Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Death of Suburbia?

Check out this story on white flight... to the city.

The Coming Demise of Suburbia
The kind of churches the next generation will plant

I’m at the point in my Church Leadership course when the entire class organizes into small groups to develop their own plans for church planting. Each group is required to develop a full-blown strategy for a new church plant as evidence of their church administration skills in planning, budgeting, promotion, along with attracting and organizing people. Since they are free to design any kind of church they want, I get a unique opportunity to peek at the dreams of the next generation.

What kind of church do they dream about? They dream of planting a downtown church. In the past four years, only two groups (out of 48 groups total) have designed a suburban church. The other 46 groups went downtown.

My students think living down town is cool. They think life in the suburbs is hollow and fake. No wonder. On TV for the last generation Seinfield, Friends then Sex and the city portrayed city life as the ideal. More recently, Desperate Houswives and The Sopranos reinforced the idea that suburban life as a place of despair and moral decay. Even when students are forced to develop a church planting plan in a town of 30,000, they still pick the “inner city” for their new plant. They do not despise storefront churches like their parents do.
We may be at the tipping point for suburban churches. Beltway churches have reigned supreme at the top of the food chain among evangelical churches. They may be at their zenith. Large sprawling churches with mall-like parking lots are still the envy of most boomer pastors. Now comes a younger generation who dismiss both the size and the location of top rung of the ladder. They prefer simple coffeehouse accepting storefront churches with active social programs providing a chic comfortable Starbucks-sized atmosphere. My student’s heroes are pastors like Adam and Christy Lipscomb, not the famous suburban Boomers pastoring sprawling mega churches. They don’t despise mega churches, they just dismiss them. The Lipscombs are the indy bands of the coming generations and mega church pastors have become mainline pop.

Until this week I thought this trend was only a generational shift among ministerial students. Now I’ve read Chris Leinberger’s article (to appear in the upcoming March 2008 issue of the Atlantic) and think is it more than that. This is a massive cultural trend I’ve missed by assigning it only to ministerial students. Leinberger is a fellow at the Brookings institute and a professor at the University of Michigan. He outlines the history of the rise and fall of the suburbs in vivid text that is so common for the Atlanticmagazine. It is convincing. If he is correct it will mean a massive shift for churches and church planting in the coming 50 years. I think he is right. In the next 50 years or massive “big box churches” may wind up with grass growing in their parking lots as their building decline, the younger population moves back into town and they increasingly cater to an ageing leftover population. They are the old downtown churches of the future, still bragging about their stained glass windows (or landscaped parking lots) while their children attend elsewhere. Leinberger outlines this enormous shift in the culture predicting the suburbs are headed for 50 years of decline while downtowns revitalize. Are we seeing the first signs of this tipping point?

Consider these factors:
1. Fashion. Generation X & the millennials already have shifted their dreams downtown. While the church jobs for young ministerial graduates are still in the suburbs, their heart is downtown. It is no longer cool to be on the beltway. As millions of the “greatest generation” move out of their homes the emerging generations won’t be buying them—they’d rather have a downtown apartment. Who will buy them? Poorer families will buy (or, more likely rent) these declining homes. The younger people will have moved into quaint (but cleverly decorated) downtown apartments and mini-homes. The market follows fashion—as demand for suburban homes declines so will prices. Chic is moving down town.

2. Sub-prime mortgage crisis. We already see the precursors. The suburban housing market is collapsing and prices are falling. Millions of homes have already been abandoned and turned back to the lenders. They sit unoccupied, as vandals tear out the copper wiring and squatters move in. Prices fall monthly until homeowners are relieved to simply “walk away” from their mortgage and forget recouping their down payment. The supposed “equity” in many homes is a fantasy, especially so for any who have owned their home less then 5 years. As the market floods, prices will spiral downward. Renting a home has become smarter than buying one today—and renting out empty homes is better than leaving them empty so suburban markets will go rental and that usually means eventual blight.

3. Suburban blight. We may see a reversal of what happened downtown in the 50’s and 60’s. Then, people moved out of the downtowns to the suburbs and inner city home values declined. Poorer families moved in and the properties (now owned now by landlords who had scooped up cheap houses) simply “milked” the properties. We may see the reversal of that and the “trading places” is now headed the other way. Suburban space (per square foot) is already cheaper than downtown space. Builders notice such disparity and “the market follows the market”—new building will move downtown. Downtown space is gentrifying. In the coming decades suburban housing will decline and poorer families will move in. Landlords will divide giant McMansions and they will become “rental units.” Neighbors will fight it at first but eventually they’ll sell out too, if only to escape the crime and blight. Deterioration in suburban homes will be worse than the downtown homes of the 60’s and 70’s though. Most suburban homes are built cheaper than those old downtown homes (same with suburban churches.) Suburban building features hollow core doors, 10-year shingles, cheap drywall and plastic trim. These will not survive renter’s abuse like the old downtown solid oak doors, slate roofs and plaster and lath. A suburban home can get trashed in three years. By 2020 we will see “suburban ghettos” emerge. They will become as infamous as the former inner city ones were and we’ll see them on the news each night. The plot of Escape from New York will be reversed. Upscale young people won’t be moving to the edges of town—they will head downtown where all the newest and most exciting churches will be located. Suburban churches will continue with their brightly lit big boxes with tiered theater seating and praise teams on stage while the younger folk will seek out dark flat-floored club-like or coffeehouse atmospheres that Boomers will dismiss as “not a real church.” By 2020, many cheaply built suburban churches will be 25 years old or more and their bathrooms and classrooms will feel like the bathrooms at the mall. Mega churches will still ‘stack them higher and sell them lower” but younger people won’t be at Wal-mart, they be shopping over at J.Crew, G.A.P. and Abercrombie and Fitch… and at the local Salvation Army outlet.

