Place Matters…What evangelists and church planters can learn from "Who’s Your City?"

whosyourcityShortly after the 2008 Vital Church Planting Conference, I shared some church planting principles with my sister on a winter camping trip.  Among other things, I explained the importance of understanding cultural context, and how evangelism and church planting efforts can be helped or hindered by geography.  Months later, for my birthday, she added to the conversation by presenting me with Who’s Your City by University of Toronto business professor Richard Florida.  Its cover claimed the book would answer “how the creative economy is making where to live the most important decision of your life,” and its pages contained a treasure trove of demographic data, survey results and surprise revelations for church planters and evangelists called to specific segments of the population.

The first of these revelations was Florida’s debunking of globalization’s promised “flat world.”  This myth says that with the advent of high-speed communications and transportation, “place” has little or no relevance for the creative and mobile classes.  For example, stockbrokers armed with high-speed Internet and a cell phone could work from the dock of a Muskoka cottage, a hotel in India, or their home in Eastern Ontario, just as if they were on Wall Street, and Wall Street itself would lose its status as a financial hub.  If this were true, Florida says, we would have seen a mass exodus from city centres into rural areas.  After all, why would a stockbroker pay Manhattan rent when he/she can do the same work in a country hideaway that can be bought for the same amount as a few years’ rent in the city?  Yet the reality is that since the advent of these technologies, we have seen continued growth in urban areas, and continued population decline in rural areas, despite skyrocketing urban rent and housing prices.  Florida illustrates this increasing concentration on a continental scale with creative analysis of night-time satellite images, where artificial light indicates population.  The truth, Florida says, is that place does matter, and it matters so much that people will pay thousands more to live, work, and locate their businesses in the right place, surrounded by similar people and businesses.  Florida calls this the “clustering effect.” 

The ecclesiastical version of the “flat world” hypothesis says that in today’s world, geography is obsolete, and people prefer to arrange themselves in “networks”.  The Anglican tradition of dividing ministry into geographic parishes should thus be replaced with churches that serve “networks” of people, whether connected by their work, pastimes or simply friendship, recognizing these networks may gather people from across several parish or even diocesan boundaries, a sin next to heresy in some circles.  In many ways this is true, but the model falls apart when it’s pushed too far.  Taken too far, one could conclude that a church planted for young professionals could thrive regardless of its location.  Whether in a sprawling metropolis or a small city, it could theoretically gather its target population by affinity rather than by geography.  The problem that Florida’s research shows, however, is that affinity networks are increasingly clustering in geographic areas, and no wise church planter can discount geography.  “Who” and “Where” are deeply connected.  A church called to a certain geographical location will be wise to understand and engage with those clustered there, and a new plant called to a certain people group will be wise to locate where they cluster.  

The most obvious example of clustering is that instead of globalization, enabled by high-speed communications and transportation bringing us a flatter world without geographical constraints or advantage, we have an increasingly segregated world where, thanks to the same developments, up and coming musicians cluster in Nashville, ‘A’ list film stars cluster in Los Angeles, and top fashion designers cluster in NYC and so on.  Trying to break into those industries outside of those clusters is exceedingly difficult. . . . Place matters.

Less obvious, but more relevant clusters can be identified by age.  Florida divides the life of a person in the creative/mobile classes into five segments, separated by three “big moves”.  Remember, these are generalizations, and are focused on the “creative class” and not the entire population, where many are immobile due to economic and other circumstances.  The first segment of the creative/mobile class is made of recent college graduates, 20-29 and generally single, establishing careers and relationships on their own for the first time.  The second segment is young professionals, 30-44, established in careers and relationships, but still childless.  The third segment is families with children, aged 64 and under.  The next segment is empty-nesters between 45 and 64, followed by retirees 65+.  In each stage, distinct needs cluster people together.  First an active nightlife attracts young singles to a vibrant city center, then as young professionals, the cheaper real estate of the suburbs, still within a reasonable commute, becomes more appealing.  For a young family, good schools and safe streets are of primary concern.  Finally, for empty-nesters, arts, culture and recreation become more attractive, and for retirees, access to high-quality healthcare, safety and warmer weather are draws.  Florida uses these survey results and other criteria to rank cities and neighbourhoods across the United States by their appeal to each segment, as well as by “personality”.   A Canadian edition is said to be coming soon.  Until then, the US edition is still helpful, and gives honourable mention to several Canadian neighbourhoods.  For his target audience, members of the creative class contemplating their next move up the ladder of success, this is meant to help one choose a city of residence.  For church planters and evangelists called to serve a specific segment of this class, Florida identifies and ranks the kinds of cities and neighbourhoods where that segment has “clustered”.  In other words, it helps us locate and understand our mission fields.

Christians will also find much of concern in Florida’s book.  Not least among them is the “stratification” of the world, where Florida observes a massive segregation of people by wealth and class.  His use of gay and lesbian populations as indicators of up and coming neighbourhoods is both intriguing and contentious.  Finally, the book reveals how the pursuit of wealth and success drives many human decisions, often at the expense of others, even though Florida’s research reveals that happiness has more to do with one’s place than one’s wealth (although the two are not unrelated).  

However, when it comes to church planting and evangelism, we of all people should hardly be surprised that the world has different values from the Kingdom of God.  Florida is making valuable, realistic observations about the world that is, and not the world that God wants.  For someone like me, finding that my call to plant and evangelize is based on the question of “who” more than “where”, Who’s Your City describes and locates a mission field ripe for introduction to kingdom values.  Evangelists and church planters will surely benefit from understanding the demography of this mission field as they, with the dedication and enthusiasm of a pearl merchant seeking a pearl of great price, seek clusters of those among whom they are called to share His kingdom.

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