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The Seattle skyline.
Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
The Seattle skyline.

Are greater things yet to come in the suburbs?

Cities

During the past decade or so, one of the most interesting demographic trends in American evangelicalism has been the relocation of its leadership from suburbia to center cities. Just 10 years ago, you would have chosen James Dobson’s Colorado Springs, Rick Warren’s Orange County, and the Wheaton-Willow Creek axis in Chicagoland as the epicenters of evangelical activity—suburbs or exurbs all.

Now, the shepherds are heading to big cities: Mark Driscoll’s Seattle, Louie Giglio’s Atlanta, and, of course, New York—home to Tim Keller, Eric Metaxas, Gabe Lyons, Carl Lentz, Greg Thornbury, Jon Tyson, and others. Some key leaders still minister outside of the metropolis, but the trend is unmistakable. 

If your city didn’t make that list of hot spots, just wait. San Francisco may be the next evangelical darling: The pastor of the largest Acts 29 church in Phoenix recently left the desert to plant a work in the Bay Area, and Francis Chan left his post at a suburban megachurch for ministry in San Francisco. Down the coast in Los Angeles, two mammoth evangelical brands—Saddleback and Hillsong—are coming to Tinseltown this year.

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In a way, this trend is unsurprising. Big cities have held preeminent positions of cultural influence in most other dimensions of American culture, so evangelicalism is just playing catch up. But on the other hand, the bulk of American evangelicals are still located in suburbs, so it is striking that evangelicalism’s leadership appears significantly more urban than its adherents.

The forces driving this trend are many, including the New Urbanist tastes of those under the age of 40. Somewhere along the way, the loft apartment in a gentrifying arts district just steps from the hippest new wine bar became this generation’s aesthetic ideal. There’s just something so authentic about all that exposed brick. Pastors are able to appropriate that milieu and create what Brett McCracken termed “hipster Christianity.” 

There is also a sense that the previous generation of evangelicals abandoned cities out of fear or selfishness. By being more urban than thou, younger Christians believe they are also being more faithful.

Indeed, there is a certain electricity in the mere word “city.” Chris Tomlin, evangelicalism’s de facto poet laureate, has distilled this sentiment in his chorus:

For greater things have yet to come 
And greater things are still to be done 
In this cit-yyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah

No, really. That’s how he sings it.

I poke fun only because Tomlin’s message is so widespread. Urban church plants abound, books with titles like For the City or Why Cities Matter multiply, and conferences get titles like “Urban Mission: How to Flourish Your City with the Gospel.”

All of this may be the start of a real demographic shift in the American church. Or it might just be a passing fad. Either way, I hope that all of these metro-evangelicals remember that greater things are still to be done in the suburbs, too.

Keith Miller
Keith Miller

Keith, a graduate of Columbia Law School, works in the administration at Hillsdale College. He is fascinated with cities, suburbs, and the idea of place. Follow Keith on Twitter @Keith_J_Miller.

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