The Coming Demise of Suburbia

The kind of churches the next generation will plant


I’m at the point in my Church Leadership course when the entire class organizes into small groups to develop their own plans for church planting. Each group is required to develop a full-blown strategy for a new church plant as evidence of their church administration skills in planning, budgeting, promotion, along with attracting and organizing people. Since they are free to design any kind of church they want, I get a unique opportunity to peek at the dreams of the next generation.


What kind of church do they dream about? They dream of planting a downtown church. In the past four years, only two groups (out of 48 groups total) have designed a suburban church.  The other 46 groups went downtown. 


My students think living down town is cool. They think life in the suburbs is hollow and fake. No wonder. On TV for the last generation Seinfield, Friends then Sex and the city portrayed city life as the ideal. More recently, Desperate Houswives and The Sopranos reinforced the idea that suburban life as a place of despair and moral decay. Even when students are forced to develop a church planting plan in a town of 30,000, they still pick the “inner city” for their new plant.  They do not despise storefront churches like their parents do.

We may be at the tipping point for suburban churches. Beltway churches have reigned supreme at the top of the food chain among evangelical churches. They may be at their zenith. Large sprawling churches with mall-like parking lots are still the envy of most boomer pastors. Now comes a younger generation who dismiss both the size and the location of top rung of the ladder. They prefer simple coffeehouse accepting storefront churches with active social programs providing a chic comfortable Starbucks-sized atmosphere. My student’s heroes are pastors like Adam and Christy Lipscomb, not the famous suburban Boomers pastoring sprawling mega churches. They don’t despise mega churches, they just dismiss them. The Lipscombs are the indy bands of the coming generations and  mega church pastors have become mainline pop.


Until this week I thought this trend was only a generational shift among ministerial students. Now I’ve read Chris Leinberger’s article  (to appear in the upcoming March 2008 issue of the Atlantic) and think is it more than that.  This is a massive cultural trend I’ve missed by assigning it only to ministerial students. Leinberger is a fellow at the Brookings institute and a professor at the University of Michigan. He outlines the history of the rise and fall  of the suburbs in vivid text that is so common for the Atlantic magazine. It is convincing. If he is correct it will mean a massive shift for churches and church planting in the coming 50 years. I think he is right. In the next 50 years or massive “big box churches” may wind up with grass growing in their parking lots as their building decline, the younger population moves back into town and they increasingly cater to an ageing leftover population. They are the old downtown churches of the future, still bragging about their stained glass windows (or landscaped parking lots) while their children attend elsewhere. Leinberger outlines this enormous shift in the culture predicting the suburbs are headed for 50 years of decline while downtowns revitalize. Are we seeing the first signs of this tipping point?


Consider these factors:

1. Fashion.  Generation X & the millennials already have shifted their dreams downtown. While the church jobs for young ministerial graduates are still in the suburbs, their heart is downtown. It is no longer cool to be on the beltway. As millions of the “greatest generation” move out of their homes the emerging generations won’t be buying them—they’d rather have a downtown apartment. Who will buy them? Poorer families will buy (or, more likely rent) these declining homes. The younger people will have moved into quaint (but cleverly decorated) downtown apartments and mini-homes. The market follows fashion—as demand for suburban homes declines so will prices. Chic is moving down town.


2. Sub-prime mortgage crisis.  We already see the precursors. The suburban housing market is collapsing and prices are falling. Millions of homes have already been abandoned and turned back to the lenders. They sit unoccupied, as vandals tear out the copper wiring and squatters move in.  Prices fall monthly until homeowners are relieved to simply “walk away” from their mortgage and forget recouping their down payment. The supposed “equity” in many homes is a fantasy, especially so for any who have owned their home less then 5 years. As the market floods, prices will spiral downward. Renting a home has become smarter than buying one today—and renting out empty homes is better than leaving them empty so suburban markets will go rental and that usually means eventual blight.


3. Suburban blight.  We may see a reversal of what happened downtown in the 50’s and 60’s.  Then, people moved out of the downtowns to the suburbs and inner city home values declined. Poorer families moved in and the properties (now owned now by landlords who had scooped up cheap houses) simply “milked” the properties. We may see the reversal of that and the “trading places” is now headed the other way. Suburban space (per square foot) is already cheaper than downtown space. Builders notice such disparity and “the market follows the market”—new building will move downtown.  Downtown space is gentrifying. In the coming decades suburban housing will decline and poorer families will move in. Landlords will divide giant McMansions and they will become “rental units.” Neighbors will fight it at first but eventually they’ll sell out too, if only to escape the crime and blight. Deterioration in suburban homes will be worse than the downtown homes of the 60’s and 70’s though. Most suburban homes are built cheaper than those old downtown homes (same with suburban churches.)  Suburban building features hollow core doors, 10-year shingles, cheap drywall and plastic trim. These will not survive renter’s abuse like the old downtown solid oak doors, slate roofs and plaster and lath. A suburban home can get trashed in three years.  By 2020 we will see “suburban ghettos” emerge. They will become as infamous as the former inner city ones were and we’ll see them on the news each night. The plot of Escape from New York will be reversed. Upscale young people won’t be moving to the edges of town—they will head downtown where all the newest and most exciting churches will be located. Suburban churches will continue with their brightly lit big boxes with tiered theater seating and praise teams on stage while the younger folk will seek out dark flat-floored club-like or coffeehouse atmospheres that Boomers will dismiss as “not a real church.” By 2020, many cheaply built suburban churches will be 25 years old or more and their bathrooms and classrooms will feel like the bathrooms at the mall.  Mega churches will still ‘stack them higher and sell them lower” but younger people won’t be at Wal-mart, they be shopping over at J.Crew, G.A.P. and Abercrombie and Fitch… and at the local Salvation Army outlet. 


