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Toward a Theology of Staying Put: Why One Church Decided Not to Move

About three blocks from our church is a little coffee shop called Bernice’s. It occupies the east half of the Knowles Building, which was designed by the prominent Missoula architect AJ Gibson in 1914. Gibson also designed the County Courthouse, Central High School, the Main Hall of the university, and First Presbyterian Church. Walking to Bernice’s from the church, you’ll pass apartment buildings, single family houses, a number of commercial establishments, and three other churches.

Inside this beautifully restored historic building you’ll see the work of this week’s featured artist. And usually you’ll find a good crowd—students, workers, families, and artists; it’s not uncommon to have to share your table with a stranger. Looking out the window, you’ll catch a glimpse of the essence of Missoula: on the one hand, the grandeur of Mount Sentinel brings the Rocky Mountains right to our front door. On the other, the Missoula Food Bank reminds us that our state has among the lowest per capita income levels in the country.

A Theology of Location

I love going to Bernice’s. I love that our church is in a mixed-use neighborhood that allows me to walk to Bernice’s from my office. And I love the feel of this older neighborhood in the city consisting of eclectic and beautiful buildings from a variety of eras. Six years ago, I would have attributed this fondness for this neighborhood and our proximity to Bernice’s to taste—I have always been a big fan of historic neighborhoods and coffee shops. But a proposal to move our church from its present location to an area on the growing fringe of Missoula helped me to realize that some significant theological issues are involved in the location of our church in this neighborhood and in how our church participates in that location.

As I thought about this proposal, it became more and more clear to me that we needed to stay at our current location—and not because I had a taste for the traditional neighborhood and enjoyed the presence of a local coffee shop. The issues seemed to go deeper—to our very calling as a church.

About five years ago our church was going through a number of changes. Our congregation was growing; we needed more space for Christian education and nursery care. And there was general consensus that we needed more parking. We decided as a congregation to meet both of these needs by adapting and adding on to the existing building, and we began to draw up plans for an extensive renovation. In the midst of this process came a proposal that we put our plans for renovation on hold and consider the idea of moving our church to a new location on Reserve Street (the part of town being rapidly taken over by large chain retail stores). Such a move would have allowed our building and parking needs to be solved much more inexpensively than they could be in our current location. We could have started from the ground up and designed a facility optimally suited to meet our needs.

On the other hand, if we were to make this move, we would be choosing, consciously or unconsciously, a suburban rather than an urban model for development, which would, in turn, have placed a different kind of limitation on our future ministry. We would most likely have ended up with a large, monolithic building surrounded by an ocean of parking, just like every other building on Reserve Street. Every other building within view of our site would have been built within the same decade as ours, with very little attention to architectural detail or integration with the surrounding environment. And we would be hard-pressed to see any elements of construction that would suggest a sense of quality in workmanship in the surrounding built environment. We would be about a half-mile from any other business and would not be connected with sidewalks for easy walking. If I wanted to get coffee for a meeting, I would have to drive some distance from our church, and would not have any opportunity for personally greeting any of our commercial or residential neighbors. Conversely, any person wanting to get to our church would have to have access to a car in order to do so.

Such a move would also have profoundly changed the setting for worship. This different setting would, in turn, have affected the quality and tenor of our worship in some fairly significant ways. When we evaluate our worship services, we regularly ask ourselves four questions:

  • Have we expressed the truth of the gospel?
  • Have we given glory to God?
  • Have we invited participation from all people?
  • Was worship accessible to all?

A move away from our traditional neighborhood setting to the suburban fringe would have had implications for all four of these evaluative criteria.

Is It True?

Certainly we expect to have the gospel read and proclaimed clearly in our worship services, wherever we are located. Hopefully, the words spoken in our worship serve as the primary means to this end. But the truth of the gospel is not fully expressed in spoken words alone. The gospel always comes in a particular context. God could have saved a lot of time and effort by sending us a concise, ten-point outline of systematic theology. Instead, God chose to provide us with a long, drawn-out narrative that tells the story of his love for and faithfulness to a particular people. As this love story slowly unfolds, we come to realize that it widens to include all of the people of the earth. But it does so at a human scale—which is to say it never ignores context for the sake of efficiency.

The gospel is enfleshed truth—it intersects particular human lives at particular times and particular places—not an abstraction that can be applied generally and impersonally like an economic commodity. The biblical narrative gives priority to context over efficiency. We see this most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. Had Jesus been concerned primarily with efficiency, he would have centered his ministry in Jerusalem, established a set of defined protocols and a system of triage for his healing ministry, and sought after a more high-impact strategy of public relations. Instead Jesus focused his ministry in a backwater region of Galilee, adopted the inefficient method of healing each person he encountered in a unique way, and communicated his message through the work of a few ordinary people.

From the perspective of the gospel, the problem with our moving to Reserve Street is that we would be ignoring our particular context by abandoning the place where we had been called to proclaim the gospel. Our reasons for going to Reserve Street would have been borrowed more from the business world than from the Bible. We would have been seeking efficiency and market share in order to strengthen our hand as an institution. But we would have completely disregarded the people and the place where we had been doing ministry. Certainly the people who live in the Reserve Street area need to hear the gospel as well—but for us to abandon our location in order to move there would have compromised the truth of our message in subtle but important ways.

Does It Give Glory to God?

