Today, when I had some free time, I pulled out the now tattered but infrequently used Moleskine and read something I had written on my last trip to what may very well be the mecca of suburbs, where overhead photos resemble some sort of microscopic view of mitochondria.
Creating space before community seems backwards. Everything is laid out before people get there. It feels too canned and unorganic.
After returning from our church retreat I began to wonder if churches aren't often like suburbs. Let me explain.
Pasadena