Why I Hate The City

April 28, 2011

The City is a software platform designed specifically for churches. It functions as an intranet but it is clearly a Facebook clone. When you join The City at the church you attend, you are required to set up a profile (e.g. picture, about, groups, friends). My church started using The City this year, so per their request I joined.

I hate The City.

I think The City would be fine as an internal communication and coordination platform for church staff and senior leaders. These folks need to have coordinated conversations in order to accomplish church business, and those conversations do not need to be public. If you have a large church staff and leadership team, an intranet could be a very useful management tool.

But I think it is a disaster for the congregation because it masquerades as a social media platform. I think people that use The City need to keep in mind that the norms of behavior are patterned off the king of social media platforms, Facebook. Facebook was created by a guy in a Harvard dorm room that wanted to help his friends connect with women. As these Facebook norms (e.g. friends, groups) have migrated to other software platforms, people easily accept them as “the way things should be” and quickly forget how they originated.

The City has “walls”, which like it or not makes it an exclusive members-only club, and I personally think that is the antithesis of what a church wants to accomplish. Social media has been great for me, and I think it’s a great idea for church members to be active on social media platforms, but all of their persona’s should be public and open to full inspection by anyone at any time. You want to be found so that you can connect, and when you are found people need to know that what you have not posted anything online that you are trying to hide.

How can you expect to earn my trust – the foundation of right relationship – if you give me the impression that online you are concealing something? It’s a mixed message, which sends the wrong signal.

I am a strong introvert by nature, and connecting with people in public groups has never been easy for me. The City for my church has well over 1000 participants, and I only have 7 “friends.” I never visit The City because it reinforces my perception that I don’t really “fit”. The City is no place to make friends, which I find absolutely incongruous with the concept of church life.

I love the transparency that comes with open architectures like Twitter and my blog. In the blogsphere and on Twitter, I can reach out to people I want to meet, and I can offer people a reason to reach out to me. There are places where information is shared, conversations are convened, existing relationships are strengthened, and new friendships are formed.

It’s not a popular opinion, but I think The City is simply unnecessary for the congregation. The current church website works just fine as a billboard to post announcements. The social functions taking place in The City could be accomplished better on existing, more open platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

I hate The City because I think the attitudes and behaviors that its walls encourage compromise its core mission.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (30)

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  1. Jay Stearley says:

    Hate is a strong word Bret, but I can appreciate your bold honesty. The points you make both positive and negative hold truth.

    Despite the “walls,” Grace Church has witnessed an improvement in communication among leaders and different ministry groups, helped connect people to mission, connect people to God, and fostered generosity through the marketplace. Is it perfect no. But moving to an interactive database like The City from Fellowship One has been positive progress for the church community in more ways than not.

    I invite you to search and join groups on The City and to look deeper at the features the City offers. The City is geared towards groups, not the individual like Facebook. The City is not Facebook for church – far from it.

    Grace will not be stopping here…at The City to build community and to communicate. It is one of many tools. Grace is working to tear down the “walls” and it values your help towards this end.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Hate is a strong word, Jay, but I’m not on the fence about this. I only use the word hate to describe systems and the behaviors they produce, and then only systems that I think are counter purposeful or dangerous. The City software is not a ministry, it’s a profit center and as such it has a powerful marketing machine behind it. Don’t you just love blogs? 🙂 I do! We will just have to agree to disagree on this one, brother. Thanks! Bret

    Jay Stearley Reply:

    We can agree to disagree on this one. Both of our purposes is to add value to our cities and organizations. By value I mean genuine community and value-driven effectiveness, not monetary profit.

    Grace’s values are grace, truth, love, faith, unity, and generosity. These are our filter in serving others.

    Mine are humility, simplicity, generosity, purpose, loyalty, love.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Your voice is always welcome here, Jay, even when we disagree. Your side of the argument is one that many share, so I appreciate you sharing it here for all to consider. Thanks! Bret

