Through the trees in my back yard I can see the steeple of the Lighthouse Tabernacle Holiness Church, Inc. It's a charming church with white columns and neatly manicured landscape. For as long as neighborhood residents can remember it has maintained a quiet presence on the street. Its Sunday morning worshippers fit easily into the church parking lot and the sounds of music and preaching are well contained within the air-conditioned sanctuary. It can genuinely be said of the Lighthouse Tabernacle Holiness Church, Inc. that it does no harm to our community. That is not to say that the church is community-friendly, however. It is just not community-unfriendly. Some neighbors even remember that a few years back church members went door-to-door inviting community children to enroll in their summer vacation Bible school. But they haven't done this for some time now. Like most all of the churches in our neighborhood, Lighthouse Tabernacle Holiness Church, Inc. is a commuter church and neither pastor nor parishioners live in the area. Because they drive in from other places they have little vested interest in the neighborhood - except, of course, their building, which they maintain beautifully.
In 1934 (the date on its cornerstone) the church was a vital part of the life of the neighborhood. It served as a moral compass, a spiritual strand in the fabric of the community. The pastor lived in a parsonage next door and his children attended the neighborhood schools. His voice carried authority when he attended PTA meetings for he spoke not only for his own children but also for those of his congregation. Tithes and offerings stayed largely in the community, paying for salaries, youth programs, benevolence for those in need and, of course, the building. When the church bought the adjacent lot to build an educational wing, the neighborhood was supportive. What was good for the church, they knew, was good for the community. That's when the church was of the community.
But over time members moved to the suburbs and eventually the church was sold to another group. The new pastor owned a home in another part of the city and had no need for the parsonage. The new congregation was friendly enough but their busy lives were invested elsewhere. Their community "outreach" efforts were well-intentioned but lacked consistency. And they gave the subtle impression that they viewed neighborhood folk as "the lost", which seemed not a very community-friendly theology. Though the church building continued to be attractively maintained, the church was no longer of the community.
Expressways and multiple-car families have changed everything over the past 50 years. Even the church. Especially the church. From an institution rooted in the soil of community it has become a spiritual health club for commuters. Pastors now measure their success by the number of zip codes they draw their membership from. Accessibility and parking have become two of the church's greatest challenges. Church growth consultants advise locating on a visible site along an expressway near an exit for easy access. In a strange twist of history, church growth has fallen subject to the same "impact studies" required of ampha-theatres and shopping centers. The church, as it has conformed to the commuter age, must now be scrutinized for its disruptiveness to neighborhoods.
A watershed decision took place eight years ago in Atlanta when the largest, most powerful church in my denomination applied to the city for a permit to build yet another addition to their already huge facility. To everyone's disbelief, they were turned down flat - something that had not happened before to a church in Atlanta. The premise had always been: what's good for the church is good for the community. But not this time. Neighbors showed up en-mass at public hearings to protest. Enough jammed streets. Enough blocked driveways. Enough police directing traffic on their residential streets. And the city listened. The substantial political and legal muscle that the church was able to summon was unable to reverse city council's vote. From that landmark decision onward, churches in Atlanta have had great difficulty obtaining building permits without strong support from the "impacted" community. Even a large youth center proposed by the mega World Changers church, arguably a needed resource for the youth on the south side, was recently turned down by the city. Congestion issues.
Many religious leaders are convinced that this resistance to church growth is a manifestation of demonic opposition to the work of God's Kingdom. I have a different opinion. Rather than demonic, I believe it is prophetic. This new phenomenon of community resistance to churches is not so much the influence of "principalities and powers" subverting the work of God as it is the cry of a people whose churches are no longer part of the life of their communities. It is more a plea than a protest, I believe, that arises out of the soul of a society who has lost a fundamental social mooring - community. When our culture traded front porch neighborhood life for private backyard patios, when we succumbed to the seduction of individualism and lost touch with our next-door neighbors, a void was created in the spirit of our people that chat rooms cannot fill. The commuting church, with its scattered members buzzing in and out of the neighborhood, is one more troubling reminder of what we have lost. A community-starved society, by its protests, is calling the church back to its historic mandate: to be the exemplar within the community of both love of God and love of neighbor.