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Growing in Community (Part 3)

August 30, 2012

In my last post, I wrote about how several of the local communities around us are built to look exactly the same, but minor details result in a wide disparity between the quality of the neighborhood. As stated in that post, time has yielded an even wider disparity, as a variety of socio-economic, family, and other factors have caused the differences to compound. The result is over a 50% reduction in home value for an identical townhome less than 3 miles apart (or double the value if you go the other direction).

As I think about our local communities from an architectural/planning perspective, I can’t help but also look at them through my Christian perspective, as well . . . Specifically, I have been trying to contemplate how my spacial observations can be applied to churches and establishing new churches.

Interestingly enough, the townhomes in Towson were built just slightly before the time of the last significant church planting movement in the United States — The post World War II era. Drive down any long-established street in America and you will likely pass multiple churches that either were started or significantly expanded somewhere in the 1950’s or ’60’s. There’s a myriad of reasons for this, most of which are related to post-war boom, upward mobility, and suburban expansion.

Like the townhomes in Towson, a vast majority of these churches looked and operated exactly the same, in accordance with their theological or denominational identity. Each church had specific programming that was a carbon copy of the material provided by the denomination. These similarities are humorous at times. When I go in to a church to help them renovate, even the carpet color communicates which theological or denominational identity the church favors. At the time, this uniformity was seen as a positive to help an increasingly mobile society find a familiar church home in a new community. The premise is good, but the extent of implementation caused significant problems for the Church.

Just like Towson townhomes share uniformity inside the walls with surrounding communities that are vastly different, churches deal with the same issue. You can make it look the same inside, but if the surroundings are different (which they always will be), the end result will be different. When the end result is different, you will deal with different problems, different rewards, different personalities, different interests, and the list could go on and on. In the end, you can’t expect churches that are dealing with such differences to all be successful when approaching faith in the exact same way. The core beliefs can (and should) be held in common, but getting to those beliefs and then living them out can be dramatically different.

Throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s, church planting began to become common again. This time, instead of denominational models, other identities were carbon-copied, such as “seeker sensitive,” “Purpose Driven,” etc. The results were effectively the same, but realized in much less time . . . a bunch of very similar churches reaching less and less people. Even today, we fight the urge to follow the same pattern. Every church wants to be “missional” or “organic,” which at its roots is a good thing and encourages more unique involvement in the community. But we tend to copy other church’s ways of being missional, which defeats the purpose entirely.

Ultimately, we can learn much from successful churches. But those lessons can not be limited to the “Floor Plan”. We need to step outside the walls and see how the church is situated in the community, how the community interacts with the church, how the scale of the church (not the building, but the programming, philosophies, etc) shape and fit the local culture, etc. We need to understand the culture in which they are operating. We need to now the type of people they are reaching, and whether or not it reflects the true community around them. When we understand some of these things, then we can learn a lot to apply to our local contexts.

Next time, I hope to apply some of these principles on a more personal level . . .

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