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The gentri-church, rising on the new wave of young urbanites, is the brightest hope the city has seen in more than a half century. Will it be up to the challenge?

By Robert D. Lupton

Originally published in Urban Perspectives, August 2010; used with permission.

"Think outside the" | Philadelphia, U.S.A. | Kyuboem Lee
“Think outside the” | Philadelphia, U.S.A. | Kyuboem Lee

The city is the new frontier of the western church. For five decades the church has withdrawn from the city, following the affluent exodus to the suburbs. Now, with the advent of gentrification, a younger generation of faith-motivated professionals is flooding back into the city. But few are joining the aging churches that still remain. Rather, they are experimenting with new forms of worship and spiritual community. Though the church-growth manuals have not yet been written for the church-of-the-urban-gentry, some promising patterns are beginning to emerge.

These gentri-churches, though sometimes spawned by larger “mother” churches or denominations, prefer not to identify themselves with denominational names. While they may not be overtly anti-denominational, they distance themselves from the traditional institutional church identity and loyalties. Their management style is participatory, preferring collegial leadership teams rather than top-down senior pastors. Their orthodoxy tends to be more open than the buttoned-down doctrines of their fore-parents. Their theology, like their music and rituals, is eclectic. They prefer dialogue to indoctrination, exploration over pedagogy.

To be nuevo-urban is to embrace diversity. And gentri-churches do–or attempt to. Race, alternative lifestyle, abortion, gender equality–those divisive issues that have splintered the institutional church–find a more charitable climate among the inclusive millennials. Believing that they have grown beyond the prejudices of their parents, the church of the Generation Y (born between 1982 and 2003) rejects judgmentalism as small-mindedness. Thus it is not at all uncommon to see a smattering of ethnic, class and cultural diversity in their midst.

Their architectural interests lean toward utilitarian rather than classical, choosing converted commercial space over steeple and spire. This becomes an unintentional benefit to the neighborhoods they gentrify. Rather than the institutional encroachment of the contemporary commuter church model that tears down blocks of houses for parking, the gentri-church brings new vitality to vacant or underutilized buildings that often have adequate parking. Like neighborhood churches of the past, gentri-churches aspire to become parish-centric. And even though their highly mobile membership may commute from considerable distances, they encourage members to relocate within their parish and become engaged as active neighbors.

Their concern for mercy and justice, their focus on place, and their membership profile (educated, ambitious, confident, connected) uniquely position them to have a redemptive impact on gentrification.

There are several characteristics of the gentri-church that give it strategic importance (or at least strategic potential) to the work of the kingdom in our rapidly urbanizing world. Their concern for mercy and justice, their focus on place, and their membership profile (educated, ambitious, confident, connected) uniquely position them to have a redemptive impact on gentrification. Gentrification, without an intentional corrective influence, will inevitably and unjustly displace lower-income residents from the in-town neighborhoods that have been their homes for generations. The gentri-church has the capacity to ensure that the vulnerable have a voice and a permanent place in a reviving neighborhood. They can be shapers of history. They can lead the way to gentrification with justice.

But a highly capable membership doing Saturday service projects in their adopted neighborhood is not synonymous with doing justice–at least not the kind of justice required to redeem gentrification. Such service activities may fulfill the “love mercy” part of God’s command (as declared by the prophet Micah) but the “do justice” part will require intelligent, intentional, concentrated effort over a substantial amount of time. Bringing justice to gentrification is no small undertaking.

Ensuring that low-income neighbors have a permanent place in a reviving neighborhood calls forth a whole range of marketplace abilities not typically associated with either church planting or service projects. While a church-centric vision needs the winsome gifts of teaching, music, organizing, motivating and a handful of others useful to drawing and retaining members, a community-centric vision, on the other hand, considers the needs of all residents in the entire neighborhood–especially the vulnerable. Real estate knowledge, business acumen, legal expertise, architectural design, finance capabilities, political connections, community organizing–these are a few of the talents that under the lordship of Christ become the spiritual gifts needed to do justice in a gentrifying environment.

