While ministry is primarily the work of caring for souls, and preaching and speaking the truth to people who God places in our path, there is a hard infrastructure unique to the work of church planting which includes things like demographic research.
When I moved to New Jersey in 2009 to start the process of organizing a new congregation in my denomination, the PCA, Gloucester County was the fastest growing county in New Jersey as of the 2000 census. While not of the essence for starting new church plants, such statistics, measuring population and social trends, are helpful. The thinking goes, “People who are moving or who are in transition may be more open to trying a new church.”
But the housing bubble (bust) of 2007-2008 hit our area pretty hard and affected that our area significantly and what new growth had been taking place slowed markedly. In fact, a number of subdivisions which were newly begun in farm fields had literally stopped in their tracks and sat stagnant for years.
Our own experience with new people in South Jersey has been that most of the people I have met are people that are from here–and have lived here for a while, if not all their lives. There’s an unwritten “twenty minute rule” for some families: no more than twenty minutes away from important relatives (parents, grandparents). Sometimes the rule is enforced, and other times it simply happens to work out that way. But it is pretty common.
At some point I came across a group called New Jersey Future, which is an organization that:
brings together concerned citizens and leaders to promote responsible land-use policies. The organization employs original research, analysis and advocacy to build coalitions and drive land-use policies that help revitalize cities and towns, protect natural lands and farms, provide more transportation choices beyond cars, expand access to safe and affordable neighborhoods and fuel a prosperous economy.
Now I’m not particularly interested (at least not in my capacity as a minister of the Gospel) in land use policies. But among the things that “revitalize cities and towns…” and “fuels a prosperous economy…” I’d put vibrant, healthy Christian churches at the top of the list. And while I wouldn’t have a lot of people joining me in hearty agreement, I think I’m right in my assessment.
Curious about where things stood in terms of present growth, I did some digging on the New Jersey Future website last year and looked up the fastest growing counties in New Jersey so far this century–and discovered they are all in North Jersey, in what they refer to as Jersey’s “urban core” counties:
Hudson County was the fastest-growing county in New Jersey over the past year, repeating its no. 1 position from 2011-2012. In fact, Hudson is the fastest-growing county in the state for the entire post-recession period of 2008-2013. The top five fastest-growing counties from 2012-2013 — Hudson, Union, Bergen, Middlesex, and Somerset — are the same five counties that grew the fastest the previous year (2011-2012) and also the same five that have grown the fastest overall since 2008. Only the order changes in each case.
Gloucester county was the fastest growing county in Jersey pre-recession; after the recession hit, the growth moved north to the Urban Core. (This is a development which has brought with it a spate of new church plants going into more developed inner ring urban suburban areas, as well as urban church planting initiatives.)
The conclusion that the article reaches is that exurban counties (like Burlington and Camden) are losing population whereas the urban core counties are gaining in population. Gloucester is a hybrid; it is growing, but not as fast as it was pre-recession. It appears that the growth is happening in more built-up areas rather than with new building (like the subdivisions that I noticed when I first moved here; most of those have, by the way, since been completed and are now all fully lived in).
Here’s how the article puts it:
[Since 2008]…older, built-out places experiencing new population growth, sometimes for the first time in decades. In some places this growth is enough so that the more urbanized counties are now the statewide growth leaders, while many (though not all) of the previously fastest-growing exurban counties are now stagnating or even losing population. (Ocean and Gloucester continue to grow, just not nearly as fast.)
But trends tend to change. That’s why they’re “trends.” Lately there have been researchers who are noting that the exurbs are coming back, and are as strong as ever.
Whatever the case may be, the suburbs/exurbs is where God has placed me and the work that I’ve been called to pursue. This means I have work to do, as do the people who call Mercy Hill their home church. We’re not just about our own private lives; we’re to be about bringing the blessing of God to others.
Thus, I believe that with God’s blessing, vibrant personal faith, solid and stable work, dependable industry, and rising housing values, make for healthy neighborhoods and provide a great environment to start new churches.
But the opposite is a warning, too. When people are selfish and make their lives “all about me” and don’t live out their faith in meaningful ways–for example, to help the poor and those who do not have homes, or stable families, or have faith, or who are without a job–then it is only a matter of time before that city, like a house of cards, comes tumbling down.
- A Pew Trust research essay on the recent return to growth in the exurbs.
- An interactive map from the Urban Institute showing population changes across the country.
- A simple USGS essay surveying the history of the development of the city, with a focus on land use
- A technical essay from the University of Cincinnati, reviewing the intermingling uses of farmland and suburban dwellers in New Jersey, with some exploration of the history of legislation in our state regarding farmland preservation.
- A 2007 USA Today article on “smart growth” of Jersey City (basically speaking against ex-urban sprawl and development)
- A Rutgers study that’s strongly biased against exurban development/sprawl in light of land-use and watershed concerns.
- A 2015 Forbes article that is more balanced in its assessment of the pros and cons of exurban development and the reasons why the exurbs continue to grow.
**Photo credit: Hilly Suburbs, artwork by Ducks of Rubber, originally posted here.