February 11, 2013

A theology of a built environment (an introduction)

NOTE: This is the intro to a series on church and spaces they occupy. I hope you'll want to read part one, part 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.
What do Harold Camping, street artist Hense and Arcade Fire have in common? ... Probably not much. But hold that thought!

Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping made a name for himself prophesying the end of the world... and it didn't happen... twice! His brazen predictions embarrassed Christians who've grown tired of being affiliated with personalities such as his. But then he did something much worse: He helped country music radio return to New York city

Since Camping's predictions did not come true he reduced the size of his media company, Family Radio. In the process, New York Daily News has reported that Camping sold a station in New York that will now play country music, for the first time in 17 years. A terrible thing to inflict on New York–the audio equivalent of King Kong rampaging Manhattan.

But while Camping may not have much in common with level-headed Christians in the west, he does share a common reality with many western Christian institutions:

There is an art piece in Washington D.C. done by the Atlanta-based street artist Hense on an old church building. The Christian community that once met there no longer does. Sometime after closing it's doors, Hense went to work. But others did as well–there is now a community garden on one side of the property.

Pitchfork once posted that a church in Canada was selling its property. Why was an indie music website covering this? Arcade Fire recorded both The Suburbs and Neon Bible in the building. The real estate listing reads, "commercial building/office for sale."

In Baltimore, there's a church building that is now a health and fitness center. In Pittsburgh, there's another that is now brewery. In Philadelphia, there's a tattoo studio now occupying an old church. My old neighborhood in San Diego has an art studio that hosts "art church" twice a month on Sundays. Physically and otherwise, others now occupy the space once held by churches.

Its interesting that "cultural creatives" tend to be those repurposing the space once occupied by faith communities. What is more curious, to me, is why Christian communities are not–by and large–able to re-imagine and repurpose their assets before they're lost. In the book The Great Good Place, author Ray Oldenburg outlines the components of the space which churches used to occupy: the third space. The third space is that space in a community, a neighborhood, that isn't home and isn't work. I'd summarize Oldenburg's key components for such a space as:
  • Affordable–if not free
  • Accessible–by foot most often
  • Communal–a place where folks eat and drink together
  • Habitual–occupied on a regular basis by community members 
  • Hospitable–to those known and unknown

Churches used to be these places. And others are often able to repurpose church buildings to do this once again. And when they aren't repurposed as a "third space," above I've listed two instances in which the repurposing process creates cultural artifacts for the community (one visual, one audible). So, how might Christian communities be able to re-imagine and repurpose their assets before they're lost? What stands in the way? What steps need to be taken? What are we not yet considering that we ought to? What can we learn from the past?

Share your thoughts. I'll be coming back to this with further thoughts soon.

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