When I, along with a friend and colleague, started planting a new church in Chicago about five years ago, we had lots of ideas about how to do church, but one thing was certain: we wanted to do church differently. Lots of church planters have the same mission.
We told other existing churches that we weren’t in competition with them—we wanted to attract people who, for whatever reason, would never set foot in a narthex. In other words, we didn’t want our church to be too. . . . churchy.
When we moved to New York, my husband, Chris, picked a corner of the city to own. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which commemorates those who died in the American Civil War, is a templelike structure surrounded by formal paved terraces. It’s also a hangout for vagrants and skateboarding teens. Broken bottles, crack vials and newspapers routinely settle into its nooks and crannies.
The city is changing. For decades white people with money fled the city for the suburbs, leaving behind a mostly brown and black population that was often bereft of resources. But recently, in many cities, patterns of gentrification have reversed this trend. People with money have moved back to the city and rehabbed old housing stock, seeking to live where they work and play.
Having had the privilege of serving downtown churches in Columbus, Ohio, and in Chicago, I have watched city churches struggle to respond faithfully to dramatically changing environments. Broad Street in Columbus is a street of churches—stately edifices constructed in a time when many of the members lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. But the neighborhoods changed. Members moved away.
Of course, the city isn’t gentrifying everywhere. Some struggling sectors, such as Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, are still seeking modest development in the form of stores, restaurants and decent housing.