By Eddie Pipkin

October 2, 2017

What if churches were more than clubhouses for select memberships?  What if churches were community gathering spots where people converged to learn, grow, help one another and hang out in a safe environment?  At its most recent publicity event to announce new products and initiatives, Apple revealed a sweeping vision to reimagine its famous stores as “town squares.”  These creative spaces would offer classes, work spaces, entertainment for all ages, and, oh, by the way, Apple products.  Henry Grabar at Slate notes that they may well be offering a valuable and important resource, because increasingly, in an age of budget cuts and community divisions, true public spaces are becoming harder to find.

What if local churches can learn to breathe new life, hope, and fellowship into communities by taking on a larger role as public spaces or town squares?

Traditionally our church campuses have been the location of our homegrown Bible studies, kids’ programs, and activities geared to those who affiliate themselves with our denominations (and there is certainly nothing wrong with that).  This approach, taken to its logical conclusion, has evolved to epic proportions in places such as the Redemption Camp Megachurch in Lagos, Nigeria, which includes 5,000 houses, police and garbage service, and its own power plant and fun fair.  But what if, for the thousands of existing congregations across every community large and small in America, we focused on reconnecting to the community through making ourselves and our facilities available for creative uses that brought people together and met people’s needs.

With those two Jesus-inspired priorities in mind, getting people together and meeting people’s needs, we are able to shift our thinking as ministry leaders:

  • What if every ministry, program, or event that happened at our facility was not directly thought up, organized, and executed by us? After all, we can only do so much.  There is an entire community of eager, creative, energized people out there.  What if our churches acted as an entrepreneurial incubator for “unity” and “needs-meeting” ideas to be brought to life?
  • What if we moved from a hoarder mentality to a generosity mentality in sharing our facilities and other resources with the community? Churches frequently begin from a starting place of “no” when answering community use requests (or at least with a long list of requirements, restrictions, and mandatory fees).  It’s understandable that we want to protect what we have worked hard to build, but our biblical mandate is clearly radical hospitality.  Radical hospitality will, by definition, not always be comfortable or easy.

Of course, most churches already provide places for community groups to meet, usually traditionally established groups such as Scouts or addiction groups like AA.  And some churches have moved into providing more non-religious options such as exercise classes or art workshops.  Other churches, particularly those located in urban settings, have moved into a much more all-in stance, as celebrated by Episcopal priest Jim Friedrich in the article, “Changemaking Churches and the Transformation of Neighborhoods”:

Don’t just feed the hungry; get to know them by breaking bread together. Don’t just serve the poor; help them get the skills and opportunities they need. Don’t just care about people, but work with them to challenge and change the forces which impact their lives. Organize for parks and housing. Educate. Demand justice. Reclaim the commons. Foster hope. Develop local economies. Lift up social entrepreneurs. Build equity. Break barriers. Nurture relationships. Network solutions. Innovate. Improvise. Advocate, organize, include, connect, encourage and empower. Be Jesus for others. Imagine.

In some cities such as Salem, Oregon, community-wide partnerships have developed among governments, social service agencies, and churches across the spectrum of ideologies, to breathe life into struggling neighborhoods.  There, churches can have requested designation as CaN (Church Neighborhood Centers, which provide safe spaces for kids and resources for building a better life.  The original premise behind the CaN program, as their website describes it, was simple:  to encourage churches in Salem to “open up buildings [and hearts] that were closed most of the week.”  Here’s a list of what’s offered by participating churches:

  • After-School Programs and Homework Club.
  • GED diplomas and English classes.
  • Literacy, tutoring, and other academic supports.
  • Nutrition, parenting, financial, and other adult educations programs
  • Community events, block parties, community gardens, and cultural celebrations.
  • Basketball, soccer, gym games, team sports and other physical activities.
  • Distribution of food, clothing, and school supplies.
  • Job training and micro-enterprise development.

This doesn’t mean that the staff and members of individual churches have to be experts in or run those activities.  It means that they provide space, welcome those who participate, and support them however they can.  Most often initiatives like the CaN program have taken place in urban locales where there are older, established, expansive facilities, frequently with dwindling and aging congregations; likewise, in these cases there are large populations close at hand, frequently struggling with easily identifiable social and economic issues.  But there is no reason that such a community-focused philosophy has to be limited to urban environments.  Rural and suburban communities have their own sets of challenges and opportunities.  For congregations willing to identify the needs at hand and offer the hospitality of their church homes, there are unique and creative possibilities to connect, in addition to traditional (but still valuable) models like food pantries and after-school programs.

Churches are trying out these ideas (some variations of the CaN list above):

  • Providing space for the arts (performance spaces, exhibits, and classes).
  • Providing space for community events (social events, community forums and leadership events).
  • Providing space for sports leagues.
  • Providing space for specifically targeted groups like seniors.
  • Providing no-strings-attached space for particular needs-based groups like special needs families or single parents. Help set up such a group, but under the premise that it is not limited to church members or people who ostensibly have anything at all to do with your church (much like AA works).  GriefShare is a great example of such a group that meets in local churches, offering grief recovery support.
  • Providing financial health classes (or other educational courses that are one step beyond affinity classes, like baking or crafting, but directly contribute to the overall health and well-being of the surrounding community). Start with the resources of teachers and experts who are already a part of your congregation to see who has expertise and passions they would like to share.
  • Serving as clearing houses for community members to volunteer (helping volunteers get together with outside groups that need help).
  • Providing forums to address community issues with guest speakers and question-and-answer sessions as an outlet for community activism.
  • Communicating directly to the community that we are open and eager for partnerships.

This is not easy work, providing this kind of access and connectivity.  It takes coordination, precise logistics, and a sensitivity for working through complex issues such as liability.  It takes leaders with a strong sense of who in the community will make reliable partners.  But the very work required to provide a strong structure for such partnerships and programs is the very relationship building that we are called to do in becoming relevant in our communities.  Imagine if our facilities are full of activity every hour of the day, through a network of diverse leaders who bring their own passions to the town square we have provided.  Imagine if our reputation in the local community, first and foremost, is as people who say “yes.”

And incidentally, such relevance and energy just so happens to be the kind of foundation that empowers a growing local church.  People naturally want to be a part of such vitality, hospitality, and love made real in practical ways.  What are your stories of how your congregation has opened itself unexpectedly to the surrounding community?  How have you seen the Holy Spirit working in these relationships?  What particular challenges does your congregation (urban, suburban, or rural) face in bringing such a vision to reality, and what advice would you ask from others?  Our comments section is a perfect spot for such a discussion.  (And you can check our Connect! materials at the EMC3 website to explore more ideas for making ourselves available to our surrounding communities.)  How we can work together to be meaningful town squares?