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Reclaiming the City: A Church Stays Put

by David K. Jaeger

The author is pastor of Niwot United Methodist Church in Longmont, Colorado. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 19, 2003, pp. 24-25. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Itís Tuesday morning and time for my weekly meeting with Jack, the senior pastor of our church. Itís a beautiful day in Missoula, so I suggest we have our meeting at Berniceís, a local coffee shop. Just before Big Dipper Ice Cream, we turn down Hazel Street and bead north toward the river. In the span of two blocks we pass three residential houses, two apartment buildings, two churches, a microbrewery, a bakery and a photography studio. Berniceís occupies the site of the historic Knowles Building, designed in 1905 by Missoula architect A. J. Gibson. Gibson, a local legend, also designed the county courthouse, Main Hall at the university, the central high school and our own church sanctuary.

As we get our coffee, we notice that almost every table is filled. There are students studying, workers having their morning break, moms or dads with young children, and a local politician planning her campaign strategy. We spot two open chairs and ask others at the table if we can join them. Once settled, we begin our meeting, and become oblivious to the gentle hum of conversation and activity going on all around us. We end with prayer and head out the door and back to church. Across the street, we see a line beginning to form outside of the Missoula Food Bank and remember that it is near the end of the month, a time when paychecks are starting to get a little thin for some of our residents.

A trip to Berniceís with Jack or anyone from our church family seems so ordinary to me that I hardly notice it in the scope of my day. However, if our church were not in a city -- or even if our church were in a different part of the city -- this kind of experience would not be possible. Itís not too hard to imagine such a scenario. A recent proposal, if our church had accepted it, would have radically altered our interaction with the surrounding environment by taking us out of the city.

The proposal was one solution to two ongoing problems at our current site. Our buildings are too small for our growing congregation, and we didnít have sufficient parking -- and being hemmed in by two busy arterial streets limited our options. The proposal was to move our church to a rapidly developing commercial area on the fringe of the city. This would have allowed our building and parking needs to be solved much more inexpensively than they could be in our current location. We could start from the ground up and design a facility optimally suited to meet our needs.

On the other hand, if we made this move we would be choosing, consciously or unconsciously, a suburban model of development, one which would put a different kind of limitation on our churchís ministry. Whatever the size or type of building we constructed, we would ultimately end up with some kind of large, monolithic building surrounded by an ocean of parking. We would be about half a mile from any other business and would not be connected with sidewalks. If Jack and I wanted to get coffee for a meeting, we would have to drive some distance from our church and would not be likely to greet any of our commercial or residential neighbors on the way.

Conversely, anyone who wanted to come to our church would have to either drive there or be driven by someone else. Those without access to a car -- many of our college students and elderly members -- would not get there at all. Aesthetically, every building within view of our site would have been built within the same decade as ours, with very little architectural style or integration with the surrounding environment. We would be hard-pressed to see any details of construction that would suggest a sense of quality in workmanship.

This is not to say that such a move would have been catastrophic. There would have been many advantages to the new site, and there is a great need for ministry on the growing edges of our city. My point is that there are implications for a church and its ministry that are more far-reaching than those we see when weíre examining only the parking and square-footage needs. The location of a church and the character of its surrounding context have a major impact on the kind of ministry that can be done. What we preserved by staying at our current site is the possibility of doing ministry in a city.

Without really being aware of it, Jack and I experienced -- in our short meeting -- six markers that are distinctive of the city. We shared public spaces with other residents of our community by using the sidewalk and by meeting in a coffee shop. We were able to walk rather than drive to our meeting because of our mixed-use neighborhood, which allows residential and commercial buildings to coexist. We enjoyed the nonessential beauty in the quality of a locally designed and built structure as well as in the artistís work on its walls. We saw some of the results of a local economy as workers recycled their wages at a locally owned establishment. Our hearts were burdened with the presence of strangers at the food bank who have needs beyond their resources. And we saw friends and minicoalitions gathering around tables at Berniceís, who found one another through the critical mass of the city.

