By Eddie Pipkin

If you aren’t familiar with the award-winning prints of the artist, Clyde Butcher, you’re missing out.  He is famous for his expansive black-and-white landscape photography (think Ansel Adams but specializing in Florida scenes).  No one brings the sprawling, mysterious topography of the Everglades, Big Cypress Swamp, and the state’s wide sandy beaches to life like Butcher.  If you get a chance to catch his work on display in all its large format glory, don’t miss it.  At a recent exhibit, I was tickled to read his response to a question he is frequently asked, “Where is the best place for me to go and take similar nature pictures?”  His response: “A good place to start is our parking lot.”  Some of Butcher’s most famous pictures are the result of five-hour hikes deep into the swamp with a three-hour camera set-up, all for a 15-second perfect photograph, so the suggestion to start in the parking lot is unexpected.  But we all have lots of opportunities to reveal the hidden beauty in unexpected places if we pay attention and honor our imaginations.

Of course, it’s not a random parking lot.  The parking lot that Clyde Butcher was referencing is at his gallery located on the infamous Tamiami Trail, adjacent to the Big Cypress Swamp.  It’s a jumping off point to walking (more accurately wading) tours of the swamp:

Beneath the ancient cypress trees, stop and listen to the deep stillness of an unspoiled paradise that seems far from everyday life. In this light-filled realm of wonder and awe, you are completely surrounded by nature in her purest state.

You can even rent a cabin on the property for the night.  The man who has done wonders to capture the natural beauty of an otherworldly place has given his fans a way to immerse themselves into exploring that landscape.

Churches should emulate that model.

For many local churches the one room that people regularly spend time in is a big box of a worship space, and generally the experience of that space is limited to one or two hours a week.  During that worship time, for many churches, the experience is dominated by technology, the atmosphere enhanced by professional lighting, a dressed stage on which the action happens, and, increasingly, screens.  That is to say, unlike the cathedrals of a former historical era, if you walk into a modern worship space at 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday, it looks very, very different than it does at 10:30 on a Sunday morning.  The trappings and artistic decoration of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. are a dramatic artistic representation of the life of faith.  The common multi-purpose space of a modern non-denominational congregation is a largely generic event space.  It’s dependent on the technology for its soul-stirring transformation.  It is less likely to be a place that people regularly gravitate to for prayer and meditation.

That’s not an argument for a return to the days of soaring cathedrals.  They’re impractical spaces for modern ministry and prohibitively expensive to boot.  But where, exactly, do our people go for inspiration, meditation, and contemplation?  What physical spaces have we created that invite spiritual connection and growth?

Perhaps there is a relevant argument to be made that the spaces where we gather should find creative ways to be designed less like shopping malls, concert venues, and office parks and more uniquely contextual community (of faith) centers.

Ask a series of questions about your own ministry campus:

  • Are there publicly accessible places for people to come and pray or quietly meditate?
  • Are there designated spaces for people to creatively express their spiritual journey?
  • Are there places for people to celebrate their community and share their gratitude?
  • Are there places for people to gather together and commune other than for official church gatherings (or is your campus pretty clearly explicitly reserved for officially sanctioned church events)?

These questions go to the heart of a bigger philosophical question: Is your church campus known to the surrounding community as a private space or a public space?

(I am quite familiar with the valid concerns that this idea of ‘church campus as public space’ opens up for horrified Boards of Trustees, questions of security, maintenance, and lack of control.  The more expansively engaging our approach to any ministry, the more problems ensue, but they are great problems to have – problems that require teamwork and sacrifice and resources to solve.  The kinds of problems worth wrestling with.)

Some of you have done beautiful things with prayer gardens and prayer walks, community gardens and accessible playgrounds, free little libraries and accessible practice fields.  Keep it up.  All these kinds of spaces mean that your church is a safe and welcoming place for people to bring their joys and sorrows.  If you have the staff and resources to have safe and accessible interior spaces, all the better.

