Beer, Coffee, and “Kingdom Expansion”

Or, “Church, for the love of God and neighbor, don’t colonize communities like Richfield.”

Two of my favorite indulgences in the world are coffee and beer. So last night when the city council approved a proposal to put a new coffee shop and restaurant with full bar at the end of our block in Richfield, I was despondent.

Development of underdeveloped areas. That’s good, right? But, we must ask, for whom?

No, our house will not be directly impacted by the new development.

Yes, these new establishments will provide nice commodities to consume.

The short-term benefits might actually be very positive. What concerns me instead are the long-term implications that these businesses and the like will do to the community that so many people call home.

Richfield has recently become one of the “up and coming” areas in the Twin Cities, bolstered by a strong housing market and growing investment in new development opportunities. Major construction targeting 66th Street — the main thoroughfare — promises to repair deteriorating infrastructure into “Sweet Streets” that will transform our community.

Transformation of things that are broken. That’s good, right? But, we must ask, for whom?

In our relatively short time living in Richfield, I have already witnessed a transformation beginning. Sites that have been marked for development for nearly a decade and long sat empty are finally drawing the attention of interested developers who see the value of the location. Similarly, less than three years after moving here, the value of our home with minimal investment has increased by $50,000.

Appreciating values of location and homes. That’s good, right? But, we must ask, for whom?

Most troubling, I have been noticing hipsters in our neighborhood.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love me a good hipster. Hipsters, like all of us, bear the imago dei — greasy hair, vape pen, tattoos, and all. I have many friends who are hipsters, filling my social media feeds with pictures of their latte art and burkenstocks.

But hipsters moving into a neighborhood tends to be indicative of a larger problem: gentrification.

Project for Public Spaces defines gentrification as “the social, cultural, and economic ‘upgrading’ of a neighborhood, and the displacement of existing residents and businesses as a result.”

“Upgrading” of a neighborhood can be a very positive and beautiful thing, but must be done in a delicate balance with justice in mind. Says PPS:

“the physical, social and cultural landscapes of many local places remains caught between danger, disinvestment and a lack of opportunity, on the one hand, and the Pyrrhic victory of ‘neighborhood improvement’ through gentrification, on the other.”

The threats of displacement have already been creeping into our economically and racially diverse Richfield community. Most exemplary have been the purchase and near purchase of low-income apartment complexes on the south side with the intent of flipping them for “young working professionals.”

In other words, “development,” “transformation,” and “appreciation” often have a demonic way of disproportionately impacting current residents who are lower income and/or people of color. The result is that Richfield — a city that statistically has a very diverse population and a poverty rate significantly above state average — may very well start looking more middle class and white through displacement.

But hey! Money, power, and homogeneity! Three things the American church loves…

When we were researching Richfield as a potential location to plant a new church — that which became Community Church Richfield (CCR) — we were looking for four factors:

  1. Diversity (racial, cultural, economic) reflective of an urban context.
  2. Young couples or families who might be interest in participating in a new church in their community.
  3. A lack of other new churches contributing to the community.
  4. A completely subjective sense that this was the place.

The demographics in Richfield of diversity (1) and age (2) were spot on, but so was the lack on any new churches (3) compared to surrounding inner-ring suburbs. When I began meeting with people around the city, I found that it had been at least 20 years (!) since anyone had specifically chosen Richfield in which to plant a new church. Rumor has it that in recent years a megachurch in the outer-ring suburbs was even offered a building for free but turned it down because they had no interest in starting a new congregation in Richfield.

Why was this the case? Because Richfield has had a diverse population with flat numeric growth.

You see, for nearly 50 years, areas targeted for church planting have primarily relied on factors of homogeneity and population growth.

When superstar pastor Rick Warren decided to plant a church, he chose the location by looking for the fastest growing zip codes. Surprise surprise, his church became one of the fastest-growing — and upper-class white — churches in the country.

