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Does Church Location Make Any Difference?

Because human beings are embodied creatures, the shape of the material world—in particular, the shape of the built environment—will affect their spiritual lives, both in relation to God and to each other.

It is often tempting to think that since the church deals in matters of the spirit, its physical location should have little bearing on its ministry and sense of mission. But I suggest that, because human beings are embodied creatures, the shape of the material world—in particular, the shape of the built environment—will affect their spiritual lives, both in relation to God and to each other. Here I will focus on the effect the physical location of a church has on the focus of its mission.

Private Life Over Public Life

Many have observed the steady triumph of private life over public life in North American society. Already in the 1830s, visiting Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville referred to this preference for the private as the spirit of “American individualism.” By that term he did not mean that Americans were especially selfish—far from it, in fact. He meant rather that the center of American concern was the wellbeing of the family, not society at large. “Individualism,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “is a word recently coined to express a new idea. Our fathers only knew about egoism. Egoism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self which leads a man to think of all things in terms of himself and to prefer himself to all. Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Harper and Row, 1969, p. 506.). In the democratic culture Americans invented for themselves, private life trumps public life.

After the Second World War, with almost-universal car ownership and the mass production of affordable single-family detached housing, the spirit of American individualism came to physical expression in the suburb: a belt of land area devoted to the private life of the family far removed from the public realm of the city. The classic American suburb of the 1950s and ’60s was nonetheless still oriented to the urban center as a place of employment, cultural amenities, and civic life. Commutes were typically edge to center. Since the 1970s, however, we have seen the explosive growth of a new and historically unprecedented form of human settlement: the exurb, a centerless sprawl that has made the private automobile the only viable mode of transportation, where various land uses—residential, commercial, office, civic, and industrial—are strictly segregated and scattered across the countryside, and where most commutes are no longer between edge and center, but from edge to edge. If there is any center to this system, it is the home, where all trips originate and to which they return. That is to say, there are many centers, and they are all private. The public realm has virtually disappeared.

Privatized Expression

Will the hyperprivatized configuration of the exurb have any effect of Christian ministry and sense of mission? Will exurban church location make a difference? Consider Saddleback Community Church as represented in a study by geographer Justin Wilford in his book Sacred Subdivisions. Saddleback is located in the exurban region of Orange County in southern California. One might think that in this widely dispersed area the church campus would function as the center of worship and congregational life. But it doesn’t. The church and its Sunday worship services serve instead as the front door of the believing community. This is where the crowd shows up. Once committed to official membership and Christian discipleship, members are referred to weekly small-group meetings in private homes—more than 3,800 of them. Small-group meetings, as it turns out, are at the center of the ministry. So there are many centers to the church, and they are all private. The structure of the ministry mirrors the structure of the built environment. “The home for Saddleback churchgoers,” writes Wilford, “is the affective center around which all other religiously significant activity turns” (Justin Wilford, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism, New York University Press, 2012, p. 163.). Religious practice is “centered on domesticity, close interpersonal relationships, and individual improvement” (Wilford, p. 116). A highly privatized built environment means a highly privatized expression of the Christian religion.

Saddleback reflects not only the spatial configuration of exurban life but a good deal of its culture as well. Given the absence of a public realm where people identify themselves as citizens in the shared pursuit of the common good, the exurban setting encourages people to think of themselves as consumers whose main concern is the private satisfaction of individual desires and preferences. Saddleback markets itself accordingly. In the midst of many preference subcultures, Saddleback offers many worship styles, times, and venues. In his “Mapping the Future! 2004 State of the Church Message” given at Saddleback Church, senior pastor Rick Warren offers worship options tailored to tastes: “Then you can say, ‘Today I think I’d like to go to the polka worship.’ Or, ‘I feel like heavy metal today. What mood are you in for?’ It’ll be like going over to Edwards 21 Theaters, ‘Now showing at 9:00, 9:15, 9:30, 9:45, 10:00.’ You can choose the time, the style and even the size of the service you’d like to be involved in” (Wilford, p. 80). I leave it to the reader to decide if Saddleback’s religious marketing strategy and its comparison of the church to an entertainment venue is a matter of becoming “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22, or a matter of being conformed to the world rather than transformed by the renewal of our minds in order to discern what is good and acceptable, as Paul puts it in Romans 12:2.

Faithful Presence

The reference to Saddleback gets us to the era and culture of the 1990s and early 2000s, the heyday of exurban development and the rise of the megachurch. Since then there have been signs of the Christian church’s rediscovery of locality, public life, and the common good. Consider the New Parish movement coming out of Seattle. It had its origins in questioning the megachurch model of the church as an outsized affinity group located on the edge of town. There, write the authors of The New Parish, “churches drew people out of the diversity of their own neighborhood contexts; . . . in a homogenous gathering, they would ‘consume’ a worship event crafted with excellence appealing to a specific audience” (Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen, The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community, InterVarsity Press, 2014.). Instead, New Parish churches focus on establishing a “faithful presence” in the midst of existing neighborhoods, many of them urban, with their diverse demographics and cultural mix (Sparks, et al., p. 46), and where the primary mission the work of the “commons”—what we share with others in the areas of education, civic life, economic activity, and the natural environment (Sparks, et al., pp. 95–96). The faithful presence of a church, then, means to seek a flourishing life for all within a given place (Sparks, et al., p. 47). Its civic role is more a matter of inhabiting a place than issue advocacy, which runs the risk of reducing the church to another special interest group in the politics of the culture wars (Sparks, et al., p. 111). The emphasis is on self-giving service, not political dominance. “A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly,” writes James Davison Hunter in To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 253.). “Faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us—the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted. For most, this will mean a preference for stability, locality, and particularity of place and its needs. It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of the people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, coworkers, and community—where we find our authenticity as a body and as believers” (Hunter, p. 253). Urban neighborhoods—with mixed use and mixed incomes, with their walkable streets, their squares and commons, their rich public realm—both support and elicit this shift in the focus of Christian ministry and mission.