Sprawling spaces are not required to have a meaningful impact.  Small spaces can be magical.  What is required is a sense of welcome, of comfort, of joy and hope, maybe inspiration.  What is required is a sense of place and home, perhaps surprise.

Perhaps you would be surprised that a Clyde Butcher photo safari would start in a parking lot, or perhaps you would be delighted that he had situated his gallery right in the center of the place he was celebrating as a corridor of unexpected beauty.  Maybe our ministry spaces can do more to celebrate the unexpected beauty of the communities in which they are situated and of the people who inhabit those communities.  Maybe we can find ways to represent the reason our presence there matters.  Or we can find ways to celebrate the day-to-day details of life spent joyfully together (playgrounds and practice fields and fitness trails being wonderful examples of amenities that celebrate life and community).

Creative possibilities abound.  Here in the second picture accompanying this blog is a photo of a “word garden” I experienced at the incredible Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden at Bok Tower Gardens (and that’s a lot of gardens, I know – a garden within a garden within a garden – kind of a beautiful metaphor for what we’re talking about here – the beautiful possibility of a church within a church within a church).  The children’s gardens itself is a demonstration of ‘nature play,’ a collection of kinetic, hands-on, exploratory ideas all connected to the natural environment, all absolutely delightful.  But the feature that spoke most directly to me was the word garden, since I am , after all, a word guy.  It was a lovely shady, sandy space with some comfy kids-sized Adirondack chairs and strategically spaced logs.  Scattered about on the sand was a collection of different sized stones, some large, some smaller, each with a word painted on it.  Kids had arranged these word-stones in sentences, expressing their joy, asking questions, telling stories.  Churches can have those kinds of spaces – perhaps we could think of them as places for ‘spiritual play’ — if not actual word gardens, then bulletin boards and white boards given over to such expressiveness.  We have empty hallways that don’t have to be bare: they can be repositories for stories, celebrations, and inspirations.  We have rooms that can be comfortable, inviting spaces, places where people want to hang out and learn more about each other.  There’s no room that they have to remain the old concrete block, neutrally painted, metal folding chair, and vinyl-tiled floor, echoey Sunday School rooms of yore.  Likewise, we have dirt plots that can grow something special, secret nooks that can become magical hideaways, random trees that can become unique retreats, and side parking lots where nobody is parking.

By the way, this is a great way to get individuals and groups involved in a way that gives them autonomy to express themselves (which is a thing too often too lacking in local churches).  I’m sure you’re reading this challenge to fill our campuses with special spaces and processing how you don’t have the time, people, and resources to keep up with the demands on the facilities and grounds as they exist right now.  Delegate, delegate, delegate.  Give over spaces to groups, and don’t limit yourself to available empty rooms.  Ask them to dream a little bit and imagine some possibilities for unexpected niches on your property.  There are some attics out there that are underutilized, some alleyways that could become something more.  Families or even individuals with unquenchable energy could take on such a project – you know who the Energizer Bunnies I’m talking about.  Different groups promoting different visions in different spaces produce an eclectic campus with differentiated spaces for differentiated needs and preferences.  A ministry campus shouldn’t be generic, and it shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all.  The more unique and inviting spaces you have to offer, the more uniquely wonderful people feel like it’s home.

I was thinking about this theme as I went on my daily walk through the neighborhood.  I live in an older neighborhood with some quirky properties.  It is by no means uniform.  As you move down the street, you can observe the highly personal ways that people have customized their outdoor living spaces: gardens and courtyards and fire pits and mini-basketball-courts and playsets and benches and hammocks and lovely benches under old oaks.  These spaces have one thing in common: they say welcome home.  Be comfortable and enjoy.  Our churches should feel like comfortable homes, both to our regular members and to people who wander in from the surrounding community.  Places to sit and visit.  Places to explore and express what it means to be part of the Kingdom of God.  Welcoming spaces don’t happen by accident.  They are cultivated and celebrated.

What favorite spaces do you celebrate on your local church campus?  What community spaces are you known for in the surrounding neighborhoods?  How could you carve out more special spots and who could help with the dreaming and the doing?