By Sam S. Rainer III
America is a land of wide open spaces, vast expanses with enough room for buffalo to roam. The frontier ethos of our country evokes an individual, self-made spirit that pervades many aspects of our culture.
Most people in America, however, do not live where the deer and the antelope play. They live in cities. In the book Megapolitan America, authors Arthur C. Nelson and Robert E. Lang reveal that two-thirds of the U.S. population lives on less than 20 percent of the privately owned land in this country. While our country’s average population density remains relatively sparse, the average is misleading.
Fewer people are moving into rural areas, and more people are moving into urban areas. The open ranges are becoming less populated, and the cities are becoming more populated. This trend is expected to accelerate through 2040 as current metropolises converge and become megapolitan communities.
The United States is becoming more urban. As a result, several key demographic trends are emerging. Cities are becoming denser at faster rates. In 1900, 60 percent of U.S. residents lived in rural areas. Today it’s only 16 percent. Within three decades, most of the population will live on a land mass comparable in density to Western Europe.
Additionally, cities are becoming more ethnically diverse. Over the next few decades, minorities will account for 90 percent of the population growth. By 2042, the United States will be minority white. Cities are also aging, as many megapolitan communities will see substantial increases in the senior population.
These emerging megapolitan communities will need megapolitan churches. Let me share the presuppositions of these coming mammoth urban areas and how the new megapolitan church might respond.
The megapolitan community will encompass major cities and counties, sharing a common culture, geographic features and transportation networks. The extensive size of these communities will necessitate larger churches. Most churches are small.
The median church size is about 75 people. However, most people attend larger congregations. The largest 10 percent of churches have half the people and resources in the United States. Bigger churches are getting bigger at faster rates than other congregations, and this congregational trend is accelerating in every community and in every denomination.
The demographics of more people moving into fewer urban areas also apply to churches. Larger churches will continue to get larger as more and more people migrate to the biggest congregations.
While I struggle with making a qualitative judgment about this trend (I believe small churches can be effective), the reality is large-scale megapolitan communities will need large-scale megapolitan churches. Cultural relevance in these communities will apply to size as much as any other factor, as it already does in many areas.
Globalization will force U.S. regions to merge in order to stay competitive. Economic and population growth will continue to occur unevenly (in favor of urban areas), which means more collaborative regional planning across multiple communities in the future.
As a result, more people will identify with a large region as opposed to a specific, local community. These megapolitan communities will attract the bulk of visionary leaders with the capability of managing complex systems.
The megapolitan church will be led by visionary pastors with the ability to interact and partner with megapolitan community leaders. This church-community partnership will become more vital in these regional areas. Smaller churches in these regions will find it difficult to be the hub of the local community that they once were. And the most successful megapolitan churches will be seen as part of the collective, regional whole as opposed to a separate entity with a separate mission.
As megapolitan communities become minority white (some already are), individual neighborhoods will become more distinguished. While regionalism will create a common cultural system, increasing diversity will create neighborhood subcultures within each region. However, this diversity will be based less upon ethnicity and more upon socioeconomics.
These neighborhoods will look more diverse ethnically but will become homogenous based upon income level.
The megapolitan church will continue to grow in ethnic diversity but will struggle to become a place for all income levels.
These churches will have to work hard to be a place not only for all ethnicities but also for people of differing economic classes.
Megapolitan communities will create more jobs as urbanization accelerates. People will be more mobile, moving to different places at greater rates. Megapolitan churches will be large but also flexible. Due to the transient nature of megapolitan communities, megapolitan churches will have to adapt quickly to the inflow and outflow of people in their region. The megapolitan church that can change quickly will also grow quickly. The churn of people in the community will mean these churches will have to reinvent themselves often.
Many churches are already transitioning to become a megapolitan congregation. More of these churches are needed. These megapolitan churches will take on many structural forms. Some will be multisite, enabling them to reach into new communities. Some will be massive, one-site churches with a self-generating gravitational pull. Others will discover how to be big by being small, reaching multiple niche communities while creating a common, unifying vision for everyone.
The landscape of America is changing. The frontier once summoned people to “Go West.” Today the new frontier is a large-scale emerging urban society. The individual spirit that settled the West is being replaced with a collective mentality congregating in urban cores. As the frontier church reached the early settlers, I have no doubt the American church will respond with new megapolitan congregations for an urban society.