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Metrospiritual: Q&A with Sean Benesh

Dr. Sean Benesh is planting the Ion Community in Vancouver, BC. He leads urthTREK, an outdoor adventure non-proft focusing on lower income and the marginalized. Sean is an adjunct professor teaching in the area of theology of the city, community transformation, and cultural engagement in urban contexts. He also leads the Epoch Centre for Urban Renewal offering classes and lectures on church planting, community transformation, and ministry in urban contexts.

What does Metrospiritual attempt to address?

I wrote the book to address what I believe are overlooked issues in church planting, in particular, the where’s and the why’s of site selection. How does a church planter decide where to plant a church? What then are the motivating factors in this decision-making process? This all came crashing in on me one day while I served as a church planting strategist in Tucson, Arizona. After a couple of years I noticed one day where most of our church plants were located and where most potential planters wanted to start churches and that was in the suburbs. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas or theories at that point. It wasn’t even on my radar. I simply then asked, “Why?” and that set the course for research for my dissertation which led to the book.

Why is site selection important in church planting?

Over the years I’ve become a big fan of University of Toronto professor, Richard Florida, and his research and writing on the Creative Class and their influence on cities globally. In his book Who’s Your City? he makes the argument that where we live is one of the most important decisions we can make in life. I believe the same applies for church planting. I agree with Florida in that not only is it an important decision that shapes so much in our life, but it is also a decision we don’t spend enough time researching. Why do church planters decide where to plant churches? What are the motivating factors? Sometimes we simply label the whole process as “calling” which too often means we undercut the process and value of understanding who God made us to be, what part of the city resonates with who we are, and how God may have wired us for a particular place and people to plant among.

What was the biggest “a-ha” moment in the research and writing of Metrospiritual?
One of the elements of the research was to see truly where are churches being planted across cities. I selected 7 focus cities in the U.S. and Canada to look at and used over 200 church plants that were started between the years 2000-2009. In my city where I used to be at (Tucson) I noticed that most planters favored the suburbs and I wanted to see if this was true in other cities. The reality is that about 70% of new church plants are indeed in suburban contexts. However, I also looked at the breakdown of populations in each city, and as a whole about 70% of a metro area’s population also resides in the suburb. Conclusion? The location of where church planting is taking place is right on par with where the population of a city resides ranging from suburbs to within the city limits to the downtown core.

You take time to address various topics in the book like gentrification, the Creative Class, and community transformation. How does that fit into the overall trajectory of the book?
One of the tensions that did arise from the research was the blatant neglect of various parts of the city when it came to where churches were being planted. That was problematic. Whether suburban settings with soccer moms and minivans or in trendy urban districts with young urban hipsters, why did these places draw a bumper crop of church planters whereas more ethnically diverse or lower income urban neighbourhoods continue to be blank spots on the map for where church planters were not going? As a result I began spending time researching these kinds of neighborhoods and the shaping forces at hand. This brought to light various related topics like gentrification, the Creative Class who tend to be the early gentrifiers, as well as community transformation and the role church plants play in these neighborhoods.

Why should church planters or church planting leaders read this?
Like I mentioned earlier, I strongly believe that the decision of place or site selection is crucial in the church planting process. We often times spend considerable amount of time working through a church plant’s vision, strategy, focus group, etc, but what about deciding where as well? There are so many sociological and cultural assumptions and values that shape this decision that we’re simply unaware of as to why we’re drawn to certain places and avoid others. Sometimes it may not be as spiritual of an answer as we’d like to make it. I am simply advocating that we take time on the front end to prayerfully consider … consider what forces are at hand shaping our cities today and even how God has wired us. Somewhere in there then is a good fit for site selection in church planting.

So, what is metrospirituality?
The research and trajectory of the book brought to the surface questions and issues of how we view the city, with which lens, and so on. While we are planting mostly in suburban contexts if we are to plant more in urban area there needs to be a new set of lenses (assumptions) in which to view the city. This then opens to the door to exploring what it means to live out faith as followers of Jesus in urban contexts, thus the notion of being metrospiritual. The idea was to end the book with a little theological exploration of what it means to follow Jesus in the city. It is a global urban framework for following God that makes a conscious decision to forego the rural lens and rural bias of Scripture that has been prevalent in the church for the past several hundred years. 

(This Interview between Ed Stetzer and Sean Benesh originally apeared on EdStetzer.comSean’s new book, Metrospiritual: The Geography of Church Planting, is now available.)

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.