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These [were] the Churches in your Neighbourhood

August 31, 2011

On the way to the coffee machine in our local library this afternoon two of the cover stories in today’s Edmonton Journal jumped right off the page and collided in my ecclesiology-obsessed brain. The headlines and by lines went like this:

SUBURBAN CHURCHES BECOME COMMUNITY CENTRES: 
Large suburban churches have regional
rather than local focus, sociologist says

and

LOCAL SCHOOL OFTEN BEST CHOICE:
Your neighbourhood needs your children,
School key to neighbourhood social life

I realize you might be expecting some Athanasius or Calvin here, but what I want to do with the blog today is simply to put these articles in contrast and then ask us to think theologically about the alternative church models that they might represent. And then I’d like to know: Is one (theologically or practically) preferable to the other? Do they both have a place? Does either have some dangerous trajectories (ecclesiologically speaking)? So, to begin, here is an excerpt from the article on large suburban churches:

The West Edmonton Christian Assembly has six business rooms available for booking, with Internet connections and full audio-visual presentation capabilities.

The air-conditioned auditorium seats 1,100 and has already been booked for four school graduations next September. A playschool wing welcomes 260 children every weekday morning, and down the hall a Filipino basketball league plays Wednesday and Thursday nights in a gym the size of three junior-high sized courts. The players’ wives and girlfriends chat and cheer from the running track above….

They’ve grown quickly, built their 60,000-square-foot building over three phases, and now run it with an annual operating budget of $2.25 million. That pays for 12 full-time pastors and more than 40 programs, from sex-assault counselling and bereavement visits to youth groups and parenting classes….

This is an example of the new suburban church, a megacomplex meant to serve all aspects of community life both for members of the church and residents of the surrounding community.

As Edmonton grows, large suburban churches have become more common; there are now half a dozen with Sunday congregations of more than 1,000.

They relocate to suburban land near good roads, and the proximity to young families gives them an important demographic advantage over other, older churches. They provide community spaces often absent in new neighbourhoods.

“But it’s not totally philanthropic,” said senior associate pastor Dave Wood.

“We do it because we want people to come into the building. People come because we’ve broken the barrier of what they think church is.”

Clearly the article about suburban churches contains many positives. They are using the buildings as community centres where a lot of good happens. They want to “serve all aspects of community life,” and their programs address everything “from sex-assault counselling and bereavement visits to youth groups and parenting classes.” Nonetheless, compare that now with this journalist’s argument for sending children to neighbourhood schools:

If you are the parent of an elementary-age school kid, I’m going to offer you some unsolicited advice: the best school for your child is most likely your neighbourhood school.

Not the school across the city with the cool-sounding special program.

Not the school many blocks away where the provincial test scores for Grade 3 and Grade 6 are higher than those in your own school.

No, the best choice is usually the community school, the one within walking distance, the school of your neighbours and their children, who will soon be your acquaintances and maybe even your very good friends, but only if your children attend that neighbourhood school.

I offer this advice knowing full well that half of Edmonton parents don’t choose their local school. Instead, they either take their children to a regular school in another, often more affluent neighbourhood, or they go to one of the public system’s 30-odd alternative programs.

Clearly, choice is popular with parents, myself included…. Sometimes there’s an alternative program that your child is keen to attend that seems just right for the child. At other times, an intractable personality clash at your school drives you to change schools. I’ve experienced both situations. I was glad I had options in the public system.

…Our focus on choice now pushes tens of thousands of parents to spend endless hours driving their children to distant schools every morning…. This might well have been great for those distant communities, but their abandonment was a loss for my own neighbourhood.

…[When I did take my child to another school the] extra travel made for hectic mornings and tricky after-school pickups. No leisurely walk with friends to school. No visiting with other neighbourhood parents waiting for the school bell. And life didn’t get easier on the weekends, either. My kids wanted playdates with their school friends, who, of course, lived halfway across the city.

…In the big picture, though, especially for elementary school, where so much of the learning is social, not academic, and where the academic differences between most schools are an illusion — based on the amount of extracurricular math and reading that parents in various neighbourhoods do or fail to do with their children – there’s little value in hitting the road to attend school.

If you and your children are missing out on the social life of your neighbourhood, you are missing out on a rich, satisfying and fulfilling connection.

