Are You Starting an Urban Church Plant or PLANTATION?

Urban (and suburban) planters need to read Dr. Cleveland’s thought-provoking, important insights.

“If you are preparing to do [urban ministry] and you’ve never had a non-white mentor, you are not an [urban minister], you are a colonialist.” —adapted from Soong-chan Rah[i]

Last week I had the honor of meeting with a group of urban pastors who’ve devoted their lives to serving Buffalo, NY. While discussing the challenges they encountered while doing urban ministry in a predominantly non-white, socio-economically oppressed[ii] city, the black, Hispanic and Asian pastors with whom I met raised a familiar issue, one that I’ve heard and witnessed all over the country. Same story, different city.

Buffalo, like many other urban centers, has faced a shrinking population and declining business interest for decades[iii].

But things rapidly changed in December 2013, when NY Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the Buffalo Billion Investment Development Plan  in which he pledged to invest $1 billion in Buffalo, with the goal of transforming the beleaguered city into a high-tech center. Not surprisingly, suburban folks who’ve long abandoned the city are suddenly eager to return and participate in (cash in on?) the urban renaissance.

This doesn’t surprise me one bit. This is how capitalism works in the U.S. empire.

When the Church Works Like the Empire

The urban pastors reported that, in the wake of Governor Cuomo’s announcement, many predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches in the area have expressed renewed interest in Buffalo’s urban center. But rather than connecting with the urban pastors who have been doing ministry among the oppressed in Buffalo for years, and looking for ways to support the indigenous leaders who are already in place, they have simply begun making plans to expand their suburban ministry empires into the urban center. In other words, they’re venturing out into the world of urban church planting.

One older African-American pastor said he’s heard chilling reports of meetings, in which representatives from many of the suburban churches have gathered around a map of the city and marked each church’s “territory,” as if Buffalo was theirs to divvy up. The indigenous leaders were not invited to these meetings, nor have they been contacted by these churches. It’s as if they don’t exist, their churches don’t exist and their expertise doesn’t exist. The suburban churches are simply marching in.

This is happening all over the U.S. In Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Boston, Charlotte and many other cities, I’ve seen predominantly white, wealthy suburban churches take an imperialistic glance at the urban center, decide that they are called to “take back the city,” and then proceed with all of the honor and finesse of a military invasion.

Urban Church Plantations

I recently conversed with an urban Latina pastor about this issue. While talking about the ways in which non-indigenous urban church planting negatively affects a community, she unconsciously misspoke, referring to “urban church planting” initiatives run by predominantly white suburban churches as “urban church plantations.” She kept right on talking, seemingly unaware of her Freudian slip.

But she’s right. So much of the urban church planting I’ve seen simply replicates and extends the power inequities between whites and people of color that were cemented years ago on plantations. Like the suburban pastors in Buffalo, many urban church planters charge into cities with blatant disregard for the great ministry work that is already being done by under-resourced pastors and churches, blind to their own privilege and cultural incompetency, and accompanied by the arrogant empire-based idea that more money means more effective ministry.

When I asked the white pastor of a large suburban multicampus church to halt his plan to build an urban campus so that he could reflect on whether he has earned the right to do ministry among the oppressed, he responded by saying, “Obviously, the pastors [of color] that are already in the community aren’t more qualified to minister in that neighborhood than I am. If they were, they’d have made a bigger impact by now. They’ve had their chance. Now it’s mine.”

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Christena Cleveland
Christena Cleveland, Ph.D. is an associate professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN. The author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, she blogs at christenacleveland.com and tweets @CSCleve.