  2. Michelle Kaiser says:

    I can see your point, Bret, about the City making you feel like you don’t fit in. I personally think it’s the best of both worlds. We have to have some kind of database. Names, addresses, phone numbers, etc of our members. With the City it allows us to have this while giving those who want it, the forum to communicate back to the church, its staff, and its pastors. It streamlines us getting information out to the masses, as well as lessons and info to our small groups. The marketplace is giving our congregation a place to find business connections and recommendations to businesses in our community that are owned and operated by Christians – something we have been asked to do for years. No system is perfect, that’s for sure, but I think you aten’t seeing the big picture of the City. Whether or not it’s a clone, of sorts, of Facebook is debatable, but its value to our church is already being seen since now nearly 1300 people have chosen to sign up.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Michelle! I value your input and appreciate you sharing! Let me ask you to think about this. Is the number of people signed up really a good indicator of the efficacy of the system? Do we really judge how right a thing is by how many people agree with it? I have a child that participates in Sunday school. Correct me if I am wrong, but The City is the only way you currently have to check kids into Sunday school. So for parents that want to participate in this, unless I am mistaken, The City is not an option. If I quit The City today, I would have a problem on Sunday. All strong systems, even those with good intentions, always have unintended consequences. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!!! Bret

  3. Anthony Marcin says:

    Ok, I need to chime in… I took a look at The City and it is impressive but really its true use is as an Intranet site. It does not really do much for those looking from the outside in. Using Facebook Fan Page or other social media type of site allows for your message to propagate further and allow those just watching from the fence to see what your organization is all about. Once they learn and understand your organization they would then join in and attend your organization services and participate.

    There are other great resources available for free such as Google Apps that allow you to do almost 99% of what The City charges you. I also see this as a limitation in the future as you add more members the costs go up. Charging 19.00 for the first 50 members is not a bad price if used as an intranet for your management level of your organization. But it will cost you plenty if you allow the rest of your members to join in.

    As someone that builds and implements systems this one might be best used as an intranet site and focus on utilizing social media (Facebook, Blogs) to provide an interface where people can come and go as they please. You can build great interfaces to be integrated into Facebook and blogs. Maybe spend those dollars on a programmer so you can reach a wider audience.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Totally concur, Anthony. I hear them clearly that they were looking for a tool to address some issues, but there are lots of free tools out there that can serve as internal management tools. I share your thoughts on the value of traditional and highly trafficked social media sites as the best tools for external outreach. Thanks for adding your expertise! Bret

    Anthony Marcin Reply:

    One more point to add, since it was indicated they wanted a place to manage the people in a database why not use the power of Facebook to do that for you. Spend your time on other things and allow those who want to follow you to do so as they wish and not worry about managing a database, phone numbers etc. The new phone number is Facebook and its messaging and email services it offers. I don’t think I have ever received a phone call from any of the organizations I belong to. I follow their RSS feeds, Twitter or Facebook fan pages. Also once in a while I will log onto their website or find a friendly email in my inbox. Technology is a wonderful thing and when utilized properly it can have some great power.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    More great points, Anthony. You could also do all of this on Linkedin, which is a very professional platform, and with Linkedin the information can be exported to an excel file. Thanks! Bret

  4. Rev. Ron Pate says:

    Good points all.

    My concern with Facebook is that they own all the copyright and legal IP ownership to all materials posted on their site. They can use, manipulate and sell your identity, photos, and private information to the highest bidder. In the case of the City they are not interested in monetizing their network with advertising so need to charge to maintain infrastructure (which is not free). I look at it this way – you are paying for data privacy. Tha being said, The City need sit do several things (IMHO): 1) Update their graphics – it looks like it was created in the eighties. 2) Allow for the creation of more interaction within the groups – i.e. a combination of SKYPE, Go To Meeting and a conference call calendarization system – example – we have members in 13 nations not just in one city. 3) GUI – the Graphics User Interface should be built on a tablet style interface and then work backwards to the web. Internet interfaces are 2 decades old. It should be run on a responsive template with more interface customization options – not every church wants to look alike. Stope charging everyone for “customization” when software can already do this. Monetizing your customers should only come with a corresponding increase in customer services.

    My two cents anyway. The City is Okay but needs to improve to go from a single local church mini-program, into a real global-church private social platform.

