When pastors Paul and Andi Andrew made the decision to move with their kids from Sydney to New York City to plant Liberty Church, they only knew two people in the city.
That was 2010, and just a few short years later, what started as a dream has flourished into a dynamic, growing community that is making a difference in NYC and beyond. Here are 10 lessons they learned in urban church planting while starting Liberty Church in New York City.
10 Lessons in Urban Church Planting
1. Churn. Although people tell you to expect turnover as a church plant, we discovered in New York City that it was multiplied, since millions of people move to the city just for a season of their lives. It was our biggest surprise, and as many as 30 percent of our core members left last year not because they didn’t love Liberty Church but because they were moving to another city.
2. Pace and margin. Demands in city life are high. People have less margin in almost every area of life (including time, finances and even emotions). In order to cope, they can be more ritualistic. It is common to have your "place," like a favorite coffee house or even a specific seat in that cafe. This fast pace makes commitment look different too. I tried to start an internship program that failed because people just didn't have enough margin to serve two days a week—something many can afford to do in suburbia. On a personal level, I suggest leaders plan to have quality time with parishioners, if not always quantity time.
3. Community. This is the most significant key we discovered. Real community is highly valued in the city. Millions of people live here, away from their natural families. For us, days like Mother’s Day are some of our smallest weekends of the year, as many leave to see their families. In the end, people need to find connection here in order to flourish. We focus on building communities (and even name our campuses “communities”). Our passion is to build a community, not just a crowd.
4. Cost. This one is obvious but a real challenge at times. Cost of living is high in the city. (Just parking our truck costs $400 a month, and basic health insurance for our family is around $20,000 per year.) For a pastor planting, this is a major hurdle. Studies have shown that a six-figure income is in fact middle class in NYC. On the positive side, though, our people have higher salaries and are incredibly generous.
5. Fewer people are churched. Studies we’ve seen say Tokyo and New York have similar evangelical church attendance—so it’s anything but the Bible Belt. That means we need to change the way we approach outreach, marketing, our messaging and many assumptions that might be true in a different context. Interestingly, referrals from the Association of Related Churches website are one of the top five ways people find our church, typically because they move here from other parts of the country.
6. Value authenticity. How do you outdo Broadway? We don't even try. In a city that is so good at putting on great productions, we decided to be ourselves rather than be another show. Our goal is to be authentic. Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t give your very best every week and make the church experience excellent.
7. Marketing. Messaging that works in other places doesn't work here. For instance, I have seen this statement work in the other places: "Church how you always thought it should be." But in NYC, few people are even thinking about church. So our method and messages are different. We rely heavily on digital strategies. Google ads have produced great results, and so have videos that help tell our story. Social media has been one of the most effective ways to amplify personal relationships. Someone who is a key volunteer now came because a friend "liked" Liberty Church on Facebook. He thought, "Wow. She likes a church?"
8. Logistics. Logistics are just different in a big city. For instance, our truck got a ticket while we were unloading on Sunday. It was parked a few inches into a fire lane. Things like this happen all the time. While some churches hit a barrier because the parking lot is full, for us parking is irrelevant. Only two people in our church use cars on Sunday. In an urban context, it is more important to be close to the subway. It’s also likely that we will be a long-term mobile church, using rental facilities because of the cost of property.
9. Spiritual warfare. Urban centers are spiritual front lines. Church planters face many battles because our enemy is not ready to give up his influence in these cities. We say it’s our vision “to influence a city that influences the world.” The reality is that revival in New York City would impact the nation and the nations. Make sure you have an active, unified prayer team.
10. Think local. Neighborhoods are smaller here. If I walk four blocks in any direction from our church office, I'll be in a new neighborhood—Tribeca, Soho, Chinatown, Little Italy are all distinct areas. A few blocks can change your demographics here and even the language on the signage. We’ve made it our purpose to plant communities across this city that each reflect the neighborhood they serve.
Question: Have you visited a big city lately? What did you learn?