Another issue with implications for our congregational worship is the style of building we would have built in our new location. The majority of commercial and public buildings that are constructed at the rapidly developing fringes of our cities conform to only one rule of style—maximum square footage at minimum cost. We see this reductionist style in almost all of the “box” style large chain retail stores that are taking over our built environment like an aggressive cancer. These utilitarian structures are designed with little or no consideration for visual beauty, quality construction, or integration with the surrounding area.

Had we moved to Reserve Street, we would have been tempted to adopt this style for our building—a far cry from the traditional practice in which a church was one of the more beautiful buildings in a neighborhood. Keeping with that tradition can be expensive for a congregation. Brick costs more than cinderblock. Adding peaks to a roof is more expensive than keeping it flat. Strict cost-benefit analysis would lead most congregations to conclude that these kinds of expenses should be eliminated as unnecessary since they don’t really “contribute” to the mission of the church.

We need to be careful about this kind of cost-benefit reductionism. One less tangible aspect of our mission is to give glory to God. A beautiful building does this in a way that a utilitarian building can’t. Sometimes Christians are called to a kind of wasteful extravagance to glorify our Lord. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with costly perfume is a good example (John 12:3-4).

Cost-benefit reductionism seems to have become the norm for almost all newer churches. And while this kind of utilitarian approach to building is unfortunate in any context, it is profoundly disturbing in a house of worship.

Does It Invite Participation?

Had we decided to move to Reserve Street, the issue of whether we would want to hire an architect to design a new church facility would certainly have arisen. Doing so would not be an absolute necessity—standardized plans for churches are available, just as there are standardized plans for commercial buildings and private homes. Such plans could conceivably result in an attractive building. Not only can architects be expensive, they tend to design buildings that are more expensive to construct. So why would a church “waste” money on something that may be unnecessary?

This question has to do with an issue that I call “human imprint.” Human imprint is the quality in a built structure that indicates that a particular human being played a significant role in its construction. It is achieved when an architect who knows the region, the neighborhood, and the congregation designs a building that fits into that context. Human imprint is achieved when the features of the building require craftsmanship rather than prefab assembly. And it is achieved when some of the materials for construction are regional products locally produced.

The doctrine of vocation implies that Christians in particular have a stake in human imprint. We believe that every person has particular gifts they are called to use. These gifts can include ministry and nurture, but they can also include arts and crafts. We also believe that every person has a particular calling and should pursue excellence in his or her calling as if doing it for the Lord: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters” (Col. 3:23).

Standardized buildings indicate a very low doctrine of vocation for those who were responsible for their construction. And a building that is constructed without need of skilled architects or builders may subtly convey the message to the worshiping congregation that their individual gifts and abilities do not matter in worship either. Worship should not be divorced from the working week; rather, it gathers the burdens and joys of the week in order to present them to God. And worship sends us back to those same settings reoriented, restored, and refreshed. A church building that disregards the meaningful work of particular people in its design and construction subtly erodes the sense of importance that we should attach to the particular gifts and callings of each member of the congregation.

Is It Accessible to All?

One of the predominant reasons that churches move to the fringes of their communities is because they want more space for parking cars. We assume that such a move will increase access for members and visitors. But we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. For whom are we increasing access? At what cost?

The problem with cars and with our tendency to build an infrastructure that supports their needs, is that cars begin as conveniences and end up as necessities. It’s true that moving a church to a fringe location in the city and surrounding it with an ocean of pavement does create more parking space, making it easier for the typical church member to get to church. At the same time, this move for the sake of convenience makes it all but impossible for anyone without a car to get to church. Not only have we stuck our church in a neighborhood that has very little residential population, we now have a huge parking lot that would block the natural pedestrian flow if anyone were determined to try to walk.

Cars are convenient (for a while) for a particular segment of our population, but they leave others out. If you have enough money to own a car and are old enough and healthy enough to drive it, then you have access to our culture. If you are too poor, too young, too old, or too handicapped to drive, then your access to the culture is cut off. In our case, moving our church would have cut off many college students from access to church. It would have prevented neighborhood residents from being able to walk to church. And it would have made it a lot more difficult for transients to drop by.

Applying a strict cost-benefit analysis to this situation would indicate that moving the church is the obvious choice. Those who might be cut off by such a move don’t represent a significant part of our financial picture. College students don’t tithe, and transients tend to take more than they give. Our neighborhood consists mostly of apartment buildings and smaller houses, so members from this area probably have less to contribute than those who live further out. Providing parking spaces seems simply to make allowances for the “paying customers” of the church while leaving out a few members on the fringes.

The book of James makes it clear that, although this type of analysis works in the corporate world, it does not translate well into the kingdom economy.

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2:2-5)

It is not too far of a stretch to see how this mandate might apply to the exterior settings of our churches as well as to our traditions of hospitality.

Buildings as Proclamation

Our church made a commitment to work out our calling in the context of our current neighborhood. That has involved a new building on our site as well as a renovation of the old building. The kind of building that we built fits the context of our sanctuary and preserves the integrity of the neighborhood while maintaining our ability to provide an appropriate setting for worship.

Karl Barth defines theology as “measuring the proclamation of the church by the standard of the Holy Scriptures.” The theologian does not create abstract and erudite theoretical structures to impress everyone. Nor does he or she tell the church what to do or how to do it. Rather the theologian’s task is to help the church frame questions in a way that points them to their foundations. Our church buildings represent one form that proclamation can take. As one of the resident theologians of our church, I have attempted to test the proclamation that would have ensued had we made a move to Reserve Street as well as the proclamation that we have maintained in our decision to stay put.