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Return to the Forgotten Streets

Urban Islands is reaching city dwellers, one neighborhood at a time.

From luxury condos with mountain views to the crumbling dwellings of the urban poor, Denver is a city of socioeconomic extremes. Yet neighborhoods throughout the city have something in common: the conspicuous absence of churches.

Steve Pike intends to change that. The former director of the Assemblies of God Church Multiplication Network, Pike launched the Urban Islands Project in Denver in 2014 after noticing the fading presence of places of worship in U.S. cities.

Following decades of population drift away from cities, urban areas are experiencing renewed growth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, urban populations increased 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, compared to the nation's overall growth rate of 9.7 percent during the same period. Nearly 81 percent of the U.S. population is now concentrated in urban areas.

Yet Pike, who served at the national office as the founding director of CMN, says urban church growth isn’t keeping pace with these trends.

“I spent a lot of time in cities and noticed that as the density of the population increased, the presence of the Church decreased,” says Pike, who spent eight years at the CMN helm. “So paradoxically, some of the most populous places in our nation have the fewest people involved in church. That started to haunt my sleep at night.”

As Pike spent time in prayer, he began to formulate an idea for intentionally planting churches in the city. What if as the density of the population goes up, so does the presence of the Church?

“Urban Islands Project is a reproducible strategy to increase the presence of the Church in the urban core of America’s 40 largest cities,” Pike says.

Pike cites several reasons for the disparity between population growth and church outreach in the nation’s cities, including the sheer size of the mission field, the cost of launching an urban church plant, the difficulty of finding suitable venues, and the shortage of nearby pastoral mentors and peers.

That’s where the Urban Islands model comes in. Rather than placing a single church in a metro area, Urban Islands sends in teams of pastors and student volunteers to spread out and find individual neighborhoods to serve, ultimately planting multiple churches in different locations simultaneously.

“We chose the name Urban Islands to illustrate the way cities are actually structured,” Pike says. “They are like a cluster of islands smashed together. Each neighborhood, or island, has its own personality, opportunities and challenges. Part of the reason that churches in the cities have struggled is because they aspired to reach the entire city instead of focusing on a neighborhood.”

He says the idea is to custom build each church to meet the unique needs of the neighborhood.

“The crackhouse neighborhood takes a different approach than the upscale neighborhood,” Pike says.

He notes that in some cases, such contrasting “islands” could be right down the street from each other. High-rise housing developments make it possible for large populations to become concentrated in geographically small areas, essentially making each square mile the equivalent of a town, with its own culture and challenges.

He notes that the Denver neighborhood he lives in is one square mile and has 11,000 people in it. Across the street is another neighborhood that has 11,000 people.

“The building I live in has 350 single family homes stacked on top of one another in one city block, and there’s no church there at all,” Pike says.

In Denver, seven church planting teams have already moved into their respective neighborhoods, and each expects to launch services in September 2016. Plans are already in the works for placing teams in the next three urban areas of focus: St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Brooklyn/Queens, New York.

“Increasingly, cities are where the movers and shakers, the architects of the future, and the shapers of public policies live,” Pike says. “Right now, the Church is generally not a part of the conversation about the direction of society and culture. The hope of the Urban Islands Project is to bring the voice of the Church back into the heart of society.”

“Steve is raising awareness concerning the spiritual need in our cities,” says current Church Multiplication Network Director Chris Railey. “Through the Urban Islands Project, he is helping to lead the church back into areas where the population has been spiritually underserved­ – or even abandoned – and he’s doing it in a way that honors the unique cultural context of each neighborhood."

With Americans increasingly living and working in cities, Pike says neglecting this vast mission field would be tragic.

“The impact of a cluster of simple, neighborhood-focused churches on a city will set in motion a movement in that city of sustainable urban churches making Jesus known in a diversity of city neighborhoods,” Pike says.

Christina Quick

Christina Quick is a former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer who attends James River Church (Assemblies of God) in Ozark, Missouri.