Common Good

We can see a similar movement in the case of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, whose senior pastor until recently was Timothy Keller. By its numbers, Redeemer could be considered a megachurch. It draws over five thousand attendees to its services each week. But the spirit is different from the exurban phenomenon we considered above. “Christians,” Keller writes, “should seek to live in the city, not to use the city to build great churches, but to use the resources of the church to seek a great, flourishing city. We refer to this as a ‘city growth’ model of ministry rather than a strictly ‘church growth’ model” (Timothy Keller, Center Church, Zondervan, 2012, p. 172.).  In this model, churches are “looking for ways to strengthen the health of their neighborhoods, making them safer and more humane places to live. This is a way to seek the welfare of the city, in the spirit of Jeremiah 29” (Keller, p. 175). Church members “work for the peace, security, justice, and prosperity of their neighbors, loving them in word and deed, whether or not they believe the same things we believe in” (Keller, p. 171). Here the common good comes back into focus.

To better serve the neighborhoods of its parishioners, and to avoid undue focus on a singular pastor, Redeemer has decided to get smaller rather than bigger. It divided itself into three locations in Manhattan—West Side, East Side, and Downtown. The Urban Village Church in Chicago follows a similar approach when it comes to church growth. Rather than aspiring to become a large church in one location and expecting its members to leave their neighborhoods and travel miles by car to attend its services, it stays small, local, close, and embedded. It grows by replicating itself, neighborhood by neighborhood. With signal emphases on hospitality, justice, inclusion, service, and discipleship, it has established a vital presence in four Chicago neighborhoods—Hyde Park, South Loop, Wicker Park, and Andersonville—with the intent of growing by starting an additional local faith community in the city every one to two years. Like Redeemer Presbyterian, it intends to grow by replication rather than by expansion.

Clearly the ministry of the Word is central to the work of Redeemer. It is theologically conservative. Its members can find pastoral support for their personal struggles. But its sense of mission is defined by its urban context. And, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it in “The Role of the Parish in Society,” if the church is to function as the “first fruit, sign, and instrument of God’s new creation,” as a pilot plant for redemption, the urban context is in many ways ideal (Lesslie Newbigin, “The Role of the Parish in Society,” in The Good Shepherd: Meditations on Christian Ministry in Today’s World, pp. 85–90 Eerdmans, 1977, pp. 85–90). The city, Keller notes, is “humanity intensified—a magnifying glass that brings out the very best and the very worst of human nature” (Keller, p. 135). The city is the site of diversity, contrast, and contest—racial, ethnic, social, economic, cultural, and intellectual (Keller, p. 171). It is also a center of cultural production, whether local, regional, national, or global. What better place for the community of faith to model, as best it can, the grace, hope, and reconciling power of the gospel? The city occupies a specific patch of ground where people unlike each other have to live together. What better crucible for the church to both learn from and contribute to the common good of the human community? “The question that has to be asked about the church and about every congregation,” writes Newbigin, “is not: How big is it? How fast is it growing? How rich is it? It is: What difference is it making to that bit of the world in which it has been placed?” (Newbigin, p. 88). The city is an excellent bit of the world for the Christian church to make a demonstrable difference.

A Two-Way Street

The relation of Christianity and the built environment is clearly a two-way street. One can consider the effects of urban form and civic institutions on the character of ministry and mission in the Christian church; one can also speak of the influence of Christianity on urban form and civic institutions. The new direction in this relationship is represented by the concepts of “faithful presence” and the “commons.” The concept of “faithful presence” takes it cue from the incarnation. God’s presence in Christ to human beings—especially to the most vulnerable—is to be imitated by those who would follow Christ. The commitment to the “commons”— devotion to the common good, to those things we hold in common with others irrespective of religious belief and upon which human flourishing depends—comes from a kind of “red letter” reading of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is less a matter of political advocacy and power bids on behalf Christian special interests than it is a matter of promoting human flourishing across the board, especially on the local level, through acts of self-giving service. Devotion to the “commons” will not only involve acts of direct charity, but also—and in the long run more importantly—investment in civic institutions, urban form, and communities upon which the common good depends. In my view, walkable urban neighborhoods represent the most favorable material conditions for a Christian mission and ministry that focuses on faithful presence and the promotion of the common good. Conversely, devotion to the common good will include the support and development of walkable urban neighborhoods. It’s a two-way street.


Some material for this article is based on Lee Hardy’s new book, The Embrace of Buildings: A Second Look at Walkable City Neighborhoods (Grand Rapids: Calvin College Press, 2017). Used by permission.