February 24, 2013

A theology of a built environment pt. II

NOTE: This is part two of a series. I hope you'll want to read the intro, part one, part three and part four as well. I stole the title of this series from a book by Timothy Gorringe that speaks well to this subject entitled A Theology of the Built Environment.
Stories require "containers"
Anyone with school-age children in Southern California has probably helped them build a replica of a California mission. I grew up in San Diego and remember the California history unit in 4th grade. I remember building a replica of the Mission San Juan Capistrano out of styrofoam, wood, and dixie cups. Before we left California, my daughter was required to do a similar project in 4th grade. While I was helping with her project, something dawned on me: stories require spaces. I recalled my own project while working on hers and noticed how difficult it was to write the actual report without first beginning the process of constructing the container of the story she and I were trying to tell.

It's not so different for the local faith community. The spaces which we occupy shape our collective stories. They create the limits and possibilities of what kind of story we live out. In most cases, this isn't choice. Most western churches have a building already. Many have occupied that building for decades if not centuries. Other churches, such as church plants or churches that have been forced out of their previous buildings due to finances have limited choices–they can only afford to occupy a certain kind of building. So, the choice is frequently not, "What kind of story do we want to tell?" as much as it is, "What kind of story can our building tell?"

 Notice how I didn't say "does" in that last question but rather "can." The problem too often is that we become fixated on the wrong parts of our stories, our histories. We imagine our story tells a story that too often it no longer does. The point here is not to abandon the past but to tell a complete story and build on the best parts of our story. Jesus' disciples struggled with this. They emphasized the wrong points in the history Israel. They longed for another David or Moses. But in imagining the future with these images alone, they forgot the "building blocks" in their history that made those moments possible. Stories such as those of Abraham, Joseph or Daniel were just as important to draw upon, even if they didn't seem as victorious.

Remembering the "right" stories
Every faith community has a story. It's greatly shaped by the space it occupies. But when we tend to obsess over the "high points" of our history, we go about mimicking the wrong points in our past. And too often this is a case of the emperor having no clothes. The most formative parts of our stories tend to be the marginal stories. Those "mustard seed" stories of little things flourishing into wonderful, beautiful things. Tell the rough and tumble stories of your church's history so that you can gain an imagination for a different kind of future. Michael Frost talks about that in this clip:


Michael Frost Sentralized Conference 2012: "Jesus The Exile" from Lance Ford on Vimeo.

The use of the word "exile" is problematic, nonetheless, we need to ask questions like:
  • When did we, as a faith community, take a great risk?
  • What have been the adventures of this faith community?
  • When did we discover the gift we can offer this neighborhood? (and what was it?)
  • When did we fall in love with this neighborhood?
  • When did we fail? (and why did we fail?)
To imagine the future of a faith community requires telling stories from the history of a faith community. Remembering a more complete and honest history of our faith communities will help us imagine what kind of story our communities and the buildings they occupy can tell. I used to work for a congregation that started out meeting above a general store in a small town. Decades later, it would become a large church on the edge of a growing city. Near a century later, it was critical to remember not only that incredible moment when that church was the church in a growing city. As well, we had to recall what it was to be a fledgling faith community finding its call in a small town. It was at that point in its history that the church could now look back and remember the hard, but fruitful, work of seeding the Gospel into its surrounding community and re-imagine what that might look like today and in the future.

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