City church

Not long ago, I agreed to meet a church leader with a vision. Her passion was a new church plant here in the city centre. As an established pastor in the neighbourhood, and with a community that’s been around since 1843, I was clearly a person of interest.

I have to confess, I’ve come to approach conversations like this with a dose of skepticism. Though a naturally trusting soul, I’ve learned caution these past few years. The fact is, calls from large church franchises are reasonably common — those who want to use our sanctuary as their newest place to meet. It’s understandable: venues in the city centre are rare and the challenge for newcomers daunting. What troubles me, though, is that these enterprising leaders never want to talk.

Whether on the phone or in person, the standard approach of prospective ‘tenants’ is to sell me on their ‘kingdom vision’ and the numerical growth of their movement. But so rarely do they want to know about us: who we are, what we do or what we’ve learned. It’s as though they have the formula for church success, and all that’s required is an empty space to make it happen. The underlying message is barely veiled — If only you old, irrelevant city churches with property would get out of the way and let us at it, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Honestly, it feels like terra nullius all over again. There is scant regard for what’s already here and for the rich story of faith and struggle that fills this place. Even worse, it’s as though our neighbourhood is nothing more than a cool new venue for the latest brand of hipster church. Cue pictures of graffitied laneways, apartment towers and sidewalk cafes. The slick invitation is to come into the city and do church like you do a shopping mall or a Saturday night bar. Then afterwards you can head back to your suburbs, until next time.

Frankly, the city doesn’t need any more big-box franchises that drag people in for worship and fair-trade coffee only to see them leave again. If there’s no real investment in this city as a flesh-and-blood neighbourhood, then what’s the point? The challenges of the CBD are complex and layered. Inner-city clichés abound, but the reality is so much more demanding.

No doubt, old city churches like mine come with baggage galore. Believe me, we know that. Our history and property are tremendous gifts. And at the same time they are weights that hang around our necks. But take time to look beyond our organs and stained glass windows, and you’ll see faith communities with a longstanding commitment to this city and its people. And with some rungs on the board too. If you judge us only by what you see in a Sunday service, you’ll likely miss the bulk of what we do and who we are and how we struggle. But press in and you could be surprised.

This plea is not about protecting territory. I am delighted when new churches flourish in our patch. I really am. Our neighbourhood is growing and changing like you wouldn’t believe and the possibilities for new initiatives are extraordinary. As it happens, the pastor I met with this time around was really interested in us and in what’s already happening in the city centre. Her vision is for a model of church that is genuinely organic in form and focus. I left the conversation deeply encouraged, affirmed in my own ministry, and ready to cheer this pastor on as a potential colleague in the gospel. My concern here is only that we all do a better job — those who are here already and those who want to join us — at real engagement with the neighbourhood God has called us to.

Anything less is ecclesial froth without substance.

5 thoughts on “City church

  • Hi Simon. Thanks for this article. I found it very encouraging. After many years of prayer my husband and I have moved to Sydney to start an inner city missional work. (We’re YWAMers.) We are the “new guys” you’re talking about. 🙂 We’ve been immensely enjoying the process of meeting pastors and leaders in the city and learning about their work, the demographic they serve, the history, and their desires for the city and for each local neighbourhood. (We’re focused on a relatively small area so we can truly be community-based.)

    With some of them, we haven’t shared much about our own vision at all and that’s not uncomfortable for us. (We’re not in a hurry.) With others, we’ve shared because they’ve asked, and with others, they’ve checked us out online before we met so they had an idea of our ethos and values already. For now, though, we’re in what we call our “learning phase” and, so far, it’s been fruitful and helped us gain so much perspective. Basically, we ask as many questions as they’ll let us. 🙂 We’re seeing what churches are already doing, what gaps there are, and how we can strengthen the overall work in the city. It’s exciting! We’re also getting insight into challenges they’ve had, frustrations, etc. All of it helps paint a better, more realistic picture for us and gives us wisdom for how to move forward.

    In addition to meeting pastors individually, we’ve also been attending different churches on Sundays to meet congregants and get a feel for the churches. (Partly because we’ll be also choosing one to attend as our home church.) One fascinating thing we’ve noticed is that most of the people we’ve met in these churches don’t live in the city; they travel in from elsewhere. The pastors live locally, but many others don’t. (Housing affordability is often cited.) So where are all the local people? Either they are: 1) travelling out to the suburbs to attend church as the suburbanites travel in, or 2) city folks just aren’t attending at all, or 3) I have no idea???! (The pastors have confirmed that many of their members travel in from elsewhere.) Obviously we have some census data to help inform us of religious views in the area, but that only paints a small part of the picture.

    What’s your take on this? Have you noticed anything similar in Melbourne? Do most of your congregants live locally within a 20-minute radius? (Btw, the churches we’ve visited to date have been both established, historical churches as well as new church plants. So far the newer plants do seem to have a little higher percentage of locals than the established churches, but the margin appears small.) If you’ve written on this elsewhere please feel free to send me a link. We’d really love to better understand.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful article. I’m taking it as encouragement that we’re on the right track as we pioneer a new work, as well as an exhortation to continue to learn and listen and not presume. (And thanks for your patience with my long comment! Yikes.)

    • Hi Adriel,

      Thank so much for reading along with me and responding so sensitively. Indeed, it sounds like you are well and truly on the right track, and I thank you for it. I am excited by your plans and pray God’s blessing upon all that lies ahead.

      The challenge you’ve articulated is one of the most pressing for city churches. And with a long back story. The truth is, when Collins Street was planted (1843) every one walked to church on a Sunday from the most immediate area. It was so for all the city churches. They were parish communities in the very real sense of that word. However, with the advent of suburbia, which took off at pace around the turn of the last century (1900s), the churches saw a rapid exit of church members of the suburbs. Collins Street lost 200 in a two year period.

      With the loss of their parish communities, all city churches had to reimagine themselves as metropolitan ‘cathedrals’ drawing people in from the suburbs with grand organ music and great oratory from the pulpits. This worked with varying degrees of success for the next fifty years, but inevitably decline set in.

      As we entered the 21st century, the city saw a complete reversal of its residential life. People were moving back into the city centre with gusto. In 1989, Melbourne’s CBD had just 700 residents. Today we have in excess of 26,000. Add to that the growth of Southbank and Docklands and we have a parish of about 60,000 people.

      The challenge for churches like ours is that we have to reinvent ourselves all over again. We have to come local parish churches again, and less metropolitan centres of faith.

      City churches are facing this challenge with varying degrees of success. In our case, about 30-40% of our congregation can walk to church on Sunday. But still a majority drive in from the suburbs. We have a lot of work to do yet. The churches that have had the greatest success is this are those who target young Asian residents of the CBD who come to Melbourne to study. We have less success with other segments of the city neighbourhood. Contacting city residents is a challenge. You can’t knock on people’s front doors, so making connections takes creativity.

      All that to say, the challenges are pressing, but the opportunities tremendous.

      Every blessing to you,


      • Thanks so much for your time and care in responding, Simon. I found that really helpful and it’s made me want to not only look at our current census data but compare it with census data from 20 years ago. The leap you described from 700 to 26,000 is almost unbelievable. Wow! I know that in Sydney 40% of residents were born outside of Australia; I’m sure the number is similar in Melbourne. It really does change things and it would be interesting to see how that percentage has changed. Something I hadn’t considered is the point you raised about not being able to door knock. Door knocking probably isn’t high on the agenda for most church planters or ministries, and yet what you’re describing about the ease (or lack of) in making connections certainly is something we’re all thinking about. Thank you again for your insight, and I’ll check out the other article you linked as well.

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