The peril, of course, is that this new kingdom movement flows in a tide of privilege that knows nothing of sacrifice.

The gentri-church is the brightest hope the city has seen in more than a half century. It rides in on a tide of exciting new opportunity. Unlike past generations of privileged Christians who forgot essential kingdom values, fled the city and forsook the poor, the gentri-church re-enters the city with a desire for community that embraces diversity. The peril, of course, is that this new kingdom movement flows in a tide of privilege that knows nothing of sacrifice. Its affluent spiritual parents and grandparents mastered homogeneous church growth but forgot about community transformation. There is entrenched, church-centric history to break free from if the gentri-church is to be a redemptive history shaper. Will it be up to the challenge?

4 thoughts on “Gentri-Church”

  1. To be honest, I am not sure what I am to do with this article. First, there are a lot of “facts” stated with no outside confirmation. For example, “architectural interests lean toward utilitarian rather than classical” could be happening out of necessity because there are no available church buildings or out of preference. Or is it happening not at all and only in a select cases apparent only to the author?
    Second, the author wavers between current status and hope. For example, in describing the characteristics of this church, he says that these characteristics are strategic or potentially strategic. That statement and others like it serves to weaken his overall argument about the status of this church. It leads to me wonder if the church is functioning or has the potential to function. Is it worthwhile to keep my eyes on this church movement or should I ignore it as another idea?
    Finally, if I were to take the article as a statement of where the church is and how it is positively impacting the urban areas, then it needs to be recognized as part of the church as a whole and that it must learn to live with its church-centric history. It serves no one for a part of the church to cut off another part of the same church because of its supposed lack of relevance.

    1. John, I think the way for this article to be beneficial to you is: 1) recognize that “Urban Voices” are more op ed pieces from experienced practitioners whose wisdom we can learn from or reflections from those in the trenches that can be helpful to others in ministry; 2) see that the whole point of this piece is to pose the question, “Is the gentri-church up to the tremendous challenge posed by the urban context?” (it has yet to answer definitively–we will see down the road whether that’s a yes or a no–and hence the open-ended nature of this piece); and 3) see that while the Church is one, there is a vast array of that one Church’s manifestations in different contexts, that it is helpful to name and describe those manifestations for the sake of understanding (both the pros and the cons, what manifestation is better or more ill suited for what contexts, etc.), and that this doesn’t in any way mean writing off other manifestations of the Church.

  2. I feel as though this movement has some beneficial aspects for urban mission. For example their focus of being a community vs commuter church, a parish model that many urban church plants implement.
    I do have a few questions: What can this movement do to ensure “gentrification with justice”–moving in without displacing those already in the community? What does community transformation look like? What’s their view on indigenous leadership? How much of their efforts will be on growing and grooming leaders from the community?
    After reading this statement in the article–“this new kingdom movement flows in a tide of privilege that knows nothing of sacrifice”–I wonder can or does this movement see those in the community as the real “experts” from whom to learn?
    I know a lot of these questions can be better answered down the road but it would be great if someone can shed some light on this.

  3. Lupton’s perspective here, while painted in some broad brush strokes, is spot on in my corner of the country (the Pacific Northwest). These “gentri-churches” are popping up all over the place in Seattle and Portland (and in between), in part because of what I’d consider a combination of denominational desperation and evangelical-entrepreneurial energy. For me the question is: will these congregations genuinely embrace their urban communities as good neighbors (in an incarnational manner), or will they follow “the tide of privilege” that accepts displacement of the poor as an unfortunate side-effect of growing an urban, upwardly-mobile, attractional church? Sadly, I think the latter is far more tempting, much easier to implement, and measurably “efficient” by denominational standards of church planting assessment. Lupton is right to suggest that worshiping in a trendy urban context hardly leads to covenant-keeping communities of kingdom justice.

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