Why Church Planters Should Pay Attention to Congressional District Lines

–Daniel S. Ferguson

As far back as the early 1800s, congressional district lines have been hotly debated with such great routine that it almost seems a tired argument. Two centuries later, we still don’t have a real solution to gerrymandering.

If you’re not familiar, gerrymandering is the practice of dividing congressional districts in order to gain a partisan advantage when it comes to the balance of power in the United States Congress or the state legislature. You see, every ten years, the United States is required to conduct a census in order to determine how many people there are and where they live. Ideally, this information is used to create district lines fairly so that everyone is represented well. However, smart people discovered that they could draw the lines in such a way that they could create “safe” districts, where their party would pretty much always get elected.

Gerrymandering works so well that out of the 435 federal congressional races held every two years, only about a dozen or so are actually competitive. In most cases, this isn’t because the people are actually that one-sided, but rather that the lines have been drawn in order to divide the constituency into these safe districts.

Take Austin, Texas, for example, arguably the most liberal city in Texas. However, of the six congressional districts that pass through Austin, only one has a Democratic representative. The other five have Republican representatives because Austin has been cracked up and lumped into outside districts that have sufficiently conservative populations to outweigh the liberals in Austin.

There are two primary ways to gerrymander:

  1. Cracking, the practice of splitting up an area so that the undesired political persuasion is split up into other, safer districts, such as in Austin.
  2. Packing, the practice of putting all the people of the undesired political persuasion into one district so that there’s only one district of the undesired party, and the rest go to the party in power at the time of the divisions.

It’s obviously a democratic problem, in that many people are unfairly represented (see the above diagram from The Washington Post), particularly minorities, but in a weird way, gerrymandering presents an interesting, and potentially helpful, piece of data for those seeking to plant a church.

Basically, devious (but very smart) people have decided that these communities are either all of one persuasion (in the case of packing), and this tells church planters right where a dividing line between communities of different persuasions is. Essentially, the church planters can see a literal line where two disparate groups of voters conflict. They could then use this information to devise strategies to bridge these divides and bring people together in the way that only Christ can.

In the case of cracking, the smart people have shown that there’s a highly unified community that is being unfairly represented politically. That’s the perfect opportunity for the church to represent those people by placing itself in the center of the dividing lines and seeking to mirror the community in the way that their representatives don’t.

In many cases, it might be strongly advantageous for churches to plant themselves right on congressional district lines in order to accomplish these objectives and serve their communities well.

Is that a super nerdy, and perhaps devious, datum to use to decide where to plant a church? Maybe. But I do know this: Each of the top ten largest Christian churches in the United States is within five miles of a congressional district line. Did they plan it that way? Probably not. But it does seem that those areas are more conducive to forward-thinking churches that seek to bridge divides and heal communities. It’s at least something to consider.

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