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Different Needs: Urban and Suburban Congregations

The Houston Chronicle published a piece outlining the multi-site, First Methodist Church in Houston. One location is in the suburbs, whereas the other location is downtown Houston. The United Methodist Reporter outlines some of the differences between the communities:

“It will be extremely communal,” Hagans said of the smaller sessions. “It will be more about relationships and how we live our faith in day-to-day life, rather than strictly biblical. There will be ‘radical transparency’ around brokenness, without being judged or condemned.”

Added Rogers, “My background was at a church where there were things you didn’t say. If it dealt with community-related problems or issues, you just kept that stuff buried. Here, you’ll have freedom. You can get it off your chest. You won’t feel alone.”

Downtown, though, seems on the cusp of significant population growth, much of it, church leaders believe, made up of young adults.

“More and more young people are moving closer to downtown and looking for an urban worship environment,” Wende said, adding that the church also has taken steps to improve services for children and youth. “What has impressed me about this church is that the oldest members are not only paying for the changes, they are letting the young ones lead.”

The church now is expending $500,000 to refit the sixth floor of its 104-year-old building for use in the young adult programs.

The Rev. Elaine Heath, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, said a sense of community is important to young adults returning to city centers. “Twenty-something urbanites tend to have a stronger social conscience than their parents,” she said.

“The church that wishes to reach out to young urbanites needs to understand that they aren’t so worried about the style of worship music as they are about the authenticity of life of the people of the church,” she said. “They want the worship gathering to be meaningful and well-planned, to be sure, but they want the faith community to be a real community, actively involved in both spiritual formation and justice issues in their city and the world.”

This story weaves a number of facets of congregational life together. First, it outlines the importance of place in a broader environment — or the recognition of the ecology of the space — in determining how to approach the congregation’s goals and ministries. This congregation is intentional in recognizing what the individuals within the urban community may need, understanding that those needs are different than their site in the suburbs.

Relatedly, this congregation is cognizant of the different needs of individuals based on age, family status, and generation, and their leadership reflects the type of individuals they are attempting to attract. The young, engaged pastoral staff reflect the energized, urban population they are serving.

Finally, this story highlights the need for support in terms of resources — the building is clearly in need of some repairs, and a fledgling community may struggle to find the money for those. With the backbone of a financially strong community in the suburbs, they are able to receive material support to maintain their building — one of their largest resources.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org