I was once on staff at a small church in the Houston area. We had less than 150 people weekly, but our property situated on a busy road where nearly 30,000 cars a day passed us by. One might think this would be great exposure for the church, and certainly for whatever we put on the church sign by the road. Not so.
There were too many businesses with too many signs and messages. We found it incredibly difficult to cut through the challenge of what sociologists and civil engineers call urban sprawl. Hundreds of thousands passed our building each week, hardly aware that our church brought sacred space into their environment. The opposite may be true in small towns, and for small town churches.
Recently, on a cross-country road trip from Virginia to Tennessee, I couldn’t help but notice all the beautiful small towns, and all the churches. Often in rural environments, the most distinguishing architectural landmark is a church building. Even if most people in a small town don’t go to church, they are proud of their town’s church building.
I minister in a town which attracts seasonal visitors because of our proximity to the Chesapeake Bay. Often when meeting an out-of-towner I tell them which church I work at, and they say something like, “Oh, you mean that beautiful white church just by the bridge when you come into town?” To which I answer, “Yup! That’s the one!”
What if small town churches embraced the fact that they are still seen as sacred space in a world where sacred space is rapidly vanishing? A recent Wall Street Journal article examines what might be done with the property of European churches that have died. The answers vary from grocery store, to night-club, and even skate parks.
In many ways the story is an exploration of what communities form in places where Christian community once existed. In one sense the story is encouraging because it seems empty churches can be used as community centers and places where people still gather. In another sense the story teaches an important lesson – Churches who fail to engage the surrounding community and to provide sacred space in that community will surely perish. Without a vision the people perish. Seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before.
Small town churches should celebrate the fact that they are, in many instances, still seen as sacred space in their communities. Churches that fail to engage the community might certainly end up as landmarks for driving directions, or worse.
My trip to Tennessee impressed on me the significance of sacred space in rural life. No matter the small town, church buildings dominate the small town landscape. In many small towns, especially in my native Texas, churches are on the town square, right across the street from beautiful courthouses.
The symbolism of the courthouse and the church existing together in the public square of the community is rich. One is civic, one is sacred. Many times they face each other, as if in conversation, but always the space is separate. One is open Monday through Friday for earthly judges to rule, and the other is open on the Sabbath to declare the Heavenly One’s rule over all creation.
If small town churches embrace the symbolism of their structures, and engage in community, they will likely thrive in new and creative ways. How does your church embrace the fact that it provides sacred space in your town? How does your congregation engage community? Which direction are you headed in – a thriving community or a landmark of days gone by?