Where are New Churches Needed Most?

Some church planters want to go “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (the title of the second pilot episode of the Star Trek television series). If you would prefer to go with something biblical, try the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 15:20:

“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”

Here are a few more details, following up on Part A of this blog, How Do You Decide Where to Plant a Church? about seven of the 15 largest cities in the United States that are the most unchurched, de-churched, post Christian, least gospel saturated, and definitely in need of new churches.
Want to plant a church in one of the major cities in the US? This data from @SFWoman will help. Click To Tweet

New York

In NYC, the population density is 27,000 people per square mile, but there are neighborhoods twice that dense. Nine of the densest neighborhoods in the United States are in New York City. The city’s 5 counties (boroughs), have these religiously unaffiliated persons: Kings County (1,212,850), Queens (1,128,204), New York/ Manhattan (887,776), Bronx (867,105), Richmond/ Staten Island (162,048). The evangelical populations of New York’s boroughs are extremely low: Manhattan (4.18%), Queens (3.8%), Kings (5.25%), Bronx (4.3%) Richmond (3.26%). The Barna research group designates New York as the 16th least churched city, 10th least Bible minded city, and 7th most post Christian city in the US, in some ways, it is quite religious. (Barna Research/Church Attendance) and (Barna Research/Bible Minded Cities) and (Barna Research/Post Christian Cities).
Three different studies place the Muslim population at 400,000- 800,000, with as many as 3.8% of the city affiliating with Islam. (http://www.nycreligion.info/muslims-nyc-area).
The metro New York City area also has a Jewish population of 1.1 million with around half of those living in Brooklyn. The first, third and fourth largest per capita Jewish population in the US are in three different NYC boroughs, and it is believed that one out of every ten New Yorkers is Jewish.
In addition, Queens had 677,520 Roman Catholics (30.37%) and Kings had 623,796 (24.91%). If interested, learn more about New York’s people groups here.

Los Angeles

L.A. is the second largest city and the largest county in the US, with over 10 million residents and 88 incorporated cities. Remember that the population of the city itself comprises a little more than 4 million. Its total unclaimed population is the highest in the US, but Los Angeles has an average of 7,000 people per square mile.
LA has numerous ethnic enclaves: Chinatown, the largest remaining Japantown in the US, a bustling Thai Town, Little Ethiopia, Koreatown, Little Armenia, the largest Iranian population outside of Iran, called Tehrangeles and more. Each of these communities carries its own culture and religion, but there is still a huge population that does not identify with any religion.
The Catholic Church is strong, with 3,542,994 adherents, over four times the number as evangelicals, and 15 times higher than the number of mainline Protestants. Barna’s research places LA at #18 least churched city in the US.


Chicago is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States. The larger metropolitan region is almost 10 million. While the ARDA report lists Chicagoland as just 8.33% evangelical, still a large percent of the population identifies as some kind of Christian, including Christian cults—71% according to Pew. There are around 2 million Catholics in the county according to ARDA, approximately the same as the unclaimed number. Not considered in the ARDA evangelical population is a large number called Black Protestant churches (148,895 congregants), not surprising in that almost one third of Chicago is black.
Illinois is considered by some to be the most Muslim state in America, with approximately 400,000 living in the Chicago area, and the Chicago metro hosts the largest Muslim population per capita for a large region. Like LA, Chicago hosts a plethora of ethnic enclaves such as Little Italy, Germantown, Ukrainian Village, Greek Town Polish Village, Chinatown, a Swedish enclave, and a mostly Asian Indian zone. Each of these connects to a different faith community as well.


Philadelphia has a large Catholic population of over three times the evangelical population and three times the mainline Protestant population. The unclaimed population is 6.8 for every evangelical and 7.6 for every mainline Protestant.
Some sources say that Philadelphia is now the most Muslim city in the United States, even larger than Detroit and New York. There are many African American followers of the Nation of Islam (Philadelphia is 43% black), but also significant recent immigration of Muslims from the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. We discovered 37 mosques in Philadelphia, and a few dozen more in the surrounding area. The public school system celebrates Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Kabir as school holidays, and City Hall hosts an annual Iftar dinner during Ramadan.
Philadelphia also has the 6th largest Jewish population in the US, and that number continues to grow.

San Diego

Since the 1980s, San Diego has been a harbor for all kinds of refugees. The largest numbers in recent years have been from  Iraq, Somalia, and Burma/Myanmar. El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego, has double the number of Iraqi refugees as San Diego, one in every 10 residents is Iraqi. The Iraqi and Somali refugees are mostly Muslim. We know of 16 mosques in San Diego city, and 29 in the county.
Hispanics make up over 30% of the population. There are four times as may Evangelicals as Mainline Protestants, and though the Catholic adherence rate is high, it is still less than half the number of unaffiliated persons.
San Diego County has a high number of Mormons, too. After Catholics and nondenominational groups, it is third highest in a list of denominations, with 71,000 adherents in 120 locations.

San Jose

The Barna report listed the San Francisco/ Oakland/ San Jose metro as the least churched and the most unchurched metro in its 2017 listings. San Jose’s county’s (Santa Clara) evangelical population, however is still over twice that of San Francisco’s.
San Jose city and county are both over 34% Asian and South Asian. One of the most interesting aspects of Santa Clara County’s religious landscape is that it has an extremely high Asian Indian population, including large numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, a number of which are in the US on short term H1b work visas.
The Catholic population is three times the evangelical population, and almost half as many as the number of unaffiliated persons. The Hispanic population is high, at 32% of the County population.

San Francisco

In 2017, San Francisco’s density was 18,440/ square miles. While its unclaimed population is the second lowest on our list, realize that it is a city of just under 48 square miles, and that the number of people unclaimed by any religious group is almost 11,000/ square mile. In 2017, the Barna report listed the San Francisco/ Oakland/ San Jose metro as 8th most post Christian city as well as least churched and most de-churched (see San Jose above). Only one of the boroughs of NYC has a lower evangelical percentage.
According to the 2010 ARDA, there are twice as many mainline Protestant adherents and three times as many Catholics as evangelicals. The Muslim Adherence rate was 2.92%. There are also 17 unclaimed persons for every evangelical in San Francisco.
I live in the city of San Francisco. It is dense, diverse, and difficult for church planters to engage. All of the above cities share these distinctions. But I am a church planter who likes the tough stuff and can’t imagine living anywhere else. I moved here twenty-one years ago when very little was happening, and many things we tried failed. The odds are getting better. More church planters from various kinds of backgrounds are trying and fewer are failing. Maybe one of these large, challenging cities is the best place for you, too?
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About the Author

Linda Bergquist

Linda has been involved in church planting for 38 years, 36 of which have been in urban areas. She is currently a church planting catalyst for the North American Mission Board and has served as an adjunct professor in several seminaries. She co-authored the books Church Turned Inside Out, The Wholehearted Church Planter, and City Shaped Churches and authored the Exponential ebook: The Great Commission and the Rest of Creation.

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