January 22, 2021

Open Mic at the iMonk Cafe: Why Aren’t We Doing Inner City Church Planting?

metrohopekn7UPDATE: Jared Wilson takes off on this topic.

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, kindof Biblical.)

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


  1. I told iMonk that my reply was much too long for a comment post. So, I wrote a blog post based on his question. You can read it at: http://www.orthocuban.com/2009/02/why-dont-we-reach-out-to-the-inner-city/ If you decide to reply, please post here since it is iMonk’s question (hmm or double post both here and there, GRIN).

  2. I think when I said “interluders” I meant “interlopers.”

  3. The E. Free church has been doing inner city church plants for years, at least here in the Eastern District. Their outreach has been to minority communities more than to the folks who “look like us”. I’m not involved in any of them but I read about it in the denominational news mags we have at church.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Quite possibly, one of the reasons we may not see as much inner city ministry is because in the day of global focus we have set our eyes upon the world where the people are more hungry for the gospel. — GsusGuy

    Well, there’s been a long tradition in missionary-oriented Protestants to give foreign missions priority over local ones; the more “foreign”, the more prestigious. All those “Missionary to AFRICA” jokes started for a reason.

    Me? I spend half my life in a subculture that’s as alien as anything you’ll find in Peace Child or End of the Spear, and it’s not only here in SoCal, it’s diffused all over America like some parallel universe that occasionally peeks through the Reality Barrier.

  5. +Alan

    I acknowledged in the article who was already there. I was asking why evangelicals only start churches in the suburbs and don’t start new churches in the inner city and urban core.


  6. Brian,

    >…Does Lexington not have an established inner-city minority community with its own church culture?

    I did not say there are no churches in Lexington’s inner city.

    I asked why evangelicals aren’t starting churches in the inner city.

    I agree with you that bringing suburban culture into the inner city isn’t the answer, but that’s bad church planting anyway. Supporting a church plant = missions = culture crossing with the Gospel.


  7. There are too many churches in Lexington, including in the urban areas. The problem is not a lack of chruches. They are everywhere. I suppose the issue is- are they the right kind of churches? Are they God approved? I’ve often thought if 90% of churches closed their doors it would probably be a good thing.

  8. I’m a little puzzled on the “too many churches.” I’d say a major problem with evangelicalism is we don’t have nearly enough small churches, and are too interested in having a few large ones. We’re church growth Darwinists.


  9. We used to attend a downtown church, in an area of town that needed a lot of help. Not a single member of the church lived within a mile of the church. We took a survey and the vast majority lived more than a 10 minute drive away from the church.

    We ostensibly welcomed the community, but the building was dark and locked evenings. People from the neighbourhood stood out like sore thumbs on Sunday mornings among the well-dressed suburbanites with Starbucks cups. The new pastor has decided to focus on getting students from the University down the block (who won’t be here long) instead of the houses full of people on the street. That’s one of the reasons we’re no longer attending.

    Cultural outreach through emulation is so important now, but only so long as the culture we are reaching out to is cool. We’ll become artsy hipsters and shave our heads and wear soul patches to reach the artsy hipsters. We’ll run skateboard parks and extreme sport events and get tattoos to evangelize the skate crowd. But for some strange reason, no one wants to try to emulate the homeless, or the single moms, or the families living on support, or the kids with no parental influence.

    By trying to reach the cool folks by emulating them, we have an excuse to have our toys and our clothes and our expensive hobbies. It’s a way to be consumeristic while telling ourselves that we’re actually doing God’s work. Working (really effectively working) in the inner city requires sacrifice of lifestyle and pride and coolness.

    And who wants to do that when we can go to a church with a climbing wall and espressos in the lobby?

  10. I grew up in an inner city church. Big fundamentalist church with close to 1000 members at one point. Even as I was growing in the 60s, the members were driving from the first ring of suburbs. My family was one of the few that lived in the immediate neighborhood. Most people probably lived 1-3 miles away.

    Today, I doubt if that church has 300 members who ever attend, and I’d guess that 95%+ drive from out in the country. 5-10 miles.

    No efforts to reach the community were ever done other than door knocking evangelism and VBS. Not discounting those, but even then, the color line was never broken and the church was surrounded by African-Americans. Now the church is almost the only non-business structure for many blocks. Several surrounding churches are dead or almost dead.

    The larger churches have almost all moved out into the county, pursuing the suburbs.

    I just don’t get the “people” aspect of this. Who did Jesus send us to? Who did he see as sheep without a shepherd? Where are the influential churches in the NT? It’s so strange.

