5 Common Mistakes of Urban Church Planters

We need as many kinds of churches that we can get in cities.

To start, I must confess that this topic might come from a myopic lens because I haven’t planted a church in any other city except New York, though I have church planter friends in other cities. Nonetheless, I think the following mistakes are common for a church planter in any urban setting and included possible solutions for each mistake.

Also note that there are common mistakes all church planters make, such as not praying enough, not taking care of my family, and so forth. This list deliberately focuses on common mistakes of urban church planters from my vantage point. 

1. Mistakenly thinking, “If we build it, they will come.”

I love the attractional church model, and I’m a big believer in excellent environments to which we invite our friends, family, and neighbors so that they might experience the transcendence and kindness of God. In urban environments, it’s not enough to have an attractive Sunday Service. The biggest challenge is getting people there!

There are too many interesting, compelling attractions in urban settings that vie for the attention of unchurched people. Cities are epicenters for art, music fashion, media, sports, and more. A church service is definitely not high on the list of things to do or visit for urban dwellers. 

I might have a great worship environment, talented musicians, an organized kids ministry and guest services, and be a strong communicator, but these are not enough in urban settings. 

Possible Solution: In an urban setting, I must think like a missionary and “Go and tell” while also inviting others to “Come and see.”

This means involvement in a neighborhood is paramount, and building communities of faith on mission in these neighborhoods is more essential than putting on a quality Sunday service. 

2. Mistakenly thinking, “It worked in my last church, so it should work here too.”

Cities can be humbling contexts for ministry. They are diverse settings with people from a myriad of backgrounds and beliefs, and each neighborhood is often unique in its rhythm and demographics.

If I don’t approach an urban church plant with nimbleness and an eye for contextualization, then I’ll continually get frustrated when my previously “successful” ministry doesn’t translate to the urban context.

Possible Solution: I must approach urban church planting with humility, flexibility, and courage. All three attributes will allows me to contextualize my ministry, instead of coming in with preconceived notions or blueprints from the latest church conferences.

Learn the neighborhood. Learn from veteran ministers in the city. Admit mistakes and adjust on the fly.

3. Underestimating the cost of living in the city

I once heard Tim Keller remark that cities are just like anywhere else, except a bit “more.” There are more people, more homes, more noise, more restaurants, and more entertainment options. You get my drift.

This more phenomenon makes the challenges of urban ministry unique, including two costs.

Actual Cost: Cities costs more money to live, play, and work. Financial worries are probably the number one stressor for most church planters I meet in the city.

Inconvenience Cost: There are inconveniences that suburbanites just aren’t used to, like walking to the laundromat, long lines at the supermarket, not finding a parking spot, not having a car, smaller spaces, and the list goes on.

Possible Solution: I don’t know if this is a solution, but I think these costs have to be factored in before deciding to plant a church. I want to be clear; if these costs are too much to bear, it doesn’t make me less of a Christian if I don’t want to deal with these particular costs (there are costs anywhere in ministry). So yes, if you want to plant a church in a city, please know that there are unique costs that you must consider, especially if you have not previously lived in a city. 

4. Not taking into account how the city affects each family member

I might love the city. But my spouse may not. And my child may not. And if just one person in my family is struggling in the city, it’s an extremely difficult burden to bear for the entire family.

Possible Solution: My spouse and I definitely have to be on the same page when it comes to planting a church in the city. And when it comes to our children, my spouse and I also have to be on the same page to prayerfully discern how to love and serve our entire family. Certainly the age(s) of children and family dynamics matter here, but family stresses are inevitable in urban church planting and we must count the cost before (and while) diving in. 

5. Measuring success by how many people attend my church on Sundays

Per capita, there are very few megachurches in NYC. In fact, there are very few assembly halls that can accommodate megachurch-sized crowds!

Even if there were numerous megachurches in a city, the total attendance from these churches would be a miniscule percentage of the city’s population, which is likely growing at an exponential rate compared to the growth of church attendance. 

If I plant a church in the city and think that Sunday church attendance is the measurement of success, then I’m doomed to fail. It is rare to find large churches in general, and especially so in cities, where the space and cost limits are distinct challenges.

Sadly, many of us, urban or not, measure success by Sunday church attendance.

Possible solution: In NYC, I encourage church planters to think in terms of indigenous church mission theory: for churches to be self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing. A church in NYC can be all three of these things in a myriad of ways, whether it’s with bivocational pastors and churches of various small, medium, or large sizes.

The reality is that we need as many kinds of churches that we can get in cities because there’s no possible way that one church can reach the millions of people that live in cities. 

Published March 28, 2017

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