February 21, 2013

A theology of a built environment pt. I

NOTE: This is the first in a series. I hope you'll want to read the intropart two, 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.
Several days ago, I started up with buildings–the spaces churches use for worship and common life. I tried to distinguish between the building and the people. EkklÄ“sia, the Greek term which we today translate as "church" in English was used to describe a people assembled, or gathered. It did not initially refer to the place, or a particular time, or a particular person, but the people. This is an important distinction. Our question should always be, How does the space serve the people? Not the other way around. As I mentioned in my other post, Ray Oldenburg was getting at this in his book The Great Good Place.

I've had the privilege of leading and participating in faith communities that have met in rented spaces, backyards and the traditional ol' church building. I've done church in warehouses, family rooms and cathedrals. Through is I've learned something: a space defines a community. When the typical church plant moves from core group meetings in a home to their "launch" in an elementary school gymnasium it changes. They are not the same community they were (and often this is seen in the dramatic change in who participates during this shift). This can also be seen in a reverse process, after the typical church plant loses it's 3-5 year window of funding and is forced to change where it meets. But this isn't limited to church plants. Every faith community has to address this.

For a long time, I led communities that resisted the acquisition of our own space. We "recycled" other commonly used spaces such as homes, backyards, parks and cafes. The conviction was that this would allow us to focus on our mission rather than on resources. I know now that this perspective has its blind spots. Ideal? Certainly. But resources still needed focusing on. In fact, to ignore assets and resources altogether is to miss a critical aspect of Christian discipleship. And for that community that is mostly invisible–collectively at least–there are limits when it comes to mission. When no one knows you're there, they can't show up on your doorstep in a time of need. This is not an argument against house churches and other missional communities that recycle space. It's simply to say that I've learned from my own missteps that one has to be aware of the limitations of any meeting space and determine how to overcome–and compromise–in order to address such limitations.

So, how can we go about addressing the limits of the spaces we occupy? I wonder if it might be helpful here to borrow from Andy Crouch in his book, Culture Making. Crouch puts forth 4 questions that I'd adapt for this conversation:
  • What does use of this space assume about the world?
  • What does use of this space say about what the world should be?
  • What does use of this space make possible for this community?
  • What does use of this space make impossible for this community?
An analogous to this that might help our imagination in this regard is music and space. As David Byrne argues in the TED talk below, music is shaped by the space.

 How might this help us think about the limits of space and your faith community?

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