  11. “I agree with you that bringing suburban culture into the inner city isn’t the answer, but that’s bad church planting anyway. Supporting a church plant = missions = culture crossing with the Gospel.”

    Why not partner with the existing churches in the inner city rather than going it alone? They’ll understand the needs of the community better than outsiders.

  12. One reason might be that it’s terribly hard. Here’s an article on some young Catholic people trying to “make a difference” in Washington DC.


    “She and her housemates have taken vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. They pray every morning and evening and attend Mass daily. In their rowhouse on T Street NW, they have no TV. No Internet. No alcohol inside the house. And no sex. Ever. What the young women lack in amenities, they make up for in sightings of rats and roaches.This is what it looks like to reject careerism and affluence in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. This is what it looks like to become a modern-day radical.”


    “Simple House calls its work “friendship evangelization,” and it’s messy and often frustrating. This is not like giving food to those dying of starvation. Gratitude is often elusive, and the problems the missionaries see — signs of child abuse and neglect, drug dealing, repeated stints in jail, even a girl refusing to attend a private high school that could help lift her out of poverty — don’t lend themselves to simple solutions. At times, to avoid losing their faith in the power of God to change lives, the missionaries debrief one another by asking: “Where did everyone see Christ today?”

    Would a church gladly set itself down in the middle of this? Of course we *should,* but let’s not attribute our failure to do so *only* to racism and selfishness. It seems to take a thoroughly sacrificial life to do this, and most of us, certainly including myself, are not all that sacrificial. I like my TV, my car, my internet, my safe home, soft bed, good food. It’s just too hard, at least right now, to renounce them all for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.

  13. “No efforts to reach the community were ever done other than door knocking evangelism and VBS. Not discounting those, but even then, the color line was never broken and the church was surrounded by African-Americans.”

    Why not go to the existing African-American Christians ministering to those communities and help them out?

    If we can’t even develop community with actual black Christians who believe exactly the same things we do even down to tertiary and quarternary doctrines, reaching unchurched blacks seems kind of like a pipe dream, no?

  14. “church growth Darwinists”

    I’m stealing that!!

  15. Brian:

    I think that’s a good idea, but I think it also has some limitations. I’m more interested in new churches than anything else, and I’ll admit that my experience with some traditional African American denominations would discourage me from any partnership.

    There are reasons that inner city churches are dying, and there are reasons that new churches can grow. There can be some partnerships, but I think those churches already there will be very resistant to the very changes that are most vital to a new church plant.

    A new church plant needs a mature sponsoring church. Location isn’t as important as mature vision and a right philosophy of how to help a new church grow.

    But I would never shut the door you are talking about.

  16. In Australian cities, the poorer people live in outer suburbs while the inner areas are rich.

    The inner areas have the least Christians (particularly so in Sydney), while any bible belts are further out, usually in middle-class suburbs. In Adelaide there are lots of churches in the city centre, typically with members driving in from everywhere.

    I’m a geography & stats nerd so I study this in detail (click my link).

  17. Why hardly any evangelical urban churches?
    1) It’s diffficult to do, and maybe even dangerous.
    2) It’s different in almost every way. It’s really a cross-cultural ministry for a lot of people.
    3) It usually doesn’t have or attract the resources that a suburban church does, and perhaps never will.

    Many commenters have talked about it being dangerous, or about fear. Fine. Not everyone is going to be called to this kind of incarnational ministry (and it should be incarnational). We know that. But some will — if the call is articulated and the spirit of God is at work. Some will. Problem is, almost no suburban evangelical churches are articulating that call.

  18. Brian:

    Just curious – Are you partnering with the existing churches in the inner city? How is it working out?

    Our little bit of experience – The existing churches need money and bodies, in that order. They don’t want partners. They want people to sign on to what they are doing, give them money and do a job.

    The problem is – the neighborhood has probably already rejected them. If you partner with them, you are rejected from day one by the neighborhood. What you’re really doing is giving the existing churches a little more time to keep doing the same things.

    Since many of the people in many of the existing churches in the inner city do not live in the neighborhood, and are not reaching the neighborhood, do they really understand the needs of the community? If they do, why are they not responding to the community, and why is the community not responding to them?

    Christian service in the inner city, in our opinion, means serving people. In the suburbs if you tell your neighbor, who has asked you what you do on Sunday mornings, that every Sunday morning is “Christian service” or “church service”, he’ll probably ask you where you go to church, especially if he is a church-attender.

  19. My experience…I moved to Philadelphia last May and surfed around for a time before settling into a Brethren in Christ church that has really embraced the inner city church planting/community action call. They’ve planted 3 congregations now in south Philly, the Kensington/Port Richmond neighborhood, and one in Camden and the churches really try to get involved in the community through prison ministeries, cell groups, a thrift store, joining school reform groups, etc.