    Rev. Ron Pate, Chickasaw
    The Ecclesia, Dallas

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Ron. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I can tell you that my church abandoned The City, and I think it was the right decision. Bret

    Dale Reply:

    Hi Bret would really like to hear why your church left the city. Ours is in the beginning stage of entering the city. I have very mixed feelings. On one hand organizational communication is very valuable and an intranet site does have advantages for leaders as well as creating an extension to “real” interaction among your church community. Facebook has too many limitations but if social media is all you need then I agree its the place. I also lean more towards the table project as its free. So please share why your leaders decided to drop the city implementation.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Dale. I can’t speak to why the leaders at my church decided to drop The City. I advised them to move away from the platform, but I have no idea if that affected their decision. The church seems to have moved to multiple forms of traditional communication, including print, e-mail, Facebook, blogs, and twitter, and things seem to be working well. Bret

  5. Paul says:

    “The City is no place to make friends, which I find absolutely incongruous with the concept of church life.” Bret, you are so right.

    A bit of history:

    A quick online search indicates that The City was originally developed at Mars Hill Church in Seattle as a way to control communication between church members, remove transparency, and limit ordinary church-goers’ access to the top leader(s) – a practice known as “siloing” members – after a church scandal created a firestorm of questions and protests on the organization’s original members-only website which leaked into the national press.

    Zondervan eventually bought the program from Mars Hill for a few $million and word had it at the time that they offered a then Mars Hill pastor a salaried position as part of the deal. If your church is using The City, they should at least be aware of its origins.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing, Paul! Bret

  6. Jacob Netherton says:

    Sounds like Bret you are hitting a point on inner core values and philosophy of ministry that not all people hold. That is fine for you and your church, but keep it in your church. It sounded more like a personal preference. Where as there are churches like ours that is 3200 people and two campuses with a third on the way. We need a way to help people connect and communicate more efficiently and effectively. We as Christians should not be a people who are concealing things that we don’t want people to see. The City’s privacy safeties are there to protect people from posting unhealthy things. We don’t use the City as of yet, looking into it, but we have utilized Twitter and Facebook. We have found that it doesn’t reach all people and not all people get the feeds from our various Facebook groups and Twitter accounts. The City is a way for us to break down walls and help one another have access to each other.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jacob, and thanks for sharing your thoughts. Please note this is my personal blog, and the evaluation I share is based on my professional opinion. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to engagement for any organization, even though I do believe there are some shared principles. Bret

    Jacob Netherton Reply:

    You will have to forgive my Knee-jerk reaction to your blog. The Bible says something about slow to speak and quick to listen and be gracious in your speech. Please forgive me if I was biting in my comments. We had long struggle through communication issues on our team as it relates to the software and I at the time thought we were getting close to making The City our solution, but then someone shared your blog with the search team, which threw a “wrench” in our process.

    I believe God’s sovereignty was at work in the blog because it caused our team to do a thorough analysis of software and consider where to go from here. The City eventually failed the test for us.

    Please accept my apologies for my bluntness and thank you for blogging your personal thoughts about this matter. It indeed did help us.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    No need to apologize. Thanks, Bret

  7. Dale says:

    It would be good to hear honest open dialogue about the positive and negative of using this kind of system. I like the central members only use for groups etc that can help organize an effort or extend dialogue for a certain group. FB lacks certain functionality for this. Not having the world see what we say is not the issue but being able to target groups is better addressed in the City, Table Project etc. So for me it seems more efficient. Especially when I can use group features to send out texts and reminders for my high level volunteers. So from a managers perspective, it has legitimate use. Cost is an issue too. The Table Project is free. I would lean more towards it. It appears group creation and management is much easier than FB. So for us, the main reason is efficiency in communication to a target group. To communicate to a target group outside our our church, open social media and real contact is the answer. I think folks need to understand that e church has more than one one mission. To accomplish that you need to use more than one tool. Equipping the saints is different than spreading the gospel and sometimes they cross over but not in every area. The reality is we have to manage the church community and organization. Unless of course we bail on organized gatherings all together and some believe that is the answer. I do not. Since I don’t, I have to be a realist and accept the undertaking of managing a group of over one thousand people and all the groups and events that involves. To do that, the will be some internal communication the outside world does not see. That’s not a bad thing, in fact if done correctly it will enhance the effectiveness of the church and help them to impact their community in a greater way.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts here, Dale. There is no one “right” answer. Like every platform, The City has strengths to accompany it’s limitations. A congregation should first be clear about the goals it wants to accomplish with any platform, then continually test to ensure those goals are met and be willing to change course if they are not. Thanks, Bret