4. Decline of malls. The temples of Boomer suburban life have been its malls, big box stores and mega churches. Yet shopping malls have fallen out of fashion as the owners milk their former investments and board up empty stores. Big box stores are still at their peak, as Mega churches are. But the cutting edge for developers is neither shopping malls nor big box stores. The cutting edge has moved to developingfaux downtowns—complete “cities” with narrow streets, tiny shops and hidden parking lots built at the edge of town to cater to the desire to return downtown. Yet these edge-of-town cityscape faux downtowns are missing one element: churches. They offer banks, shops, coffeehouses and exercise spas but no churches. Where are all the Boomer church planters? Still chasing the mall crowd and buying property on the beltways. Denominations who do not seek space in these faux downtown cityscapes will be left out of the future wave of culture. And it will be expensive—just like beltway property was compared to declining downtown or rural land. Denominations who ignore the great cultural shift back downtown (either faux or real) will be left paying off debt on their declining megaplex monstrosities filled with baby-boomers-using-walkers. They will become just like the old downtown congregations of the 1980’s. Will boomers support this trend that undoes their own great works or will they fight like the old “downtown association” of retail shops did in the 70’s?

5. Walkable living. More than any other trend, this one mystifies Boomers. Boomers can’t imagine life without a car. Some younger folk can. Suburban life is car-driven. Downtown life is walkable. None of my ministerial graduates could survive an interview in a suburban church if they admitted they have no car and don’t intend to buy one. They’d be laughed at by Boomer interviewers! Yet, in the coming 50 years the “walkable lifestyle” will increase. I know several of our graduates who moved into downtowns and have no car whatsoever. (I am not making this up!) They ride bicycles, use public transportation, hire taxis and get cheap rental cars to take on long trips, or even borrow their friends’ cars. They have crunched the numbers and say they save both money and the environment. Boomers are bewildered at such ideas. We don’t consider you grown-up if you don’t own a car. the walkable lifestyle is a central feature of downtown life. What will this trend do to our notion of church planting? I notice this trend every time my students plant their dream church. Most envision a neighborhood church—reaching out to those near at hand. Where do they get this? Yet they “see” it when asked to let their vision loose. Perhaps more than all other cultural trends, this one will affect the kind of churches we become in the future. These younger people will either change the kind of church we plant, or we will change these younger people’s values and vision.
The bottom line is suburban churches seem to be hitting their zenith. We may soon see a cultural tipping point when the suburbs (and suburban churches) enter a 50-year period of decline. The suburbs had 50 years to do their thing. Now it is the downtown’s turn. Downtowns began their period of decline in 1946 (when suburbs were invented). The next 50 years saw a period of decline and deterioration for the down towns. Most downtown churches declined along with their neighborhoods. These downtown churches became drive-back churches for the moved-out members of the “greatest generation.” their boomer children didn’t drive back. Instead, we founded sprawling suburban mega-centers patterned after our beloved shopping malls. Now, 50 years after the founding of the suburbs have seem to have reached their own zenith. The fashion is shifting back down town. Will boomers be just like the downtown stores of the 70’s, believing things will never change? Will Boomers never listen to the different ideas about lifestyle and churches the newer generations cherish? These younger folk don’t dream of suburban mansions and megachurches far away from the downtown. They seem curiously satisfied with modest downtown apartments where they and their neighbors “do life together.” When my students dream up church plants they design churches that would appeal to the characters in Friends,Seinfield and Sex and the City… and themselves. They dream of a church that is socially active in caring and sharing with their community who “does life together.”

I wonder how the incorrigibly suburban boomers will react to this massive cultural shift? How will suburban churches respond? How will denominational church planting efforts “church daughteringstrategies” address this coming shift? How will Boomers respond to the dreams of emerging generations to go downtown and start the kind of churches again the boomers left long ago?


Joe B said...

Wow, this is powerful. Holy cow.

Is this article ahead of its time?

Can children grow up urban?

Prices of housing plummets. Prices of SUV's plummet. Is it happening now?

Robbie said...

