and the evangelical people to go with them, are out on the by-passes and four lanes, on very expensive property and in very expensive facilities.. From the real estate signs I see, more are moving there all the time. It’s like Jesus told us to go to the suburbs.

I know some churches are doing ministries in the inner city, but I’m sorry folks. If you drive around this very typical Bible belt city, it looks like evangelicals are, in the main, a lot of upper middle class white people who don’t have any plans to do church planting or front-line congregational ministry in the inner city or the urban core. Thank God for the Keller types and Driscoll types who have a vision for the city and go into the city with that vision, but the evidence is pretty strong that most evangelical churches with a sense of their future want the greener pastures of the suburbs and the people who live there.

Putting your congregation in the urban core and reaching out to the community around you? No. Clearly, church growth is economically driven, and pretty obviously race driven. Store fronts? Mercy ministries? Sure. But where are the evangelicals going? And why?

Why aren’t evangelicals- those of us who claim to “get” the Great Commission and to believe in personal evangelism and “entrepreneurial” church planting- why aren’t we seriously starting congregations in the inner city and the urban centers? Why are we ignoring the obvious call to the poor, the multi-ethnic community, to poverty, diversity and urban Christianity? (Which is, y’know, kind of Biblical.)

Why aren’t we doing inner city/urban core church planting?

Further Reading: Jared Wilson takes off on this topic.


  1. I can’t speak about evangelicals. Most mainline Protestant churches DO have an inner city presence – one of desperately trying to hang on to a lovely, though aging, facility and using it to conduct the usual run of outreach ministries. I just this minute finished a conversation about the 21 (count ’em!) food banks being run by downtown “ministries,” each with a different mission (feed the hungry is too broad, apparently – there’s one for “women only.” There’s one “geared to the middle class” etc). The endowments of these churches have long since been eaten away by insurance, sanitation, and safety requirements.

    Long ago I asked someone what it meant to say a church was “burdened by worldly things.” She instantly responded, “our facility.” If a church is trying to raise $80,000 for a sprinkler system (just as an example), maybe they simply cannot do it. That means their building can’t be used to house the homeless. The kitchen has to be compliant to serve the soup. Most mainstream Protestant denominations are sincerely trying to meet these financial challenges.

    You raise an interesting point though – what is the difference between “doing downtown ministry,” and “church planting in the inner city”?

  2. cermak_rd says

    The MB (Missionary Baptist) and AME (African Methodist Episcopal) groups seem to have a lot of churches in urban locations. Inner city is a broad term though. I gather from iMonk’s righteous rant that he is referencing the poverty stricken areas of the city and not areas like Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville in Chicago or the Georgetown area in DC. Truthfully, I think you might find more churches in the poorer areas then you will in the richer ones.

    • Even more upscale urban areas would be wonderful sites for church planting. We attended a church in one of those neighborhoods in Chicago recently. It was an incredibly diverse multi-ethnic, multi-cultural congregation, and its location made it possible for them to serve the poor as neighbors, not as drop-in, hit and run missionaries from the ‘burbs.

  3. Even further reading: Church Planting: Slums or Suburbs? WWJP? (Where Would Jesus Plant?)

  4. Kind of a wry grin for the fact that you get literally hundreds of comments for a post on something like women’s ministry or Ted Haggard or homosexuality in the Anglican communion or something that amounts to asking “Whom can we exclude and why?”

    Ask why the church isn’t partnering with a half-way house for prisoners…?



    This thing on?

    • Maybe that’s because people who are planting inner-city churches don’t have the leisure time to spend reading or commenting at iMonk. 😮

    • maybe it’s just because we have no answers? That’d be my response.

    • Christopher Lake says


      I asked one of the elders in the Washington, D.C. Reformed Baptist church where I used to be a member why the church could not, or would not, start a soup kitchen. The church was/is minutes from Capitol Hill, which is, in turn, minutes from quite a few homeless people. The church also happened to have, in its membership, government officials, lawyers, and many other people who were fairly “well off” financially, and also quite self-sacrificially giving. I thought that our church starting a soup kitchen would be a great physical and spiritual witness to the surrounding communities (both the “rich” and “poor” ones).

