Here in Greensboro, we are talking a lot about a certain grocery store (Trader Joe’s) building a store in the center of town. The big issue is whether a residential area will be re-designated to permit the new shopping center. The neighborhood folks want to see this block preserved as residential and have to rally because, presumably, the grocery store chain has enough popular support to insist on that site and that site only.
Now, first let me say that I do not wish to offer an opinion on whether or not Trader Joe’s is a good thing for Greensboro. I am simply fascinated by the number of folks who, despite having plenty of grocery options already, hope to someday throw money at yet another. All of this started, many months ago, with the buzz of rumors as people began to think that we might blessed by the presence of a fabled & quirky grocery store, our lives made better by an abundance of chevre and cheap wine. Pretty good marketing success, if you ask me.
The reason I bring this up is to ask this: if the church is doing great things in its community, why don’t we ever generate that kind of excitement? If the Episcopal Church (or any church for that matter) seeks to be a meaningful presence in a community or a neighborhood, how come nobody’s asking us to set up shop in the center of town?
I would like to think that we offer something that communities would want. What if the same kind of excited oohs and aahs that sparked this whole grocery thing (“Did you hear we might be getting a Traders Joe’s?”) were uttered when a church plant began in a neighborhood or in a town that until then had no Episcopal church? Imagine if, in a small town on the edge of a county, the excited rumor began: “Did you hear that they are thinking of putting an Episcopal (or Lutheran or Presbyterian) church here? Imagine how good that’s going to be for the town! Imagine what that’s going to do for public conversation about faith and politics? Imagine what that’s going to do for poverty rates?”
Can we imagine that? Probably not, because put that way it sounds kind of absurd. But why should it be? If we are really contributing to the public good, then why shouldn’t people go a little out of their way to see churches more present in their community?
If we can’t imagine it, it’s because for too long most churches have not had the kind of public impact that matches their mission. I don’t have an answer for why that is; I only know that churches seem to be less visible in their communities then they’d like to be. Perhaps the way to start reversing this is by imagining the absurd, and start creating a little buzz of our own.
I know we don’t just exist to do good things. But asking these questions may help to point out where our images of ourselves don’t match how our neighborhoods see us. To some extent this also surfaces just about how much our church cultures are more about the tribes we belong to than about the ways that faith can change us and change our communities.
Many churches have survived for decades on the guaranteed membership that has come of generation after generation being in the same church. Like it or not, that doesn’t happen anymore nearly to the extent that it once did. Perhaps there is a great opportunity here, not to ask how we might keep the folks we already have but rather to ask how we might be so present in our neighborhood that other communities will see us and say,
“Wow! How do we get one of those churches here?”