The church has always been the glue that holds community together. At least that's how it has been historically in our society. On prominent street comers in virtually every neighborhood in the nation, whether small town or big city, the church was visibly located at the center of human intercourse. Ministers lived in parsonages (or manses or rectories) among their parishioners. They provided a moral and spiritual compass for merchants and mailmen, beauticians and homemakers who sat in the pews each Sunday. The "preacher's kids" played ball in the park and walked to school with the children of the neighborhood. And when the reverend stood to address the PTA, his voice carried the weight of authority, not only as a parent but as the pastor of parents. The church was both in and of the community. Though the theology and worship style may have differed significantly from church to church, they were all built on the same bedrock belief of loving God and loving neighbor. Friendly (and sometimes serious) competition for the souls of prospective members was often set aside for inspirational events like joint Easter sunrise services planned by the local ministerial alliance. And there were poor and homeless people who could best be served by the coordinated efforts of caring members from all the churches. The church with its diversity of religious expression, represented the conscience and compassion of the community.
But all that has changed. The words and the worship may still be similar but the power of the church to effect community is virtually gone. That's because the church is no longer of the community. Our nation has changed from a society of neighbors to a society of commuters. With the advent of urban sprawl and four car families, neighborhood life has largely disappeared, and with it the community church. We talk community more than ever but no longer live it. The cutting-edge contemporary church is now a multi-use facility with ample parking, preferably located near an expressway exit, where members and guests can conveniently commute for enjoyable dining, recreation, a menu of classes and affinity groups, stimulating worship experiences and excellent child care, all in one place. Community has been redefined as the interaction among commuters who participate together in church activities. But when church is over, congregants drive home to different zip codes and close their garage doors behind them.
Community disconnected from the places where people live is transitory; church disconnected from the soil of neighborhood is impotent. Church that extracts the best of its members' time, talent and tithe out of their neighborhoods rather than mobilizes members to invest their lives where they live actually serves as the competitor of community life . The commuter church may be successful as an institution but, unlike the parish church it no longer has the power to infuse neighborhoods with the moral and spiritual glue needed to hold them together.
How can we bring the church back into our communities? I suspect this would be as difficult as enticing customers back to the town square once they have experienced shopping at the mall. The parish church has a certain nostalgic appeal but it no longer satisfies the demands of the religious consumer. Like the disappearing mom and pop store, the economies of scale are just not there. Though the idea of community is appealing to a society that has forgotten how to neighbor, the church as we now know it is not structured to deliver community in the neighborhoods where people live.
For some months now an idea has been invading my thought life. I can't tell yet whether or not it's the embryo of a new vision but I am certainly aware of its persistence. It's not a new concept, really. Actually, its an adaptation of a very old tradition known as "the village parson" or "the parish priest." I can't help wondering if it could be a means of bringing the influence of the church back into the community. Here's how it might work.
We would recruit and assign a minister to a specific neighborhood. It may be a high-rise neighborhood or a gated apartment community or a new in-town loft development - any limited geographic area whose residents share a common boundary. He (or she) would be commissioned to move in and become a resident "community chaplain" whose mission is to promote the love of God and the love of neighbor. This minister will not start a church. Rather, he will view everyone m his neighborhood as a member of his parish regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual interest. He will function as a community life facilitator, knowing everyone by name and encouraging his neighbors to learn each other's names. He will discover the unique talents and interests of his neighbors and facilitate their use in the community He will organize a welcome committee to greet new residents. He will involve neighbors in producing a monthly newsletter that contains a calendar of activities and events, human interest stories, celebrations and concerns, an inspirational column and other helpful information. He will model friendliness and mutual respect among his neighbors and be available as a mediator, confessor and counselor. He will reinforce spiritual life through in-home Bible studies, community service projects and pastoral care. He will attend church on Sunday and will encourage parishioners to worship at a church of their choice. His primary focus, however, will be the quality of spiritual and social life in his parish the other six days of the week.
Who will pay the salary of this minister-without-a-congregation? Probably not the institutional church since such ministry would not directly serve its self-interest. It will take a faith-motivated real estate developer or apartment owner who understands the importance of the church in community to cover the cost out of his operational budget. This may not be so unreasonable. Smart developers are aware that community sells well these days. Yet, beyond a clubhouse or fitness center, few have figured out how to deliver it. Creating dynamic community life where people feel valued and enjoy a sense of inclusion and belonging may not only be good ministry - it may be good business as well. It could pay for itself in reduced turnover and marketing costs alone.
I've decided to test the idea. This year we will recruit six community chaplains, place them in a variety of settings (from inner-city to up-town) and begin learning together the ministry of community building. Six real estate developers, excited to see what new life might emerge from such ministry, have already made commitments to hire these chaplains. Who knows? If this is a sure-enough vision rather than just another bright idea, it could catch on and grow into an effective new paradigm for community ministry. Wouldn't it be delicious humor if God selected an antiquated "parish priest" model to reclaim a fragmented modern society and chose real estate developers to be His primary visionaries?!
To be continued…