      I was told that soup kitchens are not part of the mission of the local, visible church as a physical entity. Preaching the Gospel is the mission. NOW, to be perfectly clear, the elder *did* say that one of the *clear implications* of the Gospel, for a Christian, is that he/she, having been shown mercy by God, should then go out into the community and mercifully reach out to others, both spiritually and physically, materially. I saw this “Gospel implication” lived out, wonderfully, by the individual members of this church. Non-Christians in the area saw this Christian witness, too, and were positively affected by it.

      However, the church elders’ collective position that, as a matter of prudence and priority, local, visible churches should not start soup kitchens, remained unchanged. Honestly, I saw that position then, and still see it now, as an over-reaction to the fact of the “Social Gospel” over-taking the proclamation of Biblical truths about sin, Christ, Hell, etc., at certain points in history in certain denominations. I definitely understand the concerns of the elders. I just don’t agree with the *application* of their concerns in this instance.

      In recent months and weeks, my theology and ecclesiology have changed, to the point that I’ve basically moved away from Protestantism and toward the Catholic Church. I understand that some Catholic parishes do tend to emphasize the “Social Gospel” so strongly that many Catholics believe that doctrinal, theological truths are obscured. If this is true, then it is definitely a serious, problematic imbalance. However, to my mind, the solution is *not* to go to another extreme (such as, local churches should not start soup kitchens).

      • Christopher Lake says

        I should say, as clarification and to give credit where it is due, that this church has remained in the D.C. urban area since the 1800s. It has stayed where it is, amidst urban decay, riots, and other such challenges. It hasn’t moved to the suburbs– and the members are making a difference in the city. Would that there were more such churches, despite certain disagreements that I have come to have with this church on theology and practice.

  5. I’m with you Otter, I thought the same thing myself. Someone should go and say something argumentative just to lively the place up a bit…

    OT: Something my (very evangelical) pastor says often that I often cringe at is “atmosphere”. The church wants to spend money on a audio system (new speakers) to increase “the experience and atmosphere of worship”, they want to spend some large sum on “HD Projector equipment” and “New buildings” and more land and etc… all in the name of comfort and “atmosphere”. He wants his church to give off a comfortable relate-able “atmosphere” to attract more and more suburbanites to his church.

    Which is fine and dandy, and he’s a done a masterful job of church growing. Our church went from some guys basement with 6 people to well over 400 within about 4 years. But we are short on minorities, and even shorter on anyone below the middle class line: I often wonder if we deliberately don’t evangelize to anyone outside the middle class world, in the name of “comfort” or “atmosphere” or any other equally offensive excuse. It may not be the pastor’s decision, it may be a collective “we think people not like us are icky” sentiment from other white middle class people in the church, but I still think there is something more than a passive “we forgot to minister in the city” attitude. I do think there is a very active “we will not minister heavily/ at all in the city” attitude. We spend so much money on mission trips to other countries, why not save a little and minister next door?

    • cermak_rd says

      I think it more likely than an expressive will not to witness to the poor is simply that people witness to those they encounter. Here where I live, the poor, the working class, the middle class and the rich all live in enclaves with those similar to them in socioeconomic status. Plus they work with those in similar socioeconomic status. So it takes an intentional effort to reach those not like us, whoever us is defined to be.

  6. I’m part of a new church in a downtown area. I went into this expecting something…..different.

    Doing church downtown is expensive. We probably could have gotten twice the facility if we weren’t committed to staying where we are. And we are committed to staying downtown. Evidently that is where all the cool people are. You know, artsy. Tatooed. Edgy.

    Sigh. Same story, different setting.

    • The Guy from Knoxville says

      This is so very, very true and I never really knew how that might be said and I see it here in Knoxville all the time these days and you can usually tell those types of churches or church start ups by what they name the place – for example – Outcast and others. Check out some of the new innter city or inner suburban ring just on the fringe of the inner city and read the bio on the church, its mission statement and vision, the type of persons in leadership etc. Not saying all this is bad or all starting them are bad or wrong but the tattooed, artsy, edgy, cool, piereced folks are now the new downtown equivilant of the middle, upper-middle class suburb church and its congregants and they are equally picky about who, what, where, when, why etc.

