by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
In a previous post, I began to track the growing discussion around the impacts of current economic fragility on the future of the church. I quoted comments from Chris Marshall, Jason Evans and Alan Roxburgh, while also mentioning an exceptional post from Jordon Cooper.
The loopier, newer, and more scandalous thinking only starts to emerge when we honestly look at the potential impact of commuting less on our commuter-centric churches and the commuter-centric dispensaries of our social services.
What if people cannot get to church? What if people cannot make it to our centralized sites of professionalized help? What if we got to a point where we only went where we could walk? What could that mean for how we practice church?
And this, I think, is a helpful segue into something that I’ve been tossing around for a while. I think that my seminary education was deficient precisely because it did not ask me to contemplate the relationship of the church to the neighbourhood context. There really should be some sort of course on this…
A course that puts urban theorists such as Jane Jacobs in conversation with the theology of the church. I suppose that reading Mark Gornik’s “To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City” during my time at school was one step in the right direction. Discovering the writings of Christian New Urbanist thinkers such as Eric Jacobsen has been helpful as well.
But I’m becoming more and more convinced that the issue of the church and her relationship to the local community is a big, gaping blind spot in the education of prospective ministers, pastors and priests.
An ability to think about the church in its local context is of the utmost importance. Luckily, we have megachurches in the burbs who take everything out of context. Just plop monolithic structures in the middle of large unwalkable fields, and then you don’t have to worry about contextualising the gospel. There’s no local culture to engage with. It’s out there, somewhere at the end of that vast expanse of asphalt, beyond the Wal-Mart next door.
On my more contrary days, I’d suggest we bulldoze all of it. The megachurches, the big box stores, everything. They’re all peddling the same cheap wares at discount prices. And Christ’s sacrifice has nothing to do with cheap grace. Nothing at all.
I speak in hyperbole. But perhaps a point lurks behind such an audacious proposition.
Jacobsen states, in an interview on Mars Hill Audio:
The way we design buildings and cities, the way we configure roads and neighborhoods, can say a great deal about our understanding of human nature and the shape of human wellbeing. But because they have viewed the really important part of human nature to be spiritual and not bodily, most Christians have been content to allow a kind of utilitarian commitment to efficiency and individual comfort guide the development of suburbs and thus contribute to the concomitant decay of cities.
And if this is the case, if our suburbanization is contributing to the decay of the cities, how do we respond specifically to “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7), or more broadly, to embody and enact God’s constant call throughout the scriptures to be good stewards of the earth?
We need to spend more time digging deeply into our reasons for the varieties of our church’s built form, and the way in which such structures interact with their surrounding communities. Plant a church in a big empty field, surround it by a big empty parking lot, and then consider what such self-imposed, buffer-building isolation says about a church’s relationship to the socio-political life of any given community.
Certainly, some churches would affirm such dualism – a sacred/secular divide might be precisely what some they wish to promote. But those of a more reformed persuasion might argue that this is not what being in, and not of the world really means.
And this thought – at least I hope – this thought should bring us back to thinking about the church, walkability, and neighbourhood life. The local church doesn’t necessarily have everything figured out. Each community has its own struggles. Local, neighbourhood churches can be just as beset with problems as larger, regional churches.
But if churches are to seek the welfare of the cities where they live, well then it seems to me that they need to find ways of having more contact with the people who live and work there. The people who live their lives in darkened alleys. Politicians, too. They need to know the city streets. The parks. The community life. And church members need to know these people and places intimately.
If we don’t know our neighbours, if we don’t interact with the wider world, how on earth will we be able to embody our constant prayer to see God’s will done in our own communities as it is in heaven?