Indeed, Donald McGavran’s 1970 seminal work Understanding Church Growth advised churches to pursue the “homogenous unit principle” or “HUP.”

The homogenous unity is simply a section of society in which all the members have some characteristic in common… To attempt to plant congregations in several homogenous units at once, arguing that Christian ethics demand this, and insisting on integration first, whether the church grows or not, is a self-defeating policy and, with rare exceptions, contrary to the will of God… “loyalty to our people” becomes the chariot in which Christ rides to the hearts of unbelievers.

Did you catch that?

“The chariot in which Christ rides.”

Aren’t chariots what emperors ride?

This is some seriously MESSED UP theology and ecclesiology!

Yet these are the reasons that CCR was among the only — if not the only — church plant in Richfield in decades.

And these are the same reasons that things are about to turn for the worse.

With the adjectives “up and coming” now being applied to our city, I am convinced (and concerned) that we are mere months from hearing the announcements of new churches intending to plant Richfield.

My angst comes not from a bitterness and contempt for other churches, as if they are competition against which we must fight in a market that is not yet saturated. I’m actually a big fan of ecumenism. Instead, I worry about churches rolling into town as colonizers not members of Richfield.

The “development,” “transformation,” and “appreciation” that accompanies gentrification is damaging enough, but far too often the church places a pastey gangsta Jesus on this three-wheeled chariot and announces the expansion of a whitewashed kingdom.

What if church “success” and “expansion of the kingdom” are actually detrimental to the gospel of Jesus that is nothing short of jubilee — good news of to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and God’s favor on all?

Fact: Richfield is gentrifying.

Fact: Churches will see the gentrifying changes as positive developments and target Richfield for new churches.

These are realities with which we must deal not hills on which we will inevitably die. So I would like merely to offer some free advice to churches and church planters who are suddenly interested in ministry to our suddenly trendy city. Consider these lessons from someone who has been in your shoes and has now been covered with the dust of Richfield. These lessons can also be applied to any new context in ministry to which you feel “called.”

Move here/there. As Senegalese environmentalis Baba Dioum says, “We won’t save places we don’t love. We can’t love places we don’t know. And we don’t know places we haven’t learned.” I studied Richfield for a long time before planting what has become CCR, but my mind, heart, and eyes were changed once I moved here. As I became a part of Richfield, Richfield became a part of me. Those people who might be displaced by gentrification are harder to disregard when they are your neighbors.

Start by looking for assets not needs. In any community, there are tons of things and people who precede you which have lots to offer. In the Bible’s stories of creation, grace and blessing precede sin. In the same way, the new “Sweet Streets” bringing transformation to Richfield are built upon a solid foundation that has already been established. Look for the strengths of Richfield — or whatever place you find yourself — that can be celebrated and built upon. You are not bringing the kingdom there; the kingdom has already been there and simply needs to be revealed.

Be humble. This is part and parcel to the previous point. Rather than being the outsider or newbie who valiantly rides in on a chariot to win the day, find others that you can come alongside who are already making tangible and lasting contributions. You don’t know it all (although you think you do). You can’t save the world (although you think you can). Those things are up to God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who is a whole lot bigger and whose work is a whole lot more expansive than the box in which we place him.

Work for the social good. Those who grew up in conservative Christian circles often characterize — or I’d argue caricaturize — justice-oriented ministry as a heretical “social gospel.” But the “gospel” (the Greek euangelion) to which the New Testament attests is an active and liberating faith, setting people free from both illness and sin but also from the demons of money, wealth, and homogeneity.

So if you want to do ministry in Richfield, I welcome you to join us in doing ministry with Richfield. Love your neighbors as yourself, or even more than your latte. I’ll even buy you a coffee or beer at the place at the end of my street.

By the way — for anyone who thinks I’m just being a curmudgeon — I do believe there’s a more wild and beautiful and perfectly-in-process way of being the church in community:

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