March 7, 2013

A theology of a built environment pt. III

NOTE: This is part three of a series. I hope you'll want to read the intropart onepart two 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.
One of my dearest friends back in San Diego is a home brewer. Every couple months he would make a new batch of beer while any number of us would sit around and drink beer, eat taco shop food, and watch him work his brewing magic. It was often what I think I would call a holy time. Friends breaking bread, sharing life together, crafting something together.

I stole the title of this blog series from a book by Timothy Gorringe titled A Theology of the Built Environment. In it, Gorringe writes a line that I love: “... all space is potentially sacred, waiting for the moment of encounter in which it mediates God.” Throughout this dense book, Gorringe works to diminish the divide between the "sacred and secular." For him, it is important that we are able to see the divine in all aspects of living. Indeed, it seems to me no coincidence that when Jesus dies on the cross, the temple veil is torn–no longer would the presence of God be portrayed as limited to a particular place. Rather, the Spirit would hover across all of creation just as we read in Genesis.

In many ways, the conversations around churches and the spaces they use has not recognized well what Gorringe is getting at. By function, the "traditional" perspective displays the sacred as limited to Christian sanctuaries. While on the other hand, the "missional" perspective could be viewed as saying, "God is everywhere but the church building." Honestly, most uses of the term "missional" I think would disappoint Bosch and Newbigin–those that theologically developed these terms. So, I can say such a "missional" perspective misses the point of missional theology which is this: God is to encountered anywhere and the task of God's people is to point out, to name, to draw attention to God's presence among us.

All this to say, I don't know that it matters much whether we meet in cafes or church buildings. Rather, it's whether or not we can honestly say that God is encountered there. This isn't measured by emotional response or liturgical accuracy. It has something to do with transformation: does our encounter with the Divine change us, change how we view the world?

Back to my beer-crafting friend. He makes good beer. Really good beer. It was something he did–with our limited participation, mostly observation–for us, a community of friends. Honestly, I think his beer is good enough to market. But that's not his intention. So, making beer in a San Diego back yard in small batches is just fine. It's a question of scale and intention. It's a question more churches should think hard about.

Many churches function like my home brewing experience. One person conducts most of the labor. A small group benefits enjoyably. The work exists primarily for that group alone. Yet, too often these faith communities occupy a space that clashes with this scale and intention.

I am not implying that if we meet in smaller, exclusive groups that we cannot experience transformation. On the contrary, most of the transformative experiences I've had or observed have been in smaller groups. But when this kind of environment is what is desired, than we have to speak honestly about our intentions and the capacity of the space we occupy.

This is why asking good questions and telling the good stories is so critical. Abandoning a building is not the only option for those churches who find a contrast between intention and capacity. The right questions and stories can help us develop an imagination for other possibilities. My hunch, though, is this: that a new imagination for the spaces churches occupy is directly linked to transformative encounters. And transformative encounters are often found when the "other" and the "familiar" collide. A way forward, I think, is for we Christians to create the environments in which "church folk" and "not-church folk" (like those fancy terms?) can collaborate for the flourishing of the neighborhoods they share.

As I previously said, this generation now coming of age is possibly the most democratized, innovative generation ever–they want a voice and they want to make things. In each community of faith there are innovators, creatives. These are folks that as Chris Anderson writes about in his book, Makers, who are just as interested in "meaning-maximizing" as they are profit-maximizing. Or, to use the terms Doug Pagitt has dubbed these are "meaning makers," those leading the way into the "Inventive Age" we now live in. These are those that want to build better communities, better neighborhoods–or to refer once again to Jeremiah 29, people that want to see their communities flourish.

These are church folks. And they are also not-church folks in your surrounding neighborhood–that is to say, there are those that while they might not be people of faith, they are people of good will. They are interested in the common good, they are drawn towards building a better community–just as you've been called to love your neighbor, they love their neighbors too!

The questions ought to be: 1) How can these people work together? and 2) What ought these people work together on? No one can answer that but these people together. What church folk in traditional church buildings can often offer is the place for discovering that answer; they can create the workshop for a better tomorrow. And that sweet spot where people of good faith (church folk) and people of good will (not-church folk) come together for the flourishing of their communities I think you'll find a glimpse of the sacred encountered, the rule and reign of God unveiled, and, yes, the future church.

So, you might ask, what did home brewing in a backyard do for the world? More than might be immediately obvious. It shaped those of us involved, and how we engage our world in profound ways, I believe. It's not something that is easily measured. But it still mattered. Some of these experiments will be, as that was, a seasonal expression and maybe not as sustained as we would have hoped. Nonetheless, it was a space in which we encountered God's presence in the company of each other and were transformed through it. We each learned something about being relationships, creativity, and encountering Jesus through each other. Still difficult to calculate though, I know.

This is, by far, more than enough for now.


Unknown said...

Great stuff, Jason. How do you have time for all this reading?

Jason Evans said...

Two things: read fast, sleep is overrated.

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