Urban Church Planting: A Conversation with Eric Metcalf
Urban Church Planting: A Conversation with Eric Metcalf

By David Dummitt

When I was first invited to write an article about urban church planting, I planned to write about trends, research, data, and the like. But after thinking about it some more, I decided that rather than share my thoughts, it would be more powerful to share the insights of someone in the proverbial trenches of urban church planting.

I recently sat down with Eric Metcalf, a colleague, fellow church planter, and friend. Eric and his wife, Erin, are church planters in downtown Chicago. Eric is also the residency catalyst for NewThing. Their passion for the Jesus mission, love of people, and down-to-earth personalities are making a big impact in urban church planting.

 

QUESTION: Eric, you’ve been in the church-planting world for a while now. Exactly how many church plants have you been a part of? Of those, how many are considered “urban” plants?

Eric Metcalf: I’ve had my hands in dozens of church plants through my role with NewThing, but I’ve been directly involved with launching or leading five church plants, the most recent of which is in an urban context: Community Christian Church, Lincoln Park | Old Town (or “LPOT,” as we affectionately call it). That’s where I am currently.

Why is urban church planting critical to missional movement?
Because cities influence everything; as the city goes, so goes the world. Tim Keller said, “Cities increasingly influence our global culture and affect the way we do ministry.” 

Keller has also said that we need churches everywhere there are people, but the people of the world are moving into the great cities of the world faster than the church is. So, we must better understand and care for our cities, and more Christians should consider living and ministering in urban areas.

We need more and more people and families who are willing to move to the city to further God’s kingdom so that our cities don’t become fully unchurched. Chicago is less than 5 percent churched. San Francisco is less than 1 percent and Boston less than 2 percent . . . as the cities go, so goes our world. We must send in missionaries to these cities who will lead gospel transformation.

What is the most common misconception about planting a church in an urban area?
People often assume that planting in an urban context is the same as planting anywhere else. I have seen time and time again where leaders end up underestimating the nuance of contextualization.

The city is faster, louder, more aggressive, more cynical, and less open spiritually than its suburban and rural counterparts. Don’t get me wrong, cities are beautiful and filled with incredible art, architecture, music, entertainment, sports teams, and more. You name it, it’s here! But city dwellers just don’t subscribe to the next church plant. Instead they watch idly by to see what you’re going to do, or they don’t notice you at all. That means it will take a church plant in an urban context longer—much longer—to become self-sustaining financially. Quite frankly, most planters don’t bring in enough support to lead a new church in an urban context to self-sustainability, because they didn’t realize planting a church in the city isn’t the same as planting anywhere else.

What are the unique challenges of urban church planting compared with rural and suburban planting?

Eric Metcalf

I would say two big challenges in urban church planting are transiency and how far people are from God.

When we moved to Chicago people told us one of the hardest parts of living there is saying goodbye to your friends every 12 to 18 months. They weren’t kidding. We say goodbye to people we love about every 12 months, and it is painful. The most common reasons for moving away are job opportunities and starting families. We mostly end up attracting people who are younger or who won’t be here for a long period, which means we have a bit of a revolving door.

That is why we have begun focusing on reaching more “local” Chicagoans, those who have been here in the city for 7, 10, 15 years. But the people in this demographic are the hardest to reach because they are the most cynical and skeptical. They’ve been living just fine without church, so why would they need church now? Several times a month we’ll have people attend who have never been to a church. Not once! We are dealing with a different type of unchurched person here in the city, and that requires us to regularly evaluate our missiology.

What are some of the unique opportunities of urban church planting?
I mentioned our opportunity to influence the broader culture, but another great opportunity is being a “sending” church. Because we have people who are moving all the time, we have begun “commissioning” leaders as they move away. It’s a powerful moment to bring people up front, lay hands on them, and then have the community pray for them as they go out. It is a powerful demonstration of “sending out.”

What are an urban church planter’s greatest needs?
Like any good church planter, I have to say people and money. Actually, those things are secondary to our greatest need: more Christ followers who see themselves as missionaries to move into cities to reach people who are far from God. We need more Christ followers who can’t sit still any longer to come into our cities and join God on mission to help more people find their way back to him.

When my wife and I and our three kids moved here five years ago, our friends thought we were crazy. But it has been one of the best decisions we have ever made. Our kids love it here. The city is alive and full of energy, and a new adventure is always to be had. More importantly, I feel like I’m being used by God every day because the need is so apparent here. I can’t walk out my door without finding someone who is far from God.

What does a healthy, successful urban church plant look like?
It’s important not to evaluate urban churches against suburban or rural church plants. In an urban context, health and success are defined by sustainability and reproducibility. The size of an urban church isn’t as important as the church developing a self-sustaining model that can then, in turn, reproduce more churches. A healthy urban church is a group of Christ followers who are on mission together to reach those far from God, restore God’s dream for the world, and reproduce the Jesus mission in others over and over again.

David Dummitt is the lead pastor and planter of 2|42 Community Church, one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country. He is also on the lead team of NewThing Network, a catalyst for reproducing churches worldwide.

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