Urban Mobility

A speaker at our CPI Urban Midlands Hub recently touched on the challenged of mobility amongst urban communities. They commented that at one point they were part of a church where they said that every year they had to grow by 30% to stay the same size. In other words, they saw about 1/3 of the congregation move on every year.

That resonates with life here in Smethwick. Over the past few years, we’ve been encouraged to see a good number of newer people joining with us from a variety of backgrounds and age-groups. The church has grown. However, we’ve also lost a number of people over that time.  I would say that

–          There are about 40 people who were with us when Sarah and I joined Bearwood Chapel who are no longer with us.

–          There are about 60 people who joined us and spent some time with us but are no longer linked to the Church.

This includes

–          Death as we have seen a number of older members go to be with the Lord.

–          People who disagreed with us on theology/direction or style and so didn’t stay

–          Those who have moved away to study and/or work

–          Those who drifted away having not really made a commitment to Christ.

–          Those who have moved home out of choice

–          Those who have been required to move based on where social housing is made available to them

–          Those who have been subject to Church Discipline

As you can see, there are a number of factors why people move on and a lot of them are not specific to urban life, although there are communities that are distinctly less mobile than others.  The particular challenges in an urban context are that:

–          The tendency has for a long time been that young people aged 18+ move on to University and then to graduate jobs elsewhere.  Whilst they move to communities that are also mobile, those communities and therefore churches might expect a steady stream of young adults moving into their area.

–          There is a huge pull for those who are able to do so to move for what looks like a better life.

–          Many have little choice, mobility is something that they are passive in. They are moved rather than they move.

Mobility is both an opportunity and a challenge for a church. It is an opportunity because it is easier to join in and get involved when there is mobility because you feel less like the outsider trying to break into the solid and stable inner core.

But it is also a challenge because:

–          People leave from the core of the church but enter at the fringes. So, you may have more people joining but they don’t immediately start to fully use their gifts and that can leave huge gaps in church life.

–          People are coming in with all the mess of life. Mobile people collect and bring baggage. The existing members can feel stretched and exhausted.

–          It takes time to get to know people and for them to trust you and open up. You may feel that you are constantly investing in people, teaching, discipleship, encouraging only for them to be move on when you feel they are starting to really engage and grow.

–          It is disruptive to friendships. People build close bonds and then they are ripped apart.

So how do we respond?

  1. Responses that go with the grain

Part of living in a mobile culture involves accepting and working with mobility. I think a few ways we can do this include:

–          Not becoming over-localised in our view of local church. We don’t want to begin regional churches pulling people in from great distances but in an urban centre like the West Midlands, people may have to move around a lot. If we assume that as soon as they move a few miles up the road, they have to leave us then we may cut them off from one of their few reference points of stability. They may not engage in another church

–          At the same time, when someone settles in another church we need to be open handed -not trying to hold onto people for us. We should encourage and help them to settle in healthy churches.

–          This means we need to keep our focus right. We are not in a competition to grow mega-churches and few of us are likely to anyway -even if that were a good thing.  Here we’ve been encouraged to see some numerical growth over the past few years but we should not assume that this will always be the case. We may be seeing people become Christians and telling others but the growth will be to the Kingdom not to one congregation.

–          If people are moving between churches then interdependence is important. This means we can recommend, have good pastoral handovers and also work together


  1. Challenging the culture

At the same time, there are aspects of our mobile culture that we may want to challenge. There are benefits to being rooted in a community and a church. This may include

–          Encouraging some to slow down in their desire to move on. Challenge the assumption that the new home in the better area is the answer to their dreams. Help people to have a Gospel vision for their local community and the church that serves it

–          We really should be working hard to discourage mobility between churches that comes from a consumer attitude. Focus hard on seeing people come and join who were unchurched. Respect other churches discipline. We’ve only once had a call from another church about someone who has left us to join them. In one case, someone under discipline here was readily accepted elsewhere without question.  That is deeply worrying.

–          Challenging public culture. Isn’t there an injustice at the way we allow some people to be moved around at whim because they lack money, status and power.