      Additionally on the “equipment” purchases – again, not meaning purposely to be critical – just factual – many of these new “artsy, edgy, cool” churches that have a couple or years or so under the belt break the bank on equipment – HD projection, plasma screens, high end computers, a rockin praise band decked out with rather expensive instruments and then the lighting – the best rock concerts would give their “eye teeth” for that kind of venue and equipment! Yes, I know about the beautiful old facilities downtown that folks are attempting to maintain and the new multi-million suburban theatre venues and the expensive pipe organs, pianos, orchestras etc – bottom line is we are ALL messed up in our respective areas. This I know all too well – I’m an organist and a rep for a pipe organ company currently and in the past for a high end electronic organ company and the price on all of them these days are astounding – even the smaller ones are approaching ridiculous prices but, we’re not hurting for business – we have several million dollar plus organs going in or being built so it’s on both sides – the more traditional, the blended and the contemporary just different types of equipment but all expensive and, in many cases, high end.

      You’re right – same thing but different approach and group – attitude is basically the same and we wonder why we have the problems we do.

  7. Here’s an idea for inner city church planting that is relatively simple and inexpensive: public park churches. Most inner city areas and even bad neighborhoods have a public park of some kind — so just load up a dozen or so courageous souls, a couple of gas grills, and enough food for 50 or more people and head down to the inner city park. Put up a sign saying “Free Cookout” or something like that, and then just see what happens. You might even bring some acoustic instruments and do some informal praise and worship — but mostly just feed anyone who comes up, sit down and eat with them, spend some time talking to them and getting to know them, and then, if that conversational door opens, share the Gospel in a one-on-one kind of way. Do that for several weeks, and you just might get a regular crowd. Add in a little person-to-person discipleship and discernment in regards to leadership potential, and you just might produce a unique, self-sustaining body of believers that gathers in the park — and one that is also free to focus practically all of its financial resources on meeting real needs of people in the inner city.

    • Exciting idea Ron. Over here in Scotland church buildings are being sold off by the dozen. Congregations average around 30 silver haired faithfuls in many places. I just applied for a “Parish development” job and went to visit the three churches that I would serve. One was surrounded with weeds and metal shuttered shops ,one had a huge chain and padlock on the gates ,and the other was an old 18th century beauty but miles away from those that might attend.
      I really questioned whether this was where God wants me, I live on a farm in picturesque countryside!
      But of course he does …”this is where the customers are..” The application is in, not sure if I will get an interview, but if I do ,and they ask me where I will start, I know now. In the park. Thank you.

    • cermak_rd says

      There’s a Baptist church (independent I think) that I pass on my dog walking and they have a barbecue every Sunday starting at 10. I’ve chatted with some of the folks before. One fellow was telling me it was a good way of getting the men in the neighborhood to church. They simply have services outdoors while folks are eating. It’s in the Austin neighborhood which is not inner city, it’s on the west side of Chicago, but its demographics are mostly poor and mostly African-American.

      A difference I see though is that this church is run by the folks in the neighborhood for the folks in the neighborhood. I don’t think a ministry is going to be all that effective if its run by folks from somewhere else for folks in a given neighborhood. I guess it leaves a questionable taste in my mouth with visions of noblesse oblige.

  8. Of the one million or so residents of Greater Richmond, Virginia, over three fourths live outside the municipality of Richmond. Many neighborhoods in the city would not be considered “inner city”. The counties have neighborhoods which would be considered “inner city”, except they are not in the city.

    Keep in mind that folks below the middle class line have to work on Sundays. Sometimes they work two or three jobs. Many have neither the time nor the energy to come, even if they feel inclined to do so. If you want to minister to the working poor, then you’ll need to have more services and extend full membership privileges to attendees of more than just Sundays and Wednesdays.

  9. I am a member of an urban church, on the edge of the ‘hood.’ Our building is on the register of National Historic places and we have a very active food ministry for the many homeless who are around.

    It is good in theory but in practice much harder. With this old building, our heating and cooling bills are astronomical and there’s always something falling apart. For what we pay in utilities and maintenance on this building, we could rent a storefront over in the growing part of town and still have money left over for even more ministries that touch the least of these.

    Right now, no one is sure what we’re going to do now that our elevator doesn’t meet code and so the upper floors are no longer handicap accessible. We don’t have the money to fix it.

    Feeding the homeless is God’s work, but only a certain kind of person is willing to worship where you walk by homeless people sitting on our steps as you go to Sunday School. I’m certainly OK with it but you can see first-time visitors with families being turned off. They’ll prefer to worship over in the new, wealthy part of town.