  8. Laura Kuhl says:

    I find your post very interesting. The church where I am currently employed is thinking of installing The City software for our congregation as we have a lot of activities, groups, and events, especially among the Youth and Children’s Ministries. As I work specifically with Youth Ministries, I think The City is the direction we should go. Contacting these kids via mass email is not as efficient as one might think, and since they exist on their smartphones more than they do in reality these days, we are trying to figure out the best ways to communicate meeting times and events in order to garner the highest attendance we can. We are in the process of developing a texting tree as well as trying to use Twitter more as opposed to Facebook (because of the reasons you discussed above). And while similarities do exist between The City and Facebook, I think from a Youth perspective The City will be far more effective. The alienation you feel did not even cross my mind when we were discussing the software in our meeting, but it is something I will bring up next week when everyone has a serious discussion about where we are going to take our church with social media (we intend on updating a lot of our software, revamping the website, etc). I can’t say I necessarily agree with you, but it was something I have not thought of, and a great point to make. While social media is the way of the future, there is no way to protect kids from alienation or bullying online. I’d like to think that because it is a church environment the youth will act accordingly and avoid the drama that plays out on their personal social media outlets, but you never know.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Laura. My church is probably similar to yours. Our leaders moved away from the city long ago, and I think have no regrets. Without the city walls, they have explored the range of available options and I think are now much more effective organizers and communicators. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret

  9. Seph says:

    I spearheaded the effort for our little church to make use of the city about 2 years ago. Then, as now, I wanted to have a means to set up events and collect RSVP info/roles/items to bring as well as share prayer requests in a private venue. The City can do this, but it is cumbersome. The mobile platform is really bad and the walls require members to have to enter user id and password to get in from email on their phones… really annoying. Further, our older members find the interface very confusing.

    As much as I appreciate what the City does, I do not feel that it does it well enough to justify the hassle. As a result, I am looking for an alternative.

    Any good ones out there?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Seph. I’m not sure how to answer that. I know Facebook and LinkedIn both have these features. There are a variety of platforms like http://www.eventzilla.net/pricing that allow you to created events pretty easy. Some are free, others have pricing. Thanks for sharing Bret

  10. Tim says:


    Thanks for this thread. I’ve got a problem.

    Our congregational leadership has decided to go “The City” whole hog. The start date is coming up, so I don’t have any personal experience with it. BUT …

    But I’m extremely concerned. I have substantial professional information technology experience. I’m not a technophobe. My concern is that this software will draw a line between those who use it and those who don’t.

    I am an active member of the church, and I plan to continue that. I do not want to be left out, or to feel left out.

    On the other hand, I do not want my identity information to be searchable by any member of the church.

    I do not want any communications I send to be logged in perpetuity in the archives of a database.

    I do not want my personal communications in the church context to become subject to a subpeona if someone decides to sue someone over whatever.

    I don’t want anyone to have to click a box that certifies whether or not I am someone’s friend.

    I don’t want to let someone be “my friend” and later change my mind and say “no longer are you my friend.”

    I don’t want some transitory temptation to render an opinion on last Sunday’s sermon to become something I regret a day later, a week later, or even a year later.

    For those and a lot of other reasons, I stay away from Facebook, away from Twitter, and I plan to stay away from The City.

    But I’m worried that making such a binary choice will make me look like I’m ‘out of it,’ and may in fact keep me ‘out of it’ in specific ways.

    Up until now, I could choose or not choose to be in the choir, or be a lay eucharistic minister, or be an usher, or … With no reflection or impact on me personally.

    But suddenly my faith congregation is rolling out this new software platform, and is pulling out all the stops in an effort to get everyone to sign up, and I don’t want to.

    Since you have actual experience with this, and since you obviously are not on the side of the boosters, I’d like to know whether (in the light of experience) my concerns are well founded. Am I missing something?

    Thanks for considering, and best regards: Tim

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Tim. As I’ve already stated briefly, it did not take long for me to conclude that The City did not meet my expectations. Our leadership reached similar conclusions, moved on, and now I believe communicate very effectively using a variety of contemporary and public tools (e.g. e-mail, Facebook, Blog, Twitter). Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bret

  11. Shelley Guatney says:

    As the church where I am employed is considering The City, I’ve been trying to find all the information I can about its pros and cons. I noticed that there are no comments with regard to the giving/donations side of The City. Would love to hear what you think about it.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Shelley. Wish I could help you with that, but I never gave through The City. Communication and coordination were the main issues we needed addressed. Thanks, Bret