Faithful Urbanism

The weekend brought a rare snowfall to Atlanta (four inches at my house) and with it the typical breathless wall-to-wall weather news coverage that every winter event precipitates in the South. With the possibility of ice on the road, I knew, as a responsible Southerner with a reasonable assessment of my winter driving skills, that I should go nowhere near an automobile. So we played in the mushy wet snow all day Sunday.

Snow and ice are disturbances to life as normal, and they reveal much about the underlying structure of life. One of the main things they reveal is how far-flung our relationships are in terms of geography–being forced out of our cars decouples many of us from work, school, church, shopping, friends and family. Such disturbances also cause us to rediscover more proximate relationships, with actual and not metaphorical neighbors, and to find fun in our own neighborhoods, something we'll need to do more in the future as energy costs rise.

Not driving to church (and not having to preach) also meant I had time to pick up some material from my "to read" stack. Yesterday it was the white paper by Michael Van Pelt and Richard Greydanus from the Work Research Foundation in Hamilton, Ontario, entitled "Living on the Streets: The Role of the Church in Urban Renewal." Scott Calgaro of the Coalition for Christian Outreach put it in my hands months ago, and it took a snowstorm slow me down enough to read it. It's a great resource for anyone concerned with social justice, the built environment, and the role of faith communities in urban life. The PDF is available for free download.

"Living on the Streets" reviews the prospects for urban churches to play a significant role in urban revitalization. Though the study focuses on a Canadian city, the conclusions transcend national boundaries. As the authors note, "the general trend of suburban flight shows signs of reversing itself within church communities," and that has special significance. Five themes emerge from the authors' study of urban churches in Hamilton: Churches can "1) grow community, 2) promote community service, 3) attract people to live downtown, 4) draw private investment, and 5) add beauty to the physical appearances of community…." The presence of faithful congregations is good for cities, but city planners often ignore the faith community, and fail to make space for it.

The 32-page paper is filled with insight that resonates with our own experience in Christian community development <> here in Atlanta, but one point stuck out. There has been increasing attention in recent years to the importance of "the Third Place," places that aren't work (where only a limited kind of community emerges) and aren't home (which in our American culture are pretty intimate places, which we don't readily open to strangers). Third places are great coffeeshops, marketplaces, brewhouses, where community happens, where, as at "Cheers" everybody knows your name. Our own church just started a coffeehouse, explicitly to build community, provide jobs, and reduce driving. Yet most writing about third places deals with commercial establishments–places where you're expected to spend money to gain access to the community space (even if it is only a cup of coffee). The authors, in their discussion of sacred spaces, tantalizingly mention the role of churches as providers of free public space. This is an area where much more work is needed, both in understanding what churches do, and in inspiring churches to provide for the common good in how their facilities are located and managed. It's worth its own white paper. 

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