Is Church Growth Still About Location?

It’s an old axiom in real estate... “Location, location, location!”  The truth located in those three words is that the value of property and housing is often tied to where they are located.  It’s become automatic for most of us.  It’s something that we just know without even thinking about it.

Over the last century, property values have been on the move.  There was a day in America, almost one hundred years ago, when most Americans lived in the city.  The country was in transition.  Gone were the days when most in our country lived and worked the family farm.  America was becoming modernized and mechanized.  Industry and factories replaced the horse and buggy whip; and all that...  We were moving to the city.

In fact, most of us weren’t around in those days and don’t remember.  However, in many ways we were following after the great cities in Europe brought to us by more and more immigrants coming through Ellis Island into New York City for example.  But it wasn’t just New York City.  Chicago was growing, Philadelphia and Detroit too.  American ingenuity was on the march.  Many Americans lived above the stores they owned in ethnic neighborhoods, or in densely populated urban areas surrounded by the factories where they worked.

Then came World War II, and the devastation of Europe.  Many of the world’s greatest cities were in ruin.  GI’s that had fought all across Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy watched literally as those amazing urban centers of population and culture were destroyed.  They returned from the horrors of war to our shores with a different idea about the good life and the culture they wanted for their families and cities weren’t a part of that anymore.

So, the suburbanization of America began.  Families left cities in mass and quickly.  Huge sprawling housing developments went up, centered around shopping malls and expressway loops.  Some cities experienced such rapid change, they have still yet to recover from the economic and cultural shift that occurred.  What nobody realized was the impact this rapid and dramatic move would have on our culture.  We were changing from close intimate quarters in urban living to more open, spread-out independent living.

Even the church changed.  Large downtown, cathedral-like sanctuaries were left behind as congregations sought to grow with the suburban crowds.  Over and over, in city after city, First Church was on the move.  To the suburbs, where we can have more land to grow and expand our ministries was the cry.  Nobody wants to drive in to a crowded, dirty urban area anymore.  Let’s go where the grass is greener, where "all the men are handsome" and "all the ladies pretty"... and we did.  It’s something that we just know without even thinking about it.  Even today, we hear experts in the so-called mega-church movement say you grow a church by planting it where people are moving.  Right?  It’s location.  Right?

But wait a minute, all of sudden, something has happened again.  In a recent article by Time Magazine, data shows that for the first time in almost one hundred years suburban growth has been outpaced by urban growth.  There are lots of reasons: the real estate crash and increase in rental living, a desire to be green and use less energy, and even folks wanting to be with people again and not just be the “garage-door” neighbors (drive out in the morning-drive in at the end of the day-don’t know anybody on my street).

The question is what will the church do?  If the trend continues, will we move back to the city and buy back those old cathedral-like churches again?  Will we ask people to commute out to us at our large, expansive campus?  Maybe we won’t need a campus at all, since so many people now are mobile and capable of using technology to form community?  We could be “First Church of Starbucks on Main Street.”

It seems just like in real estate, even for the church, the axiom “Location, location, location” has been our mantra for a long time when considering how to grow churches and community.  It’s how we have established value, of our property but even more for our witness to faith.  Again, I say it’s something that we just know without even thinking about it.  We grow a church by planting (or re-planting) it where people are moving.  Right?

What if that is changing again?  What if people are moving back to the city?  Do we follow?  Is location still important?  Is growth still important?  How do we do it if we don’t use location?

What do we do?  What do you think?  Please offer your comments.


  1. Thank you, Chris, for this reflection. "What do we do" seems to be THE question. Your reflection is timely for me. I've thought about some of "this" over the last few years and especially on Sunday, as I make my drive from my urban home to my suburban church. The drive has not gotten any shorter and I've often wondered what motivated that Presbyterian congregation of 19XX to pack up and leave town. No doubt they came to that decision after much prayer and discussion and, at the time, thought they were doing the "faithful" thing.

    As of late, I've begun to wonder if congregations and their ministries (and their expressed desire to "follow Christ") are not hindered in some way by an attachment to real estate. A friend commented to me, "There's nothing 'biblical' about church buildings." I was struck by his observation. Maybe there's something both human and comfortable about being "attached to" a tangible, visible object. Maybe this is how many congregations measure their (for lack of a better word) success.

    It's tempting and easy to become cynical about the whole "church thing," to prophecy about the 'death' of the church, and to point to all the things the church has and is doing wrong. Yes, in some ways certain parts and traditions of the church we have known are dying- and that can be a good thing. For some, knowing this doesn't make the resulting loss and grief any easier to bear. Stay in the church long enough, and a sense of ownership will follow. Just ask anyone struggling with new styles of worship and worship music and they might tell you, "come quickly Lord Jesus!" I refuse to be a hand wringer of this topic. If this is God's church, then the church will survive. Will its survival necessarily be a visible one? Will the church be as visible and prominent as in decades past? If not, does this mean we are headed back to the caves and homes of the early Christians? Maybe this, too, can be a good thing.

  2. My daughter's reading list for college included Sanctuary by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He gave me profound insight about space:

    Every one of us occupies a portion of space. He takes it up exclusively. The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else. Yet, no one possesses time. There is no moment which I possess exclusively. This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me. We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings.”

    Something to think about and reorient toward.

    David Jones


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