North America has broken up with its suburbs, and has gone back to its old flame: the city. The church has been following suit, to the point where center-city church planting is sexy, and church planters in small towns, and especially suburbs, are about as self-conscious as the chubby, uncoordinated kid in middle-school dodgeball.
Many observers have pointed out that people in cities have more in common with city-dwellers worldwide than they have in common with the inhabitants of their own suburbs and surrounding rural contexts. I think this is probably true.
Unfortunately, many church planters–rushing in from the suburbs with many of their suburbanisms still very much intact–have begun visually and verbally homogenizing cities as if they’re as interchangeable as suburbs can be.
How many “City Church” church plants have there been in the last decade or so? Seattle, Madison, San Francisco, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Tallahassee, Anchorage, Richmond, East Nashville, Chattanooga, Salt Lake City, Riverside, Asheville… The list goes on. This nomenclature is the “First Presbyterian Church” of our time, but with even less specificity than those denominationally-identified center-city churches. I almost called our church plant “City Church” too, because I was essentially infatuated with “the city”, but not with my city.
My friend, who could easily be living in New Orleans or New York, chose Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is a major champion of our city. It was he who looked me in the eye and told me that I needed to stay put and plant a church in our city. And it was he who, when it came time to pick a name for our church plant in our city, persuaded me that “Hill City Church” was infinitely better than “City Church”. We’re in Rock Hill. We’re striving to be a ‘city on a hill’. The founder of our own Winthrop University was an ancestor of Puritan immigrant John Winthrop, who gave the famous “City on a Hill” sermon while still aboard the Arbella in 1630. Finally, there’s a great local black soul-funk outfit called “The Hill City Party Band” in town.
All of these things anchor our identity to our particular place. They remind us that we are the church in Rock Hill, for Rock Hill. Our name indigenizes us, even if we are not originally from here.
Visual identity is also important. If you use a screen and you sing songs about God being the God of “this city”, don’t put some generic, who-knows-where-from skyline as the background for your lyric slides. Use your skyline. Don’t have much of a skyline? Just use anything that anchors your identity in your particular city. Use your visual communication to reinforce to your people that you’re called to be here and not somewhere else.
Your network of kingdom co-conspirators should be as global and cosmopolitan as possible. But your visual identity and your nomenclature should ooze your very particular locale. Have a cheering section from all over, but make your real audience your actual neighbors. Demonstrate through every means possible that you are seeking their flourishing, and the flourishing of their city. In the process, you’ll come to love your city.