Like I said, the first article was largely positive. But I have some eyebrow raising to do. First, let’s notice that these large suburban churches have competitors. Explicitly stated they are the “older” neighbourhood churches, but implicitly they are the public community centres as well. Second, let’s think about the ecclesiology. As one pastor explicitly stated: “We want people to come into the building. People come because we’ve broken the barrier of what they think church is.” I think what he means is that the church is an accepting place that wants to help people in all areas of life – to which I can only say amen – but how else are we led to think of the church? Is there the danger that it becomes little more than a shopping mall for meeting our personal needs?  Are we okay with that?

Now think about the other article. It is by a different author and seems intended to be unrelated and, of course, it is about schools and not about churches. Nonetheless, the argument for going local is pretty simple: This is where you live. It is your community, like it or not. But notice what he admits are seemingly legitimate reasons to go to a distant school: The coolness factor; the “test-scores” factor; the priority of “choice”; or the occurrence of “an intractable personality clash.” when it comes to churches, would those be theologically defensible reasons to go big rather than local? (Keep in mind that the last one just might be the number one reason people move churches. Is that legit?) Now notice his more nuanced argument for local schools: The fact that learning is “social”, not just “academic”.

Translate that in terms of church growth and ecclesiology and I think we have something to ponder. What happens when “learning” (i.e., church growth) is highly strategic and effective, but the thing that has grown is not necessarily a real-life community? What kind of community centre is it if your community is all one demographic (“young families”) and you have to leave your neighbourhood to get there? What do we think about that?

I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this, but I think there are some important questions to ask here, if for no other reason than to stop and think for a minute about the common idea that big is always best. Might we not be just as well (if not better off) planting small- to mid-size neighbourhood churches and having our church people at the community centres along with everyone else? Perhaps there is no theological prescription here, but surely there are more than just pragmatic considerations at stake. I may pastor in a large suburban church one day, and these will definitely be things I’ll be thinking about. It caught my eye that at least one journalist might be thinking about it too.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 9:43 pm

    Most of the commands in the New Testament are given to “you” plural. Implication? We need each other.

    The oikos (household) or family is the basic unit of God’s redemptive activity – he chose Abraham’s family to bless all the families of the earth …

    Do you think we have something to learn in the West about nurturing relationships of meaning and closeness … Do you think this is God’s will for humans – to be enfolded in interlocking, interdependent reciprocal relationships?

    Why are we born dependent and normally die dependent but most of us in the West spend much of our lives trying to live independently? … And if we live in the basement suite of our in-laws house we’re considered “lazy” by some (not me mind you – just wish I could do that!).

    Maybe interdependence is a good thing.

  2. August 31, 2011 10:25 pm

    Interdependence seems like a product of the gospel, yeah. And keeping in mind that Abraham’s family would have been more like a small village than today’s nuclear family I think your point is even stronger toward the idea that small interlocking communities are the ‘basic unit’ of ‘God’s redemptive activity.’ That’s not to say you can’t have larger churches, but they would not be necessarily ‘basic’.

    Living ‘in the basement suite of our in-laws house we’re considered “lazy” by some’? Whoa. Maybe so.

  3. September 1, 2011 11:15 am

    I think the big, program-filled churches can be helpful if they’re actually meeting a need – for example, in the inner city where some mega-churches I know have job-training centres and after-school programs etc. (Salem Baptist in Chicago comes to mind). In the suburbs, though, it does tend to come across as just another “option” amongst a slew of other community services – and here it might end up reinforcing some of the pathos of suburban life (social disassociation, consumerism, self-centred-ness).

  4. September 1, 2011 3:57 pm

    I think that’s right, and I’m open to the possibility that some of these large suburban churches are indeed serving in all the right ways — even giving neighbourhood churches a “raised bar” in that regard. I guess I’m concerned with some of the side-effects, and especially where the “community service” part is not happening (i.e., massive church buildings but basically ingrown ministries), even more-so.

  5. Brad A. permalink
    September 2, 2011 2:39 pm

    Not to be utterly cynical, but (and I’ve seen this first-hand in an older setting) I wonder to what degree such large, suburban churches are built with the non-worship, *paid* community use in mind (such as graduations). We’ll build something conspicuous, grand, and materialistic (in terms of the money spent on size, comfort, technology, and overall pizazz) and then we’ll do it such that we can gain alternative sources of income to help pay for it.

  6. September 2, 2011 4:46 pm

    Yeah, I’ve seen that first hand in a number of settings and while I think it may be possible to pull it off with some integrity, the priorities and modes of doing business invade upon the priorities and modes of ministry on a daily basis, not to mention from the get-go.

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