March 6, 2009
The Hansen Report: Suburban Church Slump?
The economic meltdown may fuel the resurgence of urban congregations.
What if your city never recovers from the current economic crisis? What if your entire region enters an irreversible long-term decline? Richard Florida dares to declare the downturn's winners and losers in his March cover story for The Atlantic. In his essay "How the Crash Will Reshape America," Florida incorporates insight from his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class.
Not surprising for anyone familiar with his earlier work, Florida believes that the big winners will be those burgeoning cities that have attracted a diverse class of sophisticated young professionals. So even though New York City has shed thousands of finance jobs, Florida believes the city's young talent will innovate and adapt. Detroit and other Rust Belt cities are unlikely to bounce back, even if the population loss is more like a slow bleed than a mass exodus.
But Florida doesn't just assess the economic effects on different regions of the country. He also observes how economic change will rearrange the relationship between cities, suburbs, and small towns. As I discussed last month, the brain drain in rural areas is making them a new mission field. Florida has little sympathy, because innovation depends on the best and brightest congregating together in dense, fast-paced cities. But Florida reserves his harshest analysis for the suburbs, the heartland of evangelical church growth in recent decades. He recommends that the federal government retract the tax incentives to homeownership that propelled suburban sprawl. In a post-industrial economy, Florida argues, the workforce cannot be tied down to mortgages. Mobility is the engine of competitive capitalism. In the megalopolis, Florida trusts.
"The world's 40 largest mega-regions, which are home to some 18 percent of the world's population, produce two-thirds of global economic output and nearly 9 in 10 new patented innovations," Florida notes.
There is cause for celebration and concern in Florida's analysis. On the one hand, evangelicals know how to accommodate new trends. When the suburbs started to sprawl, evangelicals built megachurches. When the American population shifted south and west, churches sprouted up in the desert. Yet cities are another matter. Since the massive immigration waves of the 1800s, cities have given evangelicals fits. High-profile exceptions only prove the rule that evangelicals prefer small towns and the suburbs. In Florida's estimation, the creative class thrives in cities with technology, talent, and tolerance. As commonly defined today, tolerance will frustrate anyone who subscribes to an authority higher than popular opinion. But if Florida is correct, evangelicals forsake the cities at the expense of gospel expansion. Besides, the changing mores even in suburbs and small towns testify to the growing influence of cities as culture shapers.
Thankfully, exceptions such as Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan provide evangelicals with models of faithful urban ministry. The challenge of bringing the gospel to the creative class will continue to attract some of the brightest young Christian leaders. They will be energized by Florida's vision of "a more concentrated geography, one that allows more people to mix more freely and interact more efficiently in a discrete number of dense, innovative mega-regions and creative cities." If Florida is correct about how innovation happens, then urban church planters and lay leaders rubbing shoulders will result in new ideas for reaching the city.
The same factors that stimulate innovation just might result in closer Christian community in cities than suburban residents have experienced. In the suburbs, large homes and the accompanying value of anonymity make meaningful relationships more difficult to come by. This challenge hinders both evangelism and fellowship. But the urban values of diversity and individuality don't give city churches the option of size over depth. Here, too, the new urban challenges invigorate a younger generation that recognizes the need for theological depth and close-knit community.
Yet for all of Florida's insight about economic development, he seems to misunderstand human nature. In his assessment, people are valuable merely for what they contribute. While they may enjoy the stimulating community of fellow culture creators, their motives and rewards are financial. He doesn't seem to account for the attraction to suburbs: low crime, good schools, and stable housing. He seems not to care why people will trade standard of living for quality of life in small towns. At their best, small town residents value every member of the community and come to one another's aid when needed. Indeed, this assurance survives any economic meltdown.
Nor does Florida understand the human cost of mobility. Economic vitality may rely on a fast-paced lifestyle of risk and reward. But the creative class of one generation gives way to the next when they burn out and seek refuge in the suburbs. Just ask city pastors. This is the problem they struggle to solve. Turnover gives urban churches wide national influence. Ironically, it also undermines local community. So the very bonds of fellowship that attract young people to urban churches in the first place eventually dissolve when members lose their resolve to stay in the city. As an economist, Florida doesn't propose to solve this problem. But before evangelicals get too excited about urban opportunities, they must.