Great article soebs. I feel like you're talking about me with the desire to head to the city. I've spent my entire life outside the city and then going to the city mainly for vacations. There are certain things that I love about the city, one being the point you hit about walking everywhere, using public transportation, and not needing to own a car. While in Miami on a mission trip, there was certain transportation that was free, and there were tons of people using it every morning and evening instead of their own vehicle.

Another point you made, the simplicity possibilities of a house church or coffee shop church that consists of the people you spend your life with, living right next door to one another and either walking to someone's apartment for church or some place in the neighborhood where everyone in the neighborhood can come together worship, that would be awesome.

I love it!

scott said...

They dream of a church that is socially active in caring and sharing with their community who “does life together.”

Ah yes. Don't we all have that dream! Of course, I bet it COULD be done in suburbia too.


The problem with the article, of course, is that Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City are all fiction. Life in the city isn't actually like that. Maybe there is a higher percentage of young, single people desiring to move to the city, but Joe mentions the one thing this article does NOT: Kids. Once people get married and procreate, they don't WANT to live in the city. How many children were featured in Seinfeld or Friends or Sex and the City?

This article SOUNDS good, because we, like those young ministerial students, have big dreams about what we want to do. It sounds great to me. But I don't see any statistics in the article to really back it up... I just don't see neighborhoods full of boarded-up suburban homes in another 10 years.

"Downtown" has always been more of a haven for young, single, kidless people. Well, people are getting married later and later, and they are having kids later and later. So it figures that people would be staying downtown longer. But they still end up giving in to the siren song of suburbia at some point.

Like I said, I agree there is a backlash against suburbia. But it's like Wal-Mart -- we may hate it, but it's still where we all end up going anyway.

void77 said...

Thanks for the post Soebs!

I guess I'm kind of in the same camp as Scott. City life and downtown churces sounded great back when I was in college, and even shortly after when we only had one or two small children. But eventually, the whole reality of raising a family sets in, and its hard to see past the "picket-fences" and "cross-hatch-mown lawns" that suburbia promises. Perhaps its just years of pre-conditioning or the fact that I've only ever lived in the midwest (in fact, it is PROBABLY EXACTLY that!) that has me thinking that way. I guess I'm just beyond being the hip, young guy I was in '94 and really don't long for a city loft where I'm three blocks from the grocery store and Starbuck's. I'm happy to drive around my beat-up Tracer a few miles a day, and I still feel like I have an adequate social calendar.

But anyway, I see nothing wrong with planting a church in a downtown area. Or a suburbia. Or off an interstate somwhere. I guess it depends on what the purpose that God's planted in the hearts of the planters is.

I do have one concern about the article, though. I'm amazed at the picture that the author paints of the actual "market training" that universities go through regarding churches. Remove the Bible study class, and you'd have a pretty standard marketing course on entreprenurial business management. But, again, I didn't go to a Bible college and train to be a pastor. However, I did take Business 401, and we DID plan out a mock business, and I BET it looked a lot like a church plant exercise.

Joe B said...

"I'm amazed at the picture that the author paints of the actual "market training" that universities go through regarding churches."

I think it should fall under the topic of Missiology. Observing and adapting to cultural patterns. But, no, I'll bet it is more about marketing. I read a church growth book by a marketing-slash-theology professor and he recommended "Draw a circle on a map of a 5 mile radius of your church. Plot all the other churches. They are your competition."

I am not kidding!

soebeck said...

Just looking at our staff right now. There are 2 that live in chatham (suburb of springfield) that are 37 and 55 with families. There are 2 that live near the church which is definitely in the city, that are 31 and 28. All have families, my friend John who is 31, has 3 kids. His entire block is made up of young families, they counted like 26 kids. Houses with no yards and adjoining driveways... and he is definitely the poorest on the block... these houses sell for around 140,000 which in Newburgh terms would be like 175.

Just an observation.

Joe B said...

This is a most interesting thread. GREAT post.

Robbie said...

Scott...I totally understand what you mean about having kids and then heading out to suburbia from the city to raise one's family. But I have to think about the fact that not all families move back to suburbia when they have kids, and perhaps now, more will decide to stay in the city. I'm sure there are those that are moving to the suburban areas, but it seems that we are talking about a shift that is taking place right now, not one that has already taken place. So it is possible that we will see more of these younger couples slowly begin to stay in the city even after procreating.

And by the way, on Friends, Ross has a son, Chandler and Monica have a child, and Rachel has a baby too. That all happens throughout the shows 10 seasons. I know the show really wasn't changed much once the children arrived, but there were some kids.

Joe B said...

SO there it is. Scott is old. The tide has gone out on his generation.

Anonymous said...

I really don't see this happening.

The majority of the people aren't flocking downtown to live. It's a tiny minority. This downtown lifestyle is just a fashion trend. I doubt it will be anything that will last while the suburban market will continue to grow.

In ten year seeing suburban area's boarded up and like a ghetto? really? This is a very naive statement.

Today's young citizens may be interested in these chic outlets now but in 4 to 6 years when they're graduating college and starting to build a family they will return to the suburbs