Downtown living breeds churches

In a major reversal, congregations are thriving in city centers. And it's not just Mars Hill.
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Pastor Mark Driscoll preaching at Mars Hill Church in Ballard.

In a major reversal, congregations are thriving in city centers. And it's not just Mars Hill.

Twenty years ago, when I was leading a congregation in downtown Seattle, the conventional wisdom — confirmed by the statistics — was that a city center or downtown was a tough location for a church. People had moved farther and farther away from downtowns, while those urban cores struggled with varied forms of social decay and decline. True, there was plenty of work for congregations that stayed downtown, but often fewer people to fill the pews and pay the bills.

I took some pride in the fact that Plymouth Church (at Sixth and University) in downtown Seattle bucked the trend of the time and was actually a growing congregation in those years. 

Overall, however, the pattern of downtowns being tough territory for churches held true for 50 years — but that’s changing. Now, surprisingly, downtowns and city centers are newly fertile ground for churches.

That was the conclusion of the most recent Faith Communities Today national study, released in 2011. According to the FACT study of the Hartford Research Institute on patterns of church growth and decline between 2000 and 2010, city centers are a good place for growing churches. Here’s what the Faith Communties Today study reported:

In a shift, congregations located in the downtown or central city area are more likely to experience growth than congregations in other locations. Previous surveys found that newer suburbs were associated with the greatest potential for growth. 

So the announcement that Seattle’s Mars Hill is moving its downtown congregation to the historic building of the former First Methodist at Fifth and Marion is noteworthy but not altogether surprising. The city center is, newly, where it's at, even if First Methodist is Seattle’s oldest congregation, founded in 1853.

While Mars Hill is in many respects a special case, other congregations in Seattle’s downtown, including First Methodist at its new location near Seattle Center, and First Baptist on First Hill, are reporting moderate growth as well. Meanwhile, Gethsemane Lutheran, also downtown near the bus station, has recently completed an attractive renovation and is experiening new vitality. And two years ago this month, the Catholic Archdiocese officially opened a new downtown parish, Christ Our Hope. Membership growth has to do with a number of factors — spiritually alive worship, a clear sense of mission, absence of chronic conflict, and capable leadership — but downtowns are no longer the challenge to churches that they were for so long.

Moreover, as the FACT study and Seattle churches indicate, growth is not limited to conservative or evangelical congregations. “Theological orientation,” indicates the Hartford research is less important than clarity about mission, a religious or spiritual orientation (in contrast to churches that morph into social clubs), and willingness to embrace change.

Mars Hill embodies another trend among larger or mega-churches today, that of the “multi-site” church. Nationally more than half of mega-churches (congregations with weekend worship attendance of more than 2,000) are now multi-site. This means that one church will offer worship services and programs at multiple sites, often simulcasting the sermon from a primary or central location, while having a pastoral staff and musicians at each local site. “Multi-site” is something like franchising in other sectors.

But the question remains, why are downtowns and city centers newly promising for religious congregations? It’s not entirely a mystery. City centers and downtowns are now popular as residential communities. Seattle embodies this trend as well as any place, having been transformed since the mid-1990’s by much greater population density and significant increases in housing stock in the urban center. Where Seattle’s downtown was once a business but not a residential center, that’s significantly changed today with lots of new housing in the Denny Regrade, South Lake Union, Pioneer Square, First Hill, and the International District — and more to come.

Often the new urban populations are younger, which means that churches that are geared for people in their twenties and thirties may benefit most. But that’s not the whole story. Some of the urban residents are the “young elderly” or newly retired. They turn to a church for a community and an anchor in their new setting, as well as a place to be involved. Higher gas prices may be a factor, too, causing people to be less willing to make long drives, as well as improved urban public transit.

As with so many things, confident predictions of certain decline unto death — pronounced upon urban churches 40 years ago — are proving to have been off target.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.