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The Challenge of Planting a Church in NYC – Part 1

Now that my wife and I have been involved in church planting in NYC for almost 3 years (while living in the city for 15), we’ve had a chance to reflect on a lot of the unique challenges of planting a church in NYC.

As cliche as this sounds, God’s truly worked miracles for us to be where we are, especially as I reflect on my own folly and the other dynamics that make planting a church in NYC difficult.

Here are some reflections on the challenge of planting a church in NYC:

Everyone wants to live in NYC nowadays.

Everyone wants to live in NYC nowadays.

Challenge 1: Planting a Church and the Cost of Living in a Neighborhood 

Um, I don’t think I have to comment further on the exorbitant cost of living in NYC, but I’ll comment on what’s ideal for church planters in NYC and how it’s immensely difficult to meet that ideal.

What’s ideal for church planters is to live in the neighborhood in which you’re planting.

There seems to be a new wave of literature celebrating a parish approach to planting – one that is incarnational, neighborhood-based, and local.  I’ve found these books and perspectives to be quite helpful for ministry, especially in NYC where there are so many unique neighborhoods.

The idea of incarnational ministry is not a new one by any means, as heroes such as John Perkins and others from Christian Community Development urged Christians to live in the neighborhoods in which they were doing ministry long ago.

In my observation, the difference between Perkins and the newer voices engaged in an incarnational approach to ministry is that Perkins was advocating for Christians to move and settle into neighborhoods that no one wanted to move into.  

Back when Perkins and others were writing, people (and Christians) were fleeing the city.  John Perkins and Ray Bakke were prophetic voices in their call for Christians to root themselves in neighborhoods while the vast majority of people were leaving.

This reminds me of what Rodney Stark wrote about in the early church, when in counter-cultural fashion, Christians stayed in the cities when plagues hit in order to serve the needs of the sick and needy.

Today, it’s en vogue in church planting world to advocate living in the neighborhood in which you’re planting a church, especially if you’re an urban minister.

Of course this ideal, but I think the call to live in the urban neighborhood in which one is doing ministry has grown less prophetic and less realistic in our day and age.

1) Less Prophetic (in Christian-speak, I mean less counter-cultural)

The call is less prophetic than Perkins and Bakke and others because of urbanization and gentrification.

As a church planter if I say, “I want to plant a church in Midtown East (where our Midtown church gathers on Sundays) and I want to put down roots there to be an incarnational presence”, I’d be making a sensible and ideal statement of “moving into the neighborhood” (as Eugene Petersen translates John 1:14).

The thing is, in today’s day and age, the whole world wants to move into Midtown Manhattan. My statement above wouldn’t be all that prophetic.  Moreover, only the .001% actually get to live in Midtown Manhattan.

Please don’t misunderstand, the urge to do incarnational/neighborhood ministry is biblical and ideal.  

deeply desire for all of our pastors and church planters to live in the neighborhood in which they’re planting.  

Moreover, I want to lead a church in Midtown because I love and cherish Manhattanites (yes, especially the .001%).

However, doing urban ministry this way is not quite as prophetic a call as it once was because saying “I love this neighborhood in NYC” or “I want to put down roots in this neighborhood in NYC” is a statement that I hear from Non-Christians in equal proportion.

In NYC in particular, I’d love to hear church planters talk about moving into neighborhoods and starting churches in places like East New York or Corona Queens as much as I hear folks talking about starting churches in Manhattan or gentrified areas of the five boroughs.

I should add though, there are plenty of churches and pastors serving and living in places like East New York & Corona Queens – they’re mostly the platform-less, servant hearted immigrant and ethnic Pastors who are truly living out their prophetic call in neighborhoods that aren’t quite cool enough yet for the .001%.

The above section may sound like a critique, but I have to share that every church we’ve planted is located in a gentrifying, up-and-coming neighborhood (Astoria/LIC, Roosevelt Island, Midtown East, & Nassau County).

I personally live on Roosevelt Island in what locals on the Island jokingly call “the rich part of town”.

I’m simply making an observation (and a self-critique) of the call to incarnational ministry I’m hearing in church planting circles nowadays, and I want us to also be part of a prophetic call to go where people generally don’t want to go.

2) Less Realistic

There are so many native New Yorkers who wish they bought brownstones in Park Slope 20 years ago.

Or better yet, Williamsburg.

The challenge of planting a church in NYC is that the ideal is to live in the neighborhood in which you’re planting, but if you want to plant a church anywhere in Manhattan, most parts of Brooklyn, growing parts of Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island, the cost of living is unbelievably high.

And if one wants to plant a missional, incarnational church (the two buzzwords that are most ideal for church planters today), the onramp toward financial sustainability is truly a miracle.

Unless a church planter has access to significant funding (either through fundraising or personal wealth), the feasibility of living in a neighborhood can be unrealistic in the long run.

Some have spoken of the merits of bi-vocational planting, but bi-vocational church planting is increasingly difficult in a place like NYC, especially if my money-earning vocation is one that can net a hefty salary but also demand the kind of time and energy for me to net that salary.

Hence, I think it’s often unrealistic for church planters/pastors to live in the neighborhood in which they’re planting.

We should aim for living in the neighborhood (and I truly covet those who are able to do this), but I’m not sure how long-term and sustainable this can be for a family that is interested in being in NYC for the long run.

Conclusion

In conclusion to this point, if you can live in the neighborhood in which you’re planting a church and 1) have the financial means to do so and 2) your family feels called and 3) can be there for the long run, then by all means, do it!

However, if 1, 2, and 3 are not feasible, then do whatever you can to live in a neighborhood that fulfills all three of the above, and build a sense of Christ-centered community and family on mission amongst people in the city (hopefully near where you live, but it doesn’t have to be this way), and be part of what God is doing in this great city.

So if you’re thinking of planting a church in NYC, it’s okay if you don’t live in the neighborhood.  It’ll be okay.  I promise.  It can be done.

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