If You Build it, Will They Come?
My brother recently sent me a podcast entitled, “If You Build It They Will Come”.
The piece continually repeated the line, “If You Build It, Will They Come?” The story was about “church planting” and how it has borrowed themes and ideas from venture capital.
What resonated with me most was the story of a young man who started an urban church plant and ultimately the church decided to move to the suburbs. I reflected on the numerous horror stories of urban church planting (or building a church in the urban context). I even thought about my own stories, my own thoughts, my own fears, my own stress and trauma of the past five years of establishing Common Ground Covenant Church in the city of Jackson, Mississippi. We are answering the call of Christ to be visible witnesses as a “Church in Community”, in our community, but it hasn’t come without challenges.
Urban church plants are not easy to establish. The podcast concluded that the featured church moved to the suburbs due to the lack of resources. While a business can just pick up and move to find those who will make it successful, church plants are not able to do so. There are those of us who are called to serve, live, and minister where the church “business plan” may forecast failure.
I love ministering in the urban context; however, I realize many would prefer to build churches in the suburbs. Here are my 5 reasons why urban church plants fail.
5 Reasons Urban Church Plants Fail
1. It’s not pretty. Success in the “hood” looks different than in other places.
It may take more than three years to get an urban church plant up and running. Many of my mentors tell me it will take at least 10 years to see real growth and development. With the help of God, reviving places that have been left behind takes the wisdom and understanding of gaining inches, not yards. It involves getting one child to be the first of her family to finish college, while striving to improve the school system in the district. It involves establishing an enterprise that helps the ex-felon make a living wage, while fighting the prison industrial complex. These small achievements sometimes seem like nothing compared to the overwhelming injustices that our friends in our community face.
2. It’s hard and uncomfortable. We see the need.
When referring to the poor and hurting goes from “those people” to “my neighbors,” “my friends,” and “the members of my church,” it is impossible to turn a blind eye and act as if ills of society don’t exist. Under this reality, we then muster our God-given talents to be a part of the solution. It comes at the high costs of our time, energy, and resources. This is not easy.
3. It’s working with the forgotten. We work with the people on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
When was the last time you heard someone putting homelessness, under-performing schools, addictions, homicides (and whatever else we associate with the poor) as the headline of their political campaign? If you have heard of this, when was the last time you heard them talk about knowing, living, and fellowshipping with those of us in these conditions? We are the forgotten. We are the unnoticed. We are on the bottom rung of the social ladder..
4. It’s the committed Christian life. We are living out the purpose of Christ in our neighborhoods.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus clearly tells us His purpose is to serve the poor and hurting in society. He further demonstrates how to fulfill this purpose through His work in the cities of His day. While we are called to serve the world, we should not look down on those of us who are following the model of Christ in urban areas.
5. It’s made up of people who are different from me. I just want to be around people like me. What’s wrong with that?
We work hard to “make it,” and we feel most comfortable when we are with people who have “made it” like we have (even in fellowship and worship). While this may be acceptable and even applauded as “business networking,” this is not the work of the Church. Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25:42-45, 42“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. 44They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
Sleepless nights. Heartache. Abuse. Failure. Laughs. Friendships. Joy. Success. These are all words I use to express my experience in ministry over my lifetime and, more recently, the five years of pastoring and planting an urban church which is focused on justice. I am called to serve in an urban context, and I am grateful for those around this country who have answered the same call.
Let’s not abandon our posts for the suburbs because resources are low, times are tough, or things aren’t moving as we have envisioned. Rather, let’s continue to fight the good fight of faith, because we are not living for an earthly prize, but a heavenly reward.
So, in this edition of Common Ground Church in Community, I sit down with other urban church planters from different areas of the country and we address both the barriers and the encouragement of working church plants. Check out this video. I really believe you will enjoy the conversation.
By Pastor John P. Perkins, Lead Pastor of Common Ground Covenant Church
Norkesia McGloster & Anthony Bobo Jr., Co-Producers