Why the Valley?

Every now and then someone asks us, "Why did you decide to plant a church in The Valley?"


It can be a loaded question. I can't judge anyone's heart, but sometimes there is another question behind it which is usually revealed with a little probing.  The unspoken question is, "Why would you choose to plant a church in a part of the city of Syracuse which is so urban?"

What do they mean?  There are parts of every city that are less urban than the other neighborhoods.  They certainly fall within the city limits and any church planted there would qualify as an urban church.  However, those neighborhoods demographically are fairly "safe" from a white middle-class suburban mindset.  Why?  Because they are largely white middle-class neighborhoods that differ only by the architecture and a larger number of other cultures, which are also middle-class.

Let me clue you in on a secret--the underbelly of white middle-class efforts at church planting.  We talk about being missional. This term has been reduced to mean being purposeful in our efforts to reach people who look like us.  That's why so many missional churches have elders who are in their thirties and 60% of the population is under the age of eight.

When the writers and missionaries who originally talked about the concept of being missional they wrote and spoke about missionaries like Hudson Taylor who went to other cultures, adopted the way that they dressed, and communicated the gospel.  They pointed to the example of Jesus, who left Heaven and came to a sin-filled world to take on flesh and show us who God is and how to be right with Him.  Now, if you design a strategy which targets what the new gurus call "sub-cultures" within middle-class America (e.g. public school teachers, business professionals, the medical profession, etc.) and your congregants are largely white, what is your church going to look like?  Pretty homogenous.  Think homogenous like "same genetic structure."  Also think "white like homogenous milk." 

Back to the Question

How does all of this answer the question, "Why the Valley?"

When we decided on Syracuse as a potential church planting location, my family drove through this neighborhood prayerfully and realized that the Valley is a neighborhood without many gospel centered churches.  It is also largely mixed neighborhood racially.  This excited us for two reasons: 1) I don't want to plant a church in an area that is already being reached and 2) I firmly believe that the local church in an urban context should look like its neighborhood.  And I have this crazy idea that one of the coolest things is to see a church that has members from a wide variety of cultures.  I don't think it is twisting Scripture out of context to desire to see local churches represent what the universal church looks like racially.  Proof?

"After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"  (Revelation 7:9-10, ESV)

Why couldn't a church look like that?  And how do you start a church like that? 

I don't know much about church planting, but I am thinking if you plant a church in the suburbs and target white folks then you'll end up with a (largely) segregated church.  I could be wrong, but I don't think it's much of a leap.  Billy Graham once said that the most segregated hour in the United States is 11:00AM on Sunday morning.  He's right.  Many missional churches do not look like the Kingdom of God.

Disclaimer: if you are called to plant churches in suburban neighborhoods, praise God.  Middle class and upper class people need Jesus.  I hope at some point that this church will plant a church in a suburban neighborhood that I have my eye on.  My only point is that the word to use may not be "missional" by definition.  The word you may be looking for is "evangelistic."  

I realize that a lot of this probably comes across as self-righteous posturing, but this is meant to be a challenge and an invitation ("I see that hand").  And the truth is that we are in the beginning stages of this thing and the end result could very well be an urban church that is as white as driven snow.  We are at the mercy of the Lord in this respect and must trust Him to build the church that He wants to build here. 

The Valley

The Valley is a unique neighborhood in that while it is still largely white, we are very close to a large section of the city that is African American, the area north of the Valley that extends into downtown.  It is also very close to a large unreached people group: The Onondaga Indians and their reservation.  Talk about being missional--unreached people group, anyone?

It is also a neighborhood that is currently in flux.  Many of the residents of the South Valley neighborhood (south of the Seneca Parkway) are elderly and either moving into assisted living centers or are about to.  Many of the houses in our neighborhood are for sale.  Unless I have missed something, I suspect those homes will be purchased by families who are not afraid of the city, which means they will probably be purchased by people from other cultures.  Honestly, there aren't many white middle-class suburbanites that are willing to move into the city.  I don't anticipate a reverse migration of the urban flight of the 60's and 70's no matter how ridiculously reasonable the housing is or how great my neighbors are. 

I also have this crazy idea that the message of the gospel is able to transcend racial boundaries and transform lives regardless of socio-economic standing or the amount of melanin in someone's skin.  Therefore, we hope this church will be planted in an area that will feel accessible for all races in this part of the city.

Make no mistake.  There is a socio-economic divide in this neighborhood in spite of its urban context and the cultural mixing.   That divide is defined geographically by the Seneca Parkway (173).  South of 173 is considered "safe".  North of 173 is considered "iffy."  The further north of 173 you go, the reputation gets worse although I have not been here long enough to know if its just bad press or reality.  If Syracuse is like so many other cities, my guess is it is largely bad press. 


What will God do here?  I don't know.  I know what I would like to see.  In a few years I might end up deleting this page off of this blog in embarrassment.  I sure hope not.  I hope we have representatives in the church who are from all nations, tribes and tongues in this neighborhood.

At the same time, if we have a congregation that is mixed culturally but doesn't care much about truth, we will have failed.  I hope that they will all be passionately in love with Jesus.  I hope the church will glorify God and serve the good of His people.  I hope they will love one another no matter what color they are.  I hope that they all will recognize the authority of King Jesus in every area of their lives and walk in obedience to that authority.  I believe such a church would be a testimony to a watching world and would give great glory to our Lord.