Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Part 4: Urbanization
Urbanization potentially poses a serious threat to (American) evangelicalism. Indulge me in first explaining a few trends and then providing some highly speculative analysis on why I think urbanization could be problematic for the evangelical:
It is no big secret that in the United States and particularly abroad that urbanization is rampant. As countries industrialize and modernize the population becomes less agrarian as the same volume of food production is done by fewer and fewer people.
2. Peak Oil Theory
Peak Oil is when the world highest rate of getting oil from the earth is in the past. There are numerous opinions about Peak Oil and often they are tied to how “Green” or how not “Green” you are. I am not an alarmist about Global Warming. Honestly, I don’t think there has been much good science on this issue, further, it has been strapped with all kinds of political baggage and become central in the Culture Wars. Irregardless, I think conventional methods of extracting oil (ie. sucking it from deep in the earth) have peaked. Given, there are other methods of extracting oil, namely, the massive amounts of oil shale in Canada. It is more expensive to extract and process this kind of oil.
In my view, the rise of energy (particularly oil) costs may have a polarizing affect on how people choose to live. A small portion of the population may elect to move from the suburbs to begin a micro-farm. A larger portion of the population may elect to move from the suburbs closer to their work. If this occurs, the makeup of the suburbs could see a substantial shift in the next 50 years. Consider the following scenario: You are a family of 4 living in the suburbs. You bought your home in 1998 for $160,000 is $950 a month. Your mortgage payment on the house is t it is 2013 and oil is $8 per gallon. You are spending $1000 a month on oil (3125 miles traveled across 2 vehicles, that average 25mpg means 125 gallons of oil used x $8 = $1000) . Say, your home is now worth a conservative estimate of $190,000 and you have paid $45,000 of the principle – equating to $75,000 in realistic equity. Would you consider doing an inventory of all the places you drove: work, school, shopping, social, and other and see if there was a locus that was more central to all of these areas? If I could save $500 a month in gas by buying a slightly more expensive home in a more central area I would strongly consider it.
3. So, what does all this have to do with evangelicalism?
In my view, evangelicalism is by-and-large a suburban movement. I am not sure many people who would dispute that. The operative question is what would people do if energy costs rose substantially? Would there be a suburban flight back to urban areas as some have suggested: AARP, CNN, and others? If we see a large-scale demographic shift away from the suburbs to urban areas this is problematic as evangelical churches are primarily geographically located in the suburbs. So much for the church growth movement and megachurches…
I am skeptical of a full-scale demographic change. I think some people will leave the suburbs for the city. I think innovation will keep the trend from making suburbs the new slums. I think the rise of telecommuting will have a very strong correlation to the rising cost of oil. I think new software will accommodate this telecommuting (think Google Wave and other things not yet created). I think the architecture of new homes built will start to reflect the necessity of a home office.
5. Final Analysis
Irregardless of Peak Oil, energy costs, or whether the city center is the new suburb; urbanization is taking place. Moving forward, evangelicals need to plant churches in these urban areas. If we fail to do this we will become further marginalized. Further, regardless of demographic shifts, the city center is the hub of culture and cultural influence. Please do yourself a favor and read this thoughtful article by Tim Keller entitled “A New Kind of Urban Christian: As the city goes, so goes the culture” and/or watch him speak on the subject. The Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. Moving forward, evangelicalism needs to be more proactive and less reactive.
Up next we will look at the challenges that increasing geographic movement (specifically globality and mobility) affect for evangelicalism.