Friday, September 26, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Urban engagement/relocation and church hopping/anonymity

Two questions from Christy:

1) "I appreciate your thoughts on urban vs suburban living. What observations would you have for Christians who desire urban engagement but are hesitant because they feel they would be sacrificing things such as their children's education etc.?"

Relocation has of course been one of the hallmarks of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, and they have long advocated that true transformation and urban renewal happens most when Christians incarnationally live in a local community rather than trying to minister by commuting in from a remote location. If someone is sensing the call to relocate but has doubts, I'd recommend reading books like Bob Lupton's Renewing the City and Randy White's Journey to the Center of the City and Encounter God in the City to get a good picture of both the challenges and the opportunities of relocating to an urban context. Both authors talk about how they've grappled with issues like parenting and education, and the short answer is that their kids have come out fine, with appreciation for the experience. And when Christians really inhabit a community and get involved in the local school districts, the education experience improves not only for their own children but for others as well.

As I say in the section on "Displacement" (pp. 184-86), relocation (in any direction!) needs to be discerned carefully. Sometimes taking baby steps of displacement (short-term trips, urban plunges, etc.) can be a catalyst for a larger lifestyle change and an opportunity to hear God's call to a new environment. And of course it's essential to have like-minded community and fellow travelers to help you in the discernment, displacement and relocation.

2) "In your book you address the mega church response to suburban life. Can you share some of your observations regarding the issue of 'church hopping' in these types of communities? Can you expound on the idea that anonymity is one reason these larger church communities are attractive to those with the suburban mentality?"

I'm not sure I have any significant observations about church hopping except that it happens. It's kind of a default way people find and change churches these days; we've long passed the era of denominational loyalty. I read a statistic some years ago that when couples get married, if they come from different denominational backgrounds, 9 times out of 10 they leave both traditions and start going to a third. In our consumer culture, people change churches and church hop just like they change brands of jeans or cars. If they have a strong sense of community and affinity with a church, they'll be more likely to stay - if not, they'll hop.

Regarding anonymity, I'd first note that anonymity tends to be a suburban cultural norm. We tend to be anonymous when going to the grocery store or the movie theatre. Even if we're regulars at a particular store or restaurant, often we won't ever see the same cashier or waiter. It's easy to slip in and out of places without connecting with anyone or having name recognition. So that's a cultural norm and unconscious expectation that many suburban church visitors bring with them when they visit churches.

Various church experts have noted that in many cases, certain kinds of visitors actually don't want to be greeted at church the first time. Many want to just slip into the back of an auditorium and watch the proceedings while they decide whether or not this particular church is their cup of tea. At smaller churches, it's more likely that an usher or greeter will make personal contact with a handshake or a conversation, and so megachurches with large worship spaces provide a more anonymous entry point for those who are initially wary of being approached. This is not how things should be, but this is generally how things are, at least for some.

So smaller and midsize churches can provide an alternative by genuinely welcoming visitors - some have said that for people to stick with a church, they need to be able to identify and recognize at least six or seven other people by their fourth visit. Sometimes this will be a self-selecting kind of thing, and people who want anonymity will naturally gravitate to the bigger churches, while those who want to connect and know and be known will go to smaller churches. But there's always a complex mix of dynamics going on in every situation.

1 comment:

L.L. Barkat said...

Baby steps to displacement... does Marseilles count? :)

But really, there is always something we learn when we forge new paths, even short ones. If we pay attention.