Most of these markers exist or have existed in locations around the world that we call cities. However, because of the aggregate effect of decisions like the one we contemplated as a church, our cities are becoming distinctly less city-like. Culturally, we are losing a sense of what it means to function within the context of a city, and in many cases we have slipped into radically different models of existence without even realizing it.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a growing awareness of this problem and a concerted effort to preserve and restore many of these markers of the city to historic cities as well as to new developments. This trend has been dubbed New Urbanism and has attracted an eclectic mix of architects, builders, city planners and even sociologists to its front lines. However, to most Christians, the idea of urban planning seems as relevant to faith as the current additions to the American Kennel Associationís list of approved dog breeds -- interesting to some, but certainly not vital to faith.

Itís not as if we have no interest in the city. There are numerous Christian books on the city and about urban ministry. Itís just that as Christians, we tend to treat the city as a problem to be solved or a burden to be borne. We see the city as an abstract place where humanity is gathered in the greatest concentration and therefore where the problems and needs of humans are most obvious and pressing. We have not, as our secular contemporaries are beginning to do, taken seriously the physical form or context of existing cities as a model for our shared community life. Nor have we seen constructive models for new development in our historic cities.

I became interested in the city and in urban planning in Missoula, a place that barely qualifies as a city in terms of population (65,000). Though I have spent most of my life in the urban locations of Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area, I am now here, in the heart of the Rocky Mountain range, partly because Missoula seemed like a good place for us to start our family. We are not alone. Despite the cityís poor job market and low pay scale, people want to be part of this community. They seem to be looking for something that weíve lost in our culture -- the notion of a city as a place where the population is mixed and interesting, and where life is lived on a human scale.

I first became aware of this concept in The Good city and the Good Life, written by former Missoula mayor Daniel Kemmis. Kemmis reminds us that "what makes a city a good city is not its capacity to distract, but the way in which it creates presence." Also, "the city in grace . . . answers to a deep longing for a spiritual dimension in public life." And finally, "I was reminded of how often I saw scenes like this at the market, and it occurred to me that this had become, in fact, a kind of sacrament,"

Reading words like "presence," "grace" and "sacrament" in a book about the city made me realize that there is potentially a lot more theological interest in city planning than I had previously understood. In the works of Kemmis and other authors in the New Urbanist movement, I found convergent themes of longing for community, joy beauty, place, connection with our past, and meaning. Many of these ideas and issues generate strong interest and reactions in church communities. Yet in each of the Christian books that I consulted, the city was vilified or exalted and always treated as an abstraction. It might be a place of deep human need or sometimes a place of divine possibility, but never a place with sidewalks or plazas.

This is unfortunate. Church people have a deep history of interest in the city, one that is rooted in biblical tradition. Long before the New Urbanists began envisioning something inherently redeemable in our cities, John the evangelist was engaged in urban visioning. When he is given a picture of our redeemed state during his exile on Patmos, he does not see Eden restored in some kind of an agrarian utopia, nor does he see the American ideal of a single-family detached house surrounded by a huge yard for every inhabitant of the Kingdom. What he sees is a city -- New Jerusalem descending from heaven onto earth.

And because a city is what John sees, we Christians must take this vision seriously and not replace it with our own visions of the ideal human environment. For the past two decades, Christians have been tempted in this direction. We have been abandoning our strategic locations within city cores and traditional neighborhoods, and trying to create a new kind of society in the form of suburban megachurches. We have marched along with the rest of our culture and moved our homes outside of the urban core into the sanitized world of the suburbs. Even when we have not participated directly in this radical shift, we have come to view the particularities of functioning in the midst of the city (restricted parking, unsympathetic neighbors and pushy transients) as inconveniences rather than as opportunities for ministry.

After a brief discussion, our church decided to forgo the greener pastures of Reserve Street in order to continue doing ministry in the place to which we had been called. In order to meet our growing program needs, we ended up doing a major renovation of our current site. And we still havenít solved our parking issue. But the possibility of doing ministry in this neighborhood in this city has more than compensated for the trouble and expense.


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