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?
Originally published in Urban Perspectives, August 2010; used with permission.
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 For five decades the church has withdrawn from the city, following the affluent exodus to the suburbs.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?