I recently wrote an article called, “The 9000 Church Challenge,” as a means to engage conversation about church land use in the face of widespread closures. We need new leaders and new ways of thinking on how to utilize assets in better ways. The other side of the coin is not about existing assets, rather our approach building new ones. Most often churches that can afford to build (which is now rare) opt to find space in the countryside to erect a big box. These boxes usually lack utility outside of church service and programs.

I found a curious article in the Parish Collective Facebook Group that was published by the Congress for the New Urbanism. It describes one approach to re-imaging church in the 21st century. A church (called Century) is exploring ways to engage the neighborhood that yield better connection. The vision seeks to utilize land and buildings in new ways to benefit the congregation and community.

The question is simple: is it going to work?

The answer is: it depends.

There was a time when society sought the church for answers to life’s questions. A church could sit and wait for the world to come to it. That doesn’t work much anymore. As a result, churches who can need to rethink their buildings and land use (usually white congregations as they tend to have the most means). It’s a question about stewardship with significant cash and mission.

New church builds are rare. When it happens it’s not in the city, rather in suburbs or industrial parks where land is cheaper. In my city, a megachurch moved from their suburban location and into a multi-million dollar complex further out in the suburbs. It’s a gigantic plot of land that’s mostly a parking lot and sits under-utilized 5 days of the week. This approach to church building is old, lacks imagination and vision, and is self-serving to the needs of the congregation. It’s certainly not built with the surrounding community in mind.

The Good

Century Church has a different idea. They are aware of the culture shift that’s de-centered the church into the margins of society. They also have a value to serve the neighborhood before the needs of the congregation (albeit with what I assume are evangelistic motives). Rather than build a gigantic warehouse to house Sunday service, Century is looking to build a smaller chapel. With the additional space and resource they want to address what many suburbs lack–infrastructure. With the additional space their hope is to increase mixed used buildings and increase public gathering spaces. Sounds good.

Simply asking the question, “how might our space and resources benefit the community first,” is a far cry from most. It exemplifies good vision for the needs of today coupled with the possibilities of tomorrow. Now why the church seeks to serve the neighborhood includes a desire to connect with newcomers and ultimately grow the church. This is a mechanism unto that goal. Likely not the only reason, but an important one. Developing a connection point with the neighborhood is a way to develop relationship. But that’s about where the good possibilities of this venture end. The root of the strategy remains steeped in old paradigm thinking on mission.

The Critique

Most of contemporary Christianity still relies on an attractional model to survive and in the odd instance grow. Getting people into the central gathering point (the Sunday service) is the primary goal made explicitly or subtly. It’s the practice and function of church as destination. Although leaders admit the church is the people, many conflate the two. But they shouldn’t be confused.

Church as destination does NOT address the root cause of decline which requires the church (people) embodying mission beyond the building walls regardless of how fancy or innovative they may be.

Consumer (attractional) christianity treats the activities of the church as the primary mechanisms unto mission. It ironically exacerbates the ongoing challenge of decline because the model doesn’t treat the people (the church) as agents on mission. Rather, they merely become participants in the attraction (volunteers to run the programs). Generations of Christians have been built to assume mission is a professional job that requires special qualifications. It’s a failure of both discipleship and a paradigm surrounding mission. Particularly that the body of Christ must be sent into the neighborhood (place) as witness to the grand hope unfolding in our world.

Shifting the model of how a church looks in the 21st century is just creating consumer Christianity under another name. It in itself won’t shift a congregations understanding of mission. (Or at least it won’t shift enough to address root causes of church decline.) Century is looking to serve the neighborhood with infrastructure. That’s fine. But they shouldn’t think of themselves as being ineffective without the buildings. The fact they were mostly present living in the suburb should’ve been of paramount importance. The congregation should see their every day lives as critical, if not more important, than the new development. Perhaps they have been, but something tells me the whole is still rooted in church as destination rather than a body already present in the neighborhood.

Will Century’s idea work? I think it will. Why? Culturally speaking metropolitan areas are becoming less religious faster than rural ones. A suburb in Louisiana will have enough people with a “religious memory” who will respond favorably to a church that looks different for the right reasons. It will likely become a welcomed and valuable presence if done right and with love.

Building public infrastructure (it’s not actually public infrastructure since the church ultimately will say who can participate and who cannot) instead of gigantic warehouses of worship is good vision, but it’s an incremental shift when it comes to mission. As a whole we need more re-imagination that Century is trying, but that needs to be coupled with a redesign of how the church body functions. Not an incremental shift on how to better use buildings and land, but a way to release the body unto mission in the neighborhood, city, and beyond.