    I think that a lot of churches don’t get involved in the inner cities due to fear, as other posters commented. When I told my great-aunt that I was living in Philadelphia, she grabbed her chest and said that she would be “praying extra hard for me.” A lot of people still think “Welcome to Philadelphia, now duck” is an accurate assessment of the city.

    I’m not sure where I was going with that, but I love being a part of a church that is genuinely trying to be the light in Philly.

  20. I worked with inner city churches for several years in the 80’s and early 90’s. Local churches that are still hanging on usually have real turf issues. They are willing to see you help them, but it is very rare that you will see them partner to help another church succeed at their expense. Turf, control, legitimacy, history, all that complicated stuff. As I said, a church sponsoring a church plant has to have a real maturity about their investment and if they are in the same area, a real sacrificial, loving attitude about what success of another church may mean for them.

  21. follow the money

  22. Follow all the numbers, davidbmc

    Rural areas have the same problem. There’s almost no church planting here in Appalachia. Same ol’ same ‘ol. Not very sexy. The SBC/KBC has made some good efforts in some counties.

  23. Scott Miller says

    The answer(s) is obvious. And most of the answers come down to money. Mainly, no one wants to sit next to the poor, or feel the guilt.
    In downtown Wichita, KS, where I live, most of the churches have “moved on up” to the suburbs. One church, First Baptist, is determined to stay downtown, but has lost most of its members because they don’t want to walk the gauntlet of begging homeless.
    As with Kentucky, most of the churches that are left downtown are Catholic and serve the Hispanics.
    Actually, the home churches are doing more in the inner city because they usually don’t have the overhead.

  24. I think the comment about how it is not very “sexy” to plant churches in certain areas is dead-on. I have noticed that it seems to be easier to get people to go on short-term mission trips to foreign countries where it is more exotic, than it is to get them to go to the other side of town and do much the same thing.

    In the suburban area of my county where I live now, we seem to have numerous thriving evangelical churches, and this seems to be where most of the new church plants take place as well. But I grew up on the other side of town in a suburban area as well, but one that was definitely…”lower class” let’s say. My family always struggled to find a vibrant church in our area. Most of the churches were either static and status-quo, or if they did grow, they always seemed to fall apart after a few years. And the situation has not changed much to this day. People still wonder about the upper middle class churches and organizations that will go thousands of miles to Africa, but not 15 miles across town.

  25. The Guy from Knoxville says

    Michael mentioned issues in rural settings (applies to
    the outer suburban ring too I believe)and it has to do
    with competition between many community churches which, around these parts, is usually “sheep swapping” which means that people chase the latest successful church and when that’s not trendy anymore they look for the next one so you have this competition, of sorts, going on to see who can come up with the next trendy “thing” to get folks in.

    Another thing I’ve heard from pastors in the area is that starting a new work is fine as long as it’s not in “our” (“my”) community and the reason being is that if the church really takes off then everyone want’s to go there which means that you loose memebers which, ultimately, equals less money to keep their ship afloat.
    Case in point is a church in a neighor county that, when started, needed a sponsor church but the established churches in that county would not sponsor the new one because they feared it would take off and pull people away from their churches. A church I was attending in Knoxville at the time ended up being the sponsor for the plant which, btw, is doing well. Additionally though, these new churches are started
    to reach, as one church put it, the people that were
    “burnt out” on church – in other words a contemportary church for all those who, basically, don’t like traditional church – seems to be a trend down here…. so much for the idea of reaching the people who need it most. Most of these new churches are started in outer suburban and rural areas where it’s not necessarliy needed or at least not to the degree that the inner-city needs it.

    Could go on and on about this but got to end at some point but the bottome line is that evans are fearful of the inner-city, have established lifestyles that they are unwilling to give up which means that they will not usually give much financially outside of mission work sponsored by the church they attend and more. Unfortunately, I must admit, I’m guily of the same many times much to my shame but this is an area that I need to work on and it’s not easy because I was brought up in church surroundings that enforced and re-enforced this mindset and it’s been incredibly difficult to overcome. Much work still to be done.

