Urban Church Plant(ation)s

by Christena Cleveland

“If you are preparing to do [urban ministry] and you’ve never had a non-white mentor, you are not an [urban minister], you are a colonialist.”
– adapted from Soong-Chan Rah

Last week I had the honor of meeting with a group of urban pastors who have devoted their lives to serving Buffalo, N.Y. Discussing the challenges they encountered while doing urban ministry in a predominantly non-white, socio-economically oppressed city, the black, Hispanic, and Asian pastors with whom I met raised a familiar issue, one that I’ve heard and witnessed all over the country.

Buffalo, like many other urban centers, has faced a shrinking population and declining business interest for decades. But things rapidly changed in December 2013, when NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Buffalo Billion Investment Development Plan in which he pledged to invest $1 billion in Buffalo, with the goal of transforming the beleaguered city into a high-tech center. Not surprisingly, suburban folks who long ago abandoned the city are suddenly eager to return and participate in (cash in on?) the urban renaissance.

This is how capitalism works in the US empire.

The church as empire
The urban pastors reported that, in the wake of Governor Cuomo’s announcement, many predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches in the area have expressed renewed interest in Buffalo’s urban center. But rather than connecting with the urban pastors who have been doing ministry among the oppressed in Buffalo for years, rather than looking for ways to support the indigenous leaders who are already in place, they have simply begun making plans to expand their suburban ministry empires into the urban center. In other words, they’re venturing out into the world of urban church planting.

One older African American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they, their churches, and their expertise don’t exist. The suburban churches are simply marching in.

This is happening all over the US. In Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Boston, Charlotte, and many other cities, I’ve seen predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches take an imperialistic glance at the urban center, decide that they are called to “take back the city,” and then proceed with all of the honor and finesse of a military invasion.

Urban church plantations
I recently conversed with an urban Latina pastor about this issue. While talking about the ways that non-indigenous urban church planting negatively affects a community, she unconsciously misspoke, referring to “urban church planting” initiatives run by predominantly white suburban churches as “urban church plantations.” She kept right on talking, seemingly unaware of her Freudian slip.

But she’s right. So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations. Like the suburban pastors in Buffalo, many urban church planters charge into cities with blatant disregard for the great ministry work that is already being done by under-resourced pastors and churches, blind to both their own privilege and their cultural incompetency and accompanied by the arrogant empire-based idea that more money means more effective ministry.

When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multi-campus church to halt his plan to build an urban campus so that he could reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”

Money ≠ effective ministry
But the question is: Can a church run by privileged people who have little to no firsthand knowledge of systemic oppression effectively minister to oppressed folks?

Probably not.

A few years ago, a large, multi-campus, predominantly white church on the West Coast decided to expand their ministry into a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood. On the first Sunday of the new urban campus, the white male pastor, who had zero urban ministry experience, brashly declared to the mostly black audience, “This ain’t your grandmomma’s church.” Little did he know that grandmomma’s church has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of the community. If it weren’t for grandmomma’s church this community would have completely fallen apart in the face of ongoing racism and societal oppression. (See James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree for a clear and succinct discussion on how the black church has protected black people from the oppression of white America.)

In one moment, he dishonored the image of God in black people. (As James Cone says, “Blackness is the image of God in black people.” If you disrespect grandmomma and her church, you’re disrespecting blackness. Period.) And in that same moment, he also demonstrated an astounding level of cultural and historical ineptitude. Not surprisingly, when the neighboring black pastors heard what the white pastor said, they were deeply offended.

Privilege and church planting
I’m amazed at how quickly majority-culture pastors with no urban ministry experience acquire a passion for urban ministry and then automatically assume that they are qualified for the job. Last fall, I attended an urban and multicultural church planting conference that gathered national church planting leaders from over 30 denominations. As I looked out over the room, I couldn’t help but notice that the group was about 95 percent white (and 99 percent male!).

When I asked the group how they figured that a group of white men could possibly be equipped to lead urban church planting movements among non-white and other oppressed folks, the room got really quiet. No one had a good answer. Indeed, it seemed they had never reflected on this question before.

Privilege says: I’m called and equipped to minister to all people (but minorities are only called and equipped to minister to people who are just like them). Privilege says: The largest ministry with the most resources is the most effective ministry.

This privileged perspective on urban church planting undermines the unity of the body of Christ. If each part of the body has a unique perspective, gift, and role to play, then we need to recognize that we’re not equipped to do every type of ministry and humbly collaborate with the parts that are better equipped. For far too long, suburban pastors have ignored the perspectives and gifts of urban pastors.

Many of the urban pastors I know are experts at ministering to the people in their neighborhoods. But they serve low-income populations and are desperately under-resourced. Just because they don’t have a huge church or haven’t single-handedly transformed a broken neighborhood doesn’t mean they’re not effectively ministering within their limited means. If suburban pastors truly understood this truth, they would be running to sit at the feet of these amazing male and female urban ministers.

And they would do everything they could to support the great work of these urban ministers.

When the church looks like the family of God
If we truly saw ourselves as an interdependent body with a shared Head, resources, blood, and life, then suburban churches that want to love on a city wouldn’t do it by expanding their empires across city lines. They would do it by truly sharing their resources, blood, and life in service to the Head.

Why build a new church building in the city when you can build one for an urban church—in desperate need of a new building—that is already there doing great work?

Why hire a new pastor to work at your new urban church plant when you can give an urban church the resources to make their long-suffering, bi-vocational pastor full-time?

Why fund a new urban service project when you can fund the urban service projects that people of color have been running tirelessly and effectively on a shoestring budget for years?

The empire says: Our church needs to be present in every community, our church has the answers, and our church’s resources are our resources alone. But if we follow this path, power dynamics remain unchanged and urban church plantations ensue.

The better, more honoring path requires equity—which is costly. Just ask the rich, young ruler. Jesus asked him to reject his empire approach to life, stop being so possessive about his possessions, and join the interdependent family of God.

The rich young ruler wasn’t able to do it. It was too costly, and he was too invested in building his own empire.
Suburban churches, Jesus is talking to you. What are you gonna do?

Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist teaching at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., an award-winning researcher, a consultant for pastors and organizational leaders on multicultural issues, and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart (InterVarsity Press, 2013).

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