Monday, September 15, 2014

Homes, church homes, and hometowns

After Hours Denver at worship, from their website
I learned about After Hours Denver from the Rev. Jill Sanders, who mentioned their distinctive bar ministry in a sermon one week. They are a United Methodist ministry that meets in a different city bar each week. While they are involved in a variety of social outreach, the most immediately striking first impression for a lot of people is, "Hey, this church meets in a bar!"

For lifelong churchgoers, there is a preconception of what church looks like. James F. White (citations below) wrote 50 years ago that most people attending church seek an emotional experience there. Their experience may be affected by spectacular design...
Church of St Brigid-St. Emeric, New York City, from
...but most people respond to something that resonates with past associations. I can relate... When I visited my sister's church, First Presbyterian of La Grange, Illinois....
First Presbyterian, from their website
...I immediately felt at home, not only because of the familiar form of worship, but because the architecture was similar to the church in which I'd grown up. Even walking down a back hallway for the first time, I knew where I was.

Others, with a different background from mine, may feel a sense of home in a small plain church, a storefront, or even one of these:
Shrine in air pocket, Japan, swiped from
This is a micro-shrine which, along with the New York City church pictured above, received an award from Faith and Form magazine in 2013.

Drawing upon humanistic geographers, particularly Yi-Fu Tuan and David Seamon, Tim Cresswell (2004: 29) calls home "a center of meaning and a field of care... an intimate place of rest where a person can withdraw from the hustle of the world outside and have some degree of control over what happens within a limited space." Each of these places is, or could be, someone's "church home."

The challenge for contemporary religions in America is that many people no longer ask which church to attend, but whether they should attend worship at all. Some have already answered that question, in the negative. So religious groups face the challenge of providing the church home and sense of the sacred their current members sought while also being accessible to outsiders. In the case of the Denver Methodists, that means going outside of the church and meeting their flock in bars. More broadly, for religion to thrive, people more than ever need to leave the comfort of their church homes, yield some of that control for a time, and re-engage with the hustle outside.

While religious groups--particularly from the mainline Protestant tradition in which I worship--have long been aware of declining membership, other institutions may not find outreach quite such an urgent matter. They are making a mistake.

I'm thinking particularly of neighborhoods and towns. The population of Cedar Rapids is growing, and now exceeds 110,000, but how many of those people are connected to anything resembling community? The poor need to be connected to job opportunities, culture and education, and people who can serve as resources and role models. The middle class need connections just as much. As Aristotle argued, to be fully human requires participating in social affairs.

In the last 70 years, resources have been available in America (and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the West) that allowed people to create homes for themselves that are headquarters for entirely private lives, or to live in suburban towns and subdivisions that are enclaves for the well-off.  The result has been impressively accessorized homes and cars that would make our grandparents gawk, but weaker communities.
Ranch walkout, swiped from

Comfort, privacy and security are not bad things. Neither is individuality. They are human needs, maybe even basic human needs. But raising them to absolute values is ultimately futile: abandoning the public realm leaves an unappealing, dangerous town, and anyhow we can't afford all the infrastructure (and barriers) we'd need. Suburban sprawl is fiscally unsustainable.
Barrier built this summer between Grosse Pointe and Detroit, Michigan (swiped from
If our towns are going to thrive, they need sustainable economies that create jobs with living wages and provide sufficient tax revenue to maintain public spaces. That will take more than bike lanes, farmers' markets and urban growth limits, though heaven knows I fervently support all of those. It means reaching out of our comfort zones to encounter those who feel there is no place for them in the community. We need to bring them back in, and find them something to do, some way in which they can meaningfully contribute.

And the rest of us would benefit from encountering neighbors and even strangers on a daily basis. Richard Florida cites a 2004 study finding 25 percent of Americans "feel socially isolated in their communities (defined by having no one to talk to about personal matters)," up from 10 percent two decades earlier. The authors cite declining ties between neighbors and longer commutes, both related to our collective pursuit of the suburban dream, as two key factors in this development (Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew E. Brashears, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades," American Sociological Review 71:3 (June 2006), 353-375). Just as our towns and our religious institutions do, we individuals need to reach out to others in order to survive and thrive. Better city design makes this measurably easier.

 After Hours Denver website: 
 "Bar Church Serves All," promotional video about After Hours Denver,
 Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Blackwell, 2004)
 Richard Florida, Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life (Perseus, 2008), esp. chs. 9-10
 Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic, 2012)... interviewed by Charles Marohn on Strong Towns Podcast #190 []
 James F. White, Protestant Worship and Church Architecture: Theological and Historical Considerations (Oxford, 1964)

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