Sunday, January 24, 2016

The future of religious places (II)

Rural churches (here, Alice United Methodist Church in
Center Point, IA) face an uncertain future...
...but there are choices facing city churches, too,
like Cedar Rapids's Westminster Presbyterian
Two women, one in an urban area and one writing from the perspective of small towns, have just published perceptive essays raising issues of religion's relationship to place. Meanwhile, Faith and Form is out with their always-fascinating annual list of awards for religious art and architecture. The striking juxtaposition is also troubling for those (like me) who see an essential role for religious spaces in 21st century American places.

Lyz Lenz writes about the troubled future of small-town churches, including interviews with residents of Sidney (pop. 1138) and Ely (pop. 1776), Iowa. Citing the Association of Religious Data Archives, she notes the state has 500 fewer religious institutions than it did 20 years ago, mostly in rural areas. The Plymouth County Historical Museum has a whole floor dedicated to the remnants of rural churches. Drab old organs are huddled on the yellowing linoleum. One room holds stained glass windows, rectories, and murals retrieved from the small white churches now atrophying in cornfields alongside abandoned schools. In part this is due to declines in religious observance, and population shifts from rural to urban areas. But in towns like Ely, which is close enough to Cedar Rapids to be considered a suburb, a third factor is evident: the religiously observant have a wide choice of houses of worship in the nearby big city. And they're making those choices, reports Lenz. When our mobility enables us to get to a church that suits us, it also "leaves them more disconnected from the community where they live."

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis (pop. 400,070), there are over 30 houses of worship within a mile radius of Sara Joy Proppe's house. In contrast to the small towns which are losing population, Proppe's neighborhood is densely populated, with residents making use of excellent pedestrian infrastructure. She looks at whether churches in the area offer inviting places for passers-by to rest. Citing scripture that values rest and sitting, she also notes a place to sit provides an opportunity for meeting our neighbors and the stranger. This is a vital component to actually loving our neighbors.... Putting in some seating is not a panacea for making better communities, but it is a step in the right direction. It is a way to invite others to rest, to participation, to value neighbors and strangers. And it all can start with something as simple as a bench. She observes a variety of orientations (see the link below for pictures). The fourth pictures in the two sets offer sharp contrasts: One has [a] vast expanse of lawn with so much unrealized opportunity. The mostly blank front fa├žade of the building only exacerbates my pain; the other offers a garden... a Little Free Library, and some seating on the arc of the garden path. Having a place to sit is a measure (albeit not the only one) of how oriented a church is to the neighborhood around it.

Which brings us to the Faith and Form awards. In contrast to last year's set, which included the neighborly Christ Church of Cambridge, Massachusetts, this year's bunch tend to the overwhelming. They are visually striking, and artistically imaginative, but their size and shape mean they're unlikely to play well with others on the street. The first three American church structures (as opposed to buildings on academic campuses) listed are:
  1. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon, relocated to the outskirts of Bend at 61980 Skyline Ranch Rd. It is truly a lovely building, and sits comfortably in its woody surroundings, but as far as I can determine is walkable from nowhere.
  2. St. Pius X Chapel and Prayer Garden, 6666 Spanish Fort Blvd, New Orleans. Maybe it's the angle of the photo, but it looks forbidding. I like the church next door better; it has a wide double front door that opens towards the sidewalk. The neighborhood, near Lake Ponchartrain, has an odd layout, but seems centered on the church/school campus, which may make this an exception to my point.
  3. St. Edward Catholic Church, 5203 River Road North, Keizer, Oregon. River Road looks like a serious stroad, and the cross street Sandy Drive is a dead end, albeit the Walk Score is 74 so there might be more than meets the eye. There are benches outside for seating, which we've established is a plus.
This year's prize winners continue a positive trend towards use of natural light in the design of sacred spaces. Most of them, however, appear to reflect what Eric O. Jacobsen (2012: 189-190) calls insular churches (as opposed to embedded chuches like the ones described by Lenz and the ones Proppe likes). Typically built after 1945 in suburban developments, insular churches sit on large lots and feature large parking areas onto which their main doors open. They still can and do engage in vital ministry. A new facility on the edge of town gives congregations limitless choice to design their worship space to maximize natural light, sustainability and participation. But they miss an opportunity to help make and maintain neighborhoods, with all they imply for connecting and empowering people.

Jacobson calls churches to re-invigorate the idea of parishes, where churches are integrated into and minister to the neighborhoods around them.
 I don't expect to see very many churches draw the majority of their congregations from those who live within walking distance. However, I do believe that most churches and members of churches could benefit from learning to think in terms of parish....
I think that it would be a highly productive exercise for a church to make a regular practice of defining its geographical footprint and then doing strategic thinking in terms of the needs and opportunities presented within that footprint. Such a practice would be more accurate and helpful the more it was informed by hands-on local knowledge. That is to say, the more that church members and leadership actually spent time within the footprint talking to people and observing with all their senses, the greater would be their understanding of where God is at work in their parish. (2012: 194-195)
In the three examples above, there doesn't seem to be much of a neighborhood to integrate into. Lenz quotes sociologist Paul Lasley on the lost functions of community-centered churches (and small town schools): There is no glue holding these communities together... and it’s making us forget how to neighbor. As the 21st century forces us towards interdependence, insularity is a luxury we can't afford. We need embedded churches, among other elements of human-scaled civil society. Faith and Form might consider that as a design award category.

The low wall around Immaculate Conception Church, Cedar Rapids,
will be an asset to what may once again become a walkable area
Michael J. Crosbie, "2015 International Awards Program for Religious Art and Architecture," Faith and Form 48:4, 
Eric O. Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Baker Academic, 2012)
Lyz Lenz, "The Death of the Midwestern Church," Pacific Standard, 20 January 2016, 
Sara Joy Proppe, "Sit On It," Strong Towns, 21 January 2016, ...includes additional links on the value of sit-able places

"CR Churches," 20 July 2015 [historic churches in Oakhill-Jackson neighborhood of Cedar Rapids]
"A Win for Today--A Strategy for the Future?" 14 May 2015 [a Cedar Rapids church in a core neighborhood expands its parking lot but saves a historic building]
"The Future of Religious Spaces," 8 January 2015 [thoughts on the 2014 award-winners]

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