How Do You Decide Where to Plant a Church?

Many future church planters ask, “where’s the best place to plant a church?” The most brilliant response? “It all depends.”

Are you looking for the places with the fewest number of churches, the fastest growing, the most millennials, the largest retirement villages, the best college towns, the largest Asian population, the densest, walkable communities… or something else?

This entry is first in a series on The Best Place to Plant. My aim is to give direction to your “best place to plant thoughts and prayers.”

This particular blog posts the latest US list of largest cities, and overlays that information with the religious landscape questions, “which of these cities are the least evangelical” and “which have the largest number of people unclaimed by any religion (nones).”

The same list could be transposed with other questions such as, which host the most mainline Protestant churches, in which of these do the most Muslims live, or which of these cities are there the most Buddhists.

The evangelical county data in the below chart was taken from the last Association of Religious Data Archives study in 2010. It relates to the county in which the city is located, which is why, for example, Los Angeles has more unclaimed people than it has overall population. While old information, there is nothing newer, and it is at least a place to begin.

How do you decide where to plant a church? This data from @SFWoman will help. Click To Tweet
City Population County % Evangelical in ARDA #Unclaimed in County
New York 8,580,015 (5 boroughs) 3.26 – 5.25 4,257,983
Los Angeles 4,030,668 Los Angeles 8.3 4,604,495
Chicago 2,687,682 Cook 8.33 2,097,556
Houston 2,340,814 Harris 26.32 1,702,684
Phoenix 1,679,243 Maricopa 14 2,325,637
Philadelphia 1,573,688 Philadelphia 7.5 781,738
San Antonio 1,541,456 Bexar 16.83 747,038
San Diego 1,541,456 San Diego 9.77 1,735,936
Dallas 1,359,133 Dallas 26.01 912,981
San Jose 1,030,796 Santa Clara 8.34 1,005,614
Austin 983,366 Travis 16.38 550,902
Jacksonville 907,529 Duval 30.82 383,808
Fort Worth 893,997 Tarrant 30.11 810,185
San Francisco 888,653 San Francisco 3.77 520,925
Columbus 880,182 Franklin 12.39 693,127

In 2015, PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), did an analysis of the top two religious groups in the 31 largest American metropolitan regions. They discovered that of 15 of these, Catholicism is the top religion, and that in 10 others, the religiously unaffiliated were either number one, or tied for first place. In every city area on our list above except for Dallas, Catholicism and the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones”, take both first and second place. (https://www.prri.org/spotlight/the-top-two-religious-traditions-that-dominate-american-cities/#.Vb-2Z-1Viko)

Here is a Pew report of metropolitan regions (not cities) from 2014. (http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study) For various reasons discussed in Part B of this blog claims very different percentages than the ARDA, and has far more information than it is possible to list here. The first chart below includes metro areas from the Pew report that have an ARDA evangelical population of less than 10% in a larger metropolitan region with a Pew evangelical report of less than 20%. Note that in some cases, several cities are combined in one metropolitan region.

Metro GeneralChristian
Religions
Catholic Mainline Protestant Evangelical Non-Christian
Faith
Nones
Houston 73% 19% 11% 30% 7% 20%
Phoenix 66% 21% 11% 25% 7% 26%
Dallas/ FortWorth 78% 15% 14% 38% 4% 18%

I’ll continue this discussion by considering the best places to plant based on city size and need for churches.

We will give special attention to just the seven largest cities with an ARDA evangelical population of less than 10% in a metro with a Pew evangelical report of less than 20%. It is not difficult to search thearda.com for other information on any other US county. Check the ARDA list carefully, however, because some of the largest cities also have both large county evangelical percentages and the largest numbers of nones.

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Linda Bergquist

Linda Bergquist

Linda is a church planting catalyst and coach, and teacher in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. She teaches church planting, urban immersion and cross cultural ministry classes as an adjunct at various seminaries. Linda is the co-author of Church Turned Inside Out, The Wholehearted Church Planter and author of the Exponential eBook The Great Commission and the Rest of Creation.
Linda Bergquist

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