4. Decline of malls. The temples of Boomer suburban life have been its malls, big box stores and mega churches. Yet shopping malls have fallen out of fashion as the owners milk their former investments and board up empty stores. Big box stores are still at their peak, as Mega churches are. But the cutting edge for developers is neither shopping malls nor big box stores. The cutting edge has moved to developing faux downtowns—complete “cities” with narrow streets, tiny shops and hidden parking lots built at the edge of town to cater to the desire to return downtown. Yet these edge-of-town cityscape faux downtowns are missing one element: churches. They offer banks, shops, coffeehouses and exercise spas but no churches. Where are all the Boomer church planters? Still chasing the mall crowd and buying property on the beltways.  Denominations who do not seek space in these faux downtown cityscapes will be left out of the future wave of culture. And it will be expensive—just like beltway property was compared to declining downtown or rural land. Denominations who ignore the great cultural shift back downtown (either faux or real) will be left paying off debt on their declining megaplex monstrosities filled with baby-boomers-using-walkers. They will become just like the old downtown congregations of the 1980’s. Will boomers support this trend that undoes their own great works or will they fight like the old “downtown association” of retail shops did in the 70’s?



5. Walkable living. More than any other trend, this one mystifies Boomers. Boomers can’t imagine life without a car. Some younger folk can. Suburban life is car-driven. Downtown life is walkable. None of my ministerial graduates could survive an interview in a suburban church if they admitted they have no car and don’t intend to buy one. They’d be laughed at by Boomer interviewers!  Yet, in the coming 50 years the “walkable lifestyle” will increase. I know several of our graduates who moved into downtowns and have no car whatsoever. (I am not making this up!) They ride bicycles, use public transportation, hire taxis and get cheap rental cars to take on long trips, or even borrow their friends’ cars. They have crunched the numbers and say they save both money and the environment. Boomers are bewildered at such ideas. We don’t consider you grown-up if you don’t own a car. the walkable lifestyle is a central feature of downtown life. What will this trend do to our notion of church planting?  I notice this trend every time my students plant their dream church. Most envision a neighborhood church—reaching out to those near at hand. Where do they get this? Yet they “see” it when asked to let their vision loose. Perhaps more than all other cultural trends, this one will affect the kind of churches we become in the future. These younger people will either change the kind of church we plant, or we will change these younger people’s values and vision.


The bottom line is suburban churches seem to be hitting their zenith.  We may soon see a cultural tipping point when the suburbs (and suburban churches) enter a 50-year period of decline. The suburbs had 50 years to do their thing. Now it is the downtown’s turn. Downtowns began their period of decline in 1946 (when suburbs were invented). The next 50 years saw a period of decline and deterioration for the down towns. Most downtown churches declined along with their neighborhoods. These downtown churches became drive-back churches for the moved-out members of the “greatest generation.” their boomer children didn’t drive back. Instead, we founded sprawling suburban mega-centers patterned after our beloved shopping malls. Now, 50 years after the founding of the suburbs have seem to have reached their own zenith. The fashion is shifting back down town. Will boomers be just like the downtown stores of the 70’s, believing things will never change? Will Boomers never listen to the different ideas about lifestyle and churches the newer generations cherish?  These younger folk don’t dream of suburban mansions and megachurches far away from the downtown. They seem curiously satisfied with modest downtown apartments where they and their neighbors “do life together.” When my students dream up church plants they design churches that would appeal to the characters in Friends, Seinfield and Sex and the City… and themselves. They dream of a church that is socially active in caring and sharing with their community who “does life together.”


I wonder how the incorrigibly suburban boomers will react to this massive cultural shift?  How will suburban churches respond? How will denominational church planting efforts “church daughtering strategies” address this coming shift? How will Boomers respond to the dreams of emerging generations to go downtown and start the kind of churches again the boomers left long ago?



So, what do you think?

Click here to comment or read comments for the first few weeks after this posting


Keith Drury February 12, 2008

Keith Drury is Associate Professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University