I've had some ideas bouncing around in my head for a couple of days that are finally ready to put down in some semblance of order. At a church meeting a couple of weeks ago we were talking about community - more specifically, what is the role of our church in our local community. Our pastor expressed dismay/frustration (I apologize if I'm mischaracterizing her opinion, but I think this is the general idea) about our lack of engagement with our neighbors (physically proximate). We discussed some ways in which the church could try to reach out to our neighbors and be more connected with our community.
I didn't say anything at the time, but a couple of things struck me. First, I think we have a vision of what it means to be a church that is based on a mid-20th century idea of what church is. What I mean is, 50 years ago the church was the primary focus of people's lives and people tended to live around their church. But now, for most of the people in our congregation, the church is one part of their life. Their life usually includes other social outreach activities, and probably other religious activities. So to expect most parishoners to devote all or even most of their time to their church is probably unrealistic.
Second, most people don't live near their church. Or probably more importantly, we don't choose our churches based primarily on physical proximity. Sarah and I live closer to our church than most of the people we worship with - in fact our pastor lives probably 15 miles away. I don't mean this as criticism - rather, it is indicative of the fact that our community is based on something other than physical proximity.
What I'm wondering is if the future of our churches is based on building relationships with our physical neighbors? Not that we shouldn't try, but if most of our members have chosen to live elsewhere (for all sorts of reasons - work, school, family, etc.) should we instead focus on the things about our church community that have attracted our current members?
I think we need to reimagine a parish/ward/district based church system and instead think about a system based less on place-specific attributes. Why couldn't we have two United Methodist churches right next door to each other if one was a traditional, high-church congregation and the other was a contemporary, alternative-worship style group?
About four years ago I was doing some reading on social network theory. The idea is that people have networks that they maintain/develop to meet their social needs. Before communication (telephones) and travel (cars/airplanes) became cheap and easily available people's networks were limited to those that lived near them. Thus churches were based on parish/ward/district systems because people couldn't afford/couldn't manage to get to places further away. One way of looking at it was that those communities were "accidental." You couldn't choose who lived next door to you, and because of the limitations of travel and communication it was much more difficult to maintain relationships with those who lived farther away.
But now, we're not bound to be friends with our neighbors because we can maintain meaningful relationships with people who don't live in our neighborhood/town/state/country. The consequence is that we can build more intentional networks. Social network theory is much more complicated than this, but my point is that maybe we should think about building our churches as intentional communities, rather than being bound by outdated concepts of church growth based on accidental communities.
Am I nuts?