Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life inside the Doughnut

I  suspect the experience of my own denomination in this corner of the world is not unique or isolated. A demographic map of its members through the last century or so would look like an expanding doughnut, matching the population shift from the inner city to the outer suburbs. The flagship churches of the denomination have gradually moved further from the city centre, with the growing churches at the outer urban fringes. The mission strategy and leadership structure has largely replicated the same approach which drove the inner city churches in the 18th century: focus on young families and children’s ministries, and let the population growth do the rest.

During this long period, declining churches in the inner city were shut down, and their properties sold off. Surviving churches struggled through the decline, with little in the way of resources and opportunities from traditional ministry approaches to refashion themselves for a new era. As generational change lead to people moving away from the inner city, these churches were maintained by a faithful remnant who only knew one way to be church.

No-one envisaged the residential return to the inner city that has unfolded over the past two decades. Town planners were largely unprepared, and churches with them. While the cities have undergone a massive renewal of infrastructure, many churches inside the doughnut find themselves with churches and ministry centres designed for ministry in the 18th century, and with ministry strategies best suited for communities filled with young families beginning their journey in new neighbourhoods.

Some important things considerations inside the doughnut:
·         Renewal of church infrastructure in the inner city is an expensive exercise, often complicated by heritage constraints. Inner city churches are often faced with a conundrum: in order to reach people in their community, they need to renew their infrastructure. However, due to the size of the church community they lack the financial resources to undertake this renewal. (As a side note, it is interesting to observe that most growing and vibrant churches have renewed their infrastructure in the previous decade. Cause/effect?)
·         Families in the inner city are a different demographic than those in the new dormitory suburbs. They are generally older, and have a stronger commitment to environmental and political concerns than their outer-urban cohort. It is likely they are more affluent and more highly educated also.
·         Risk and reward for inner-city ministry is often such that denominations are less likely to invest. New models of ministry need to be found, which makes choices between investing in the inner city (with its unproven track record for growth strategies) and in growth areas on the urban fringe a no-brainer for denominational resources.
·         Ministry training is largely focussed towards church-as-it-is, or at least a continuation of the trends which have been evident for decades.

In reality, an approach which appears to make the hole in the doughnut larger is not only dangerous, but one might suggest ultimately counter-productive. There ARE signs of re-emergence in inner suburbs and inner city around the world. But not only are the models of this re-emergence diverse, they are mostly very different from the models driving outer-suburban church plants. I suspect that the large majority of these re-emergent models are based in refurbished infrastructure.

An old adage offers wisdom: As you go through life, make this your goal: Keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole. For the sake of the future, we have to look to the hole, lest the doughnut be lost altogether.

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