  26. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’m a little puzzled on the “too many churches.” I’d say a major problem with evangelicalism is we don’t have nearly enough small churches, and are too interested in having a few large ones. — IMonk

    Take a look around rural South-Central Pennsylvania sometime. When I visit my writing partner in that area, you are NEVER out of sight of a steeple. Of course, most of those churches have maybe two dozen members tops, the youngest being in their Seventies…

    Lotsa little churches all around there, most of them dying. And there’s always somebody (usually an urbanite with kids eager to get away from the big bad city) who piously claims they’ve been Burdened by God to Plant yet another Church…

  27. the SBC NEPBA is planting churches in Scranton and in Wilkes-Barre, and has been of assistance in replants in Philadelphia. The Roman Catholics are closing 30 more churches, and already have about 20 up for sale. http://www.citizensvoice.com/articles/2009/02/01/news/wb_voice.20090201.a.pg

    I feel like an alien today here at imonk.
    Saving souls without caring for physical needs, I can’t think of a church not involved in a shelter or a food bank. Honest, I know a lot of churches, they all do Something!
    Churches where xcons are not welcome? What bible do they use? I can’t think of a church I am in fellowship with that would reject a con. My church has a Megan’s List section.
    And is someone saying there is still racial prejudice in a church? It is snowing up here. cold as damp dog, and I am still glad I live in the north , you fellows down south are in a mess.
    Who stays in a racist, no food for poor folk, con rejecting church? Why? Start one that thinks right.

  28. Ky boy but not now says

    Headless Unicorn Guy
    ” .. you are NEVER out of sight of a steeple. Of course, most of those churches have maybe two dozen members tops, the youngest being in their Seventies…

    Lotsa little churches all around there, most of them dying. And there’s always somebody (usually an urbanite with kids eager to get away from the big bad city) who piously claims they’ve been Burdened by God to Plant yet another Church…”

    On the flip side many of those folks in their 70s have a long string of “requirements” you must have to attend. From dress, to kids behaviour, to the assigned seating (this has been my pew for 60 years), etc…

    You have to wonder if the elderly congregations in many of these churches wouldn’t rather die than admit it was time for another generation to take charge. And this is not hypothetical. My dad got to experience it in our own family with my grandfather complaining about the youngsters in the church not doing things right. Said youngsters being in their 30s and 40s.

  29. Ky boy but not now says

    Oops. “rather die” should have been “rather have the church die”. But then again I suspect some would feel either is OK.

  30. willoh-
    how is the megan’s list section handled? Its a very controversial topic- what is a sex offender where you live (in Florida, a 19 year old guy who gets his 15 year old girlfriend pregnant is legally the same as a 60 year old man who rapes an 8 year old), but alot of churches here are terrified to death to deal with anyone who is a “Sex offender” no matter how absurd the designation is- I know a guy (the 19 year old) who had that tag planted on him, and several evangelical churches threatened to call the police if he ever appeared on the property (he went and filled out a visitor form, and apparently they checked the form against the sex offender list). He eventually found a place at an inner-city Vietnamese church where they were willing to listen to what actually happened (and it helped that in their culture its common for 19-20 year old men to marry 14-15 year old girls (in Vietnam, not in the US). And of course my parents are old enough to remember when that was common here as well….

  31. Tom, I didn’t say it was easy. There are three categories of sex offender. As strong as i believe in the Power of the Spirit to change a heart, somebody with a history of little kid abuse is going to have an escort at all times, and I hope we never get into that. I would rather do 1 on 1. Other guys, thank God, the ones we minister to, are like those you describe, one guy has a case from his wife, who was older than he, but it was still a sex crime. In Pa. we say 14 will get you 20, and it is true.
    No con [including women] is allowed to minister to children, or be alone with a child. Then again I have no record and I am never alone with any child or woman. Just makes sense.
    My point is what gives us the right to stop someone from hearing the Word? I am not talking membership, I am talking fellowship. Take reasonable security steps, assign a guy a “buddie”
    if you need to, but who needs Christ more than these people? [I know, me.]

  32. Could we take “sex offender” specific comments off blog? Thanks. Don’t need that google hit.

  33. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    On the flip side many of those folks in their 70s have a long string of “requirements” you must have to attend. From dress, to kids behaviour, to the assigned seating (this has been my pew for 60 years), etc… — Ky Boy but not now

    My writing partner is the burned-out pastor of one of these small rural churches. (One of the “larger” ones, membership around 100.) He has had run-ins with the local Church Ladies on all of the above.

    You have to wonder if the elderly congregations in many of these churches wouldn’t rather let the church die than admit it was time for another generation to take charge. And this is not hypothetical. — Ky boy but not now

    They would. My writing partner also guest-pastors a dying church of about 12 elderly members (with no friends or social contacts on the outside) who like it that way and will sabotage anyone who tries to change things.

  34. iMonk, you are so dead on with these observations. I work as a hospice chaplain and go to many homes in city neighborhoods. I sometimes almost laugh out loud thinking what the reaction would be for some of my good suburban brothers and sisters if they were to enter some of the places I go to and experience some of the situations I deal with.

