By Darrel Rowland
For decades Americans fled the city for suburbs, and their churches followed them.
But the trend has reversed—at least for now—with more people moving into the city. Will churches return with them?
The country’s current demographic upheaval is stark.
From 2001 to 2010 only five U.S. cities grew faster than their surrounding suburbs. Now most cities are outstripping the ’burbs, which hasn’t happened since the 1920s.
A U.S. Census Bureau report in May showed that 647 of 729 cities grew from April 2010 to July 2012. In fact, the only cities with populations of at least 300,000 that didn’t add residents in the 27-month period were Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis.
New York City alone added nearly 162,000 people, almost eclipsing its gain of 166,000 over the entire previous decade.
“It’s probably too soon to declare an urban revival, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on,” said William Frey, senior fellow with the Brookings Institute’s metropolitan policy program and a University of Michigan professor.
The test on whether city growth continues will come as the economy recovers further and housing prices rebound, Frey said. But the return to urban living already has topped many demographers’ expectations, he said.
To Marie L. York, president of southwest Florida planning consultant York Solutions, the question of whether churches will settle in the city is practical.
“I think that is a reasonable assumption if the population base is sufficient,” said York, also a senior fellow with the Center for Building Better Communities at the University of Florida.
“The demand for churches, like retail and other entities, gets created when population numbers are high enough to support it. Assuming that Christians are contributing to urban infill and the movement back to the city centers in sufficient numbers to support churches—churches will follow.”
She wondered about what kind of buildings leaders will use as their “starter church.”
“There are churches still standing that have been converted to other uses that could be converted back. The trend could be a real renaissance for historic preservationists who have been struggling to keep old structures from being torn down,” York said.
A key factor behind cities’ recent growth is a change in the urban stereotype—at least outside the industrial Midwest and the old South—of cities as sinkholes of poverty, crime, filth, racial turmoil, and run-down neighborhoods, Frey said.
Now new condos and residential high-rises are appearing in the city, along with such attractions as modern mass transit, trendy restaurants, upscale shopping areas, arts districts, and redeveloped areas around sporting venues.
“By the turn of the 21st century, U.S. cities were cleaner than they had been in the days of smokestack industry, and crime rates were falling,” wrote demographer Richard Florida in the January 31 issue of Urban Land, the magazine of the Urban Land Institute.
“All of a sudden there were young couples pushing strollers down streets in neighborhoods that even the police used to avoid; seedy waterfront precincts were becoming parks and entertainment centers; once-derelict industrial complexes were housing tech startups, luxury apartments, restaurants, and high-end retail establishments,” said Florida, a professor and head of the Martin Prosperity Institute, part of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
Areas that blend a high-tech, knowledge-based economy with the educational and cultural amenities surrounding a university, Frey said, can achieve a “cool factor” as desirable places to live. Young people are willing to move across the country to settle in such “hip” locales as Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; and parts of Washington, D.C.
The census report indicates America’s migration to the Sunbelt has resumed: The 27-month period saw Fort Worth, Texas, grow by 4.8 percent, Charlotte, North Carolina, by 5 percent, Atlanta by 5.6 percent, and Austin by almost 7 percent.
The growth was not all in the South, however.
Boston increased by 3 percent, Oklahoma City and Lexington, Kentucky, by 3.3 percent, Nashville by 3.5 percent, Seattle by 4.3 percent, Washington, D.C., by 5.1 percent, and Denver by 5.7 percent.
Even post-Katrina New Orleans attracted an additional 7.4 percent, with more than 25,000 people moving into the city.
In all, city populations jumped by almost 2.7 million—or about 100,000 a month.
In March, a Scientific American column pointed out hidden dangers of the growing urbanization, which likely will include two-thirds of the world’s population by 2050: metropolitan populations are significantly more likely than rural ones to suffer from mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, and the pressures of city life can actually change brain physiology, thereby increasing the risk of emotional disorders.
“Historically, urbanization has brought about stupendous changes—the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, globalization. Yet this urban migration represents one of the most dramatic environmental shifts human beings have ever undertaken,” observed the magazine’s Mind & Brain columnist, Andreas Meyer-
“Some researchers have calculated that children born in cities face twice, if not three times, the risk of developing a serious emotional disorder as compared with their rural and suburban peers.”
At the same time, the very distinctives of what constitutes city and suburban living are growing fuzzy.
The World Health Organization notes: “It’s not just our cities and urban cores that are changing; our suburbs have, too—and to such an extent that the very categories of urban and suburban are becoming increasingly outmoded. More and more suburban households are made up of singles, empty nesters, or retirees. Even families with children are seeking a more compact, less sprawling, less car-dependent way of life.”
Frey added, “Being urban doesn’t always mean being in a city, or at least what we think of as being cities.”
Even in still-shrinking Cleveland, Ohio, “there are signs of a revival, particularly in Cleveland’s downtown district,” said Richey Piiparinen of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western Reserve University, in a study of population change of Ohio’s second-largest city.
Over the past two decades, Cleveland’s downtown population almost doubled to more than 9,000.
“Downtown residential occupancy rates now stand over 95 percent and developers are eagerly looking to meet residential demand,” Piiparinen wrote.
But most of these new city dwellers don’t look like their suburban counterparts.
The CWRU study found that much of Cleveland’s growth came from residents aged 22 to 34, which makes city planners happy.
“In all, this could foretell a turning point for Cleveland, since it is those areas attracting the ‘young and the restless’ (as this cohort has been dubbed) that will be best positioned in an evolving knowledge-based economy,” Piiparinen said.
Brey and Florida agree the young are leading the urban renaissance across the country. USA Today dubbed the trend a “youthquake.”
But it is the church that may feel the most serious tremors from this twentysomething trend.
That’s because millennials (those aged 18 to 29) are much more likely than their parents or grandparents to answer “none” when asked about their religion. An oft-cited poll in October 2012 by Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life found that almost one-third of millennials declared no religious affiliation. Other studies since have generated similar results.
In May, the Barna Group examined members of that age group who used to identify closely with Christian faith and the church. Between high school and turning 30, Barna discovered that “43 percent of these once-active millennials drop out of regular church attendance—that amounts to eight million twentysomethings who have, for various reasons, given up on church or Christianity.”
Half say they have been significantly frustrated by their faith, according to Barna. Unlike previous generations that eventually returned to their spiritual roots, this generation so far has stubbornly gone its own way.
The veteran pollster did find a bright spot: “There are millions of millennial Christians who are concerned for the future of their faith, have a strong desire to connect to the traditions of the church, and feel a sense of excitement about church involvement.”
About 42 percent of these millennials with a Christian background say they are very concerned about their generation leaving the church, while almost a third say they are “more excited about church than any time in my life.”
“While these engaged young adults are good reasons not to despair over the future of American Christianity, the trend of disengagement provides a sobering backdrop,” Barna said in his study. “The reality is that more than one-third of millennials who grew up in the Christian faith say they went through a period when they felt like rejecting their parents’ faith. How they deal with such struggles often defines their spiritual trajectory.
“They can be the people reconnecting with a vital faith; they can be nomads, claiming vestiges of their previous faith while mostly rejecting the church that fostered that faith; they can be prodigals, leaving Christianity in the rearview mirror; or they can be exiles, struggling to connect their Christianity in a complex, accelerated culture.”
Darrel Rowland is an adult Bible fellowship teacher at Worthington (Ohio) Christian Church and public affairs editor for The Columbus Dispatch.