    For most evangelicals I know, “missions,” especially in the down-to-earth, close-to-home sense that you’re talking about, is mostly something someone else does.

  35. sorry, Imonk, I forgot big brother google is watching.

  36. Locations of baptist churches in Lexington on Google Maps:


    There are plenty of churches at the core of the city and to the W & E, but to the south is a bare patch. Then south of the circle road (and indeed all around) there are lots more.

  37. Ky Boy but not now says

    “Then south of the circle road (and indeed all around) there are lots more.”

    Well first it’s “New Circle Road”. A name, not a description. Although it had been there for years when I moved there in 74. 🙂

    Second that blank area is where a lot of the burbs spread out after WWII. Much of it the university employed middle class. My 25 year old memories say there are (were?) churches there. Maybe Google just doesn’t know about them or they closed down. In general your church list of pins seems very short in the count based on my old memories.

    To be honest I never thought of an “urban” area when I lived there. Downtown was something you could easily walk from end to end. But my memory was the poorer suburban areas seemed to be from about the middle of town out radiating out between 12:00 and 2:00 on the clock face.

    Maybe these areas need to be planting into the southeast. 🙂

  38. Ky Boy but not now says

    “Baptist” churches. I missed that. But if you Google:
    baptist churches in lexington ky
    you still get more than you show.

  39. I got the locations of churches from the KBC website. For some of them the street address may not be on the website. I just checked and found that only about half of them (1200) found their correct location, a quarter were placed on their town (they only had a PO Box address) and a quarter weren’t placed (mostly had a C/O in their address).

    And that’s only the baptist chuches. So it’s quite an incomplete set, but gives some indication of where the churches are.

    And I have no local knowledge – I’ve rarely been outside of South Australia.

  40. All Baptists are not KBC. Less than half. Esp in inner city where African American churches are located, few are KBC.

  41. That’s a lot of baptist churches you’ve got there! Just the KBC ones would be approaching the number of churches (all denoms added up) for the equivalent population of Australia. The Bible belt indeed!

    After studying & writing about where Christians live in my city, I got thinking about where we should be living, and started writing an article “Where then shall we live” (link above), and ended up moving house before I finished it :).

  42. The suburbs dovetail nicely with the church growth phenomenon – what better way to grow than to build your edifice right where the population is growing. But there’s trouble a-brewing for that model. The suburb fixation is an indication of a wider problem with evangelicalism that you’ve explored here Michael, mostly on the political side. Evangelicalism as a whole has uncritically joined with the cultural trends of the last 30 years and continues to follow them – so that as those sociological/political trends pass away, so will evangelicalism. You’ve already postulated on the detrimental effect of marrying the evangelical movement to conservative political causes. As those politics diminish, evangelicalism as we know it will follow. Same goes for suburbs. If you’re familiar with economist Richard Florida, he theorizes that the suburbs are headed for a long decline as educated classes move away from the long drives, boring development and unsustainable lifestyles of the suburbs to the vibrancy of an urban core. (See the March issue of Atlantic Monthly)
    In this fashion, men like Driscoll and Keller are on to something…

  43. My wife is involved with her church quite a bit, and at least a small part of the problem in many areas is that the churches are exempt from property taxes. This is undesirable to many local politicians, and the zoning boards will usually vote down church applications, even the small storefront variety. Our town will not approve any expansions/new churches at all because of this. The town that I live in on this contract has more fortune tellers, palmists than churches, because these people pay local taxes.
    Some years back I was considering funding a small ministry in a small upstate NY city with a large prison and ex-con population. There was a pastor ready to go, we had a reasonable landlord, but the city turned us down cold. The development agency person told me that she would rather the place stayed empty, since they would still get a little property tax. That was around 2003, and it is still empty.

  44. Ky boy but not now says

    I have a hard time understanding how a storefront church can be turned down over the tax exempt issue. Legally that is. But then again town and county councils do a lot of “illegal” things all the time till they get called on it.

    Now building new is different as you get into all kinds of issues with parking, water drainage, and other zoning that doesn’t specifically apply to a church. But blocking it over tax exempt status?

  45. I only read through the first… 8 million of the posts so forgive me if this has been said already. The whole money excuse is LAME.

    Magically really poor folks can live there but middle class folks can’t? That doesn’t seem a bit odd to anyone else? If we go as missionaries to an unreached area, do we commute in? (I’m laughing) ‘Africa was just to below me so I fly in from France to do my mission work.’ Bizarre.

    Let’s not forget who’s money it is that we hold in our own pockets. Ours?

  46. Nice page!!

  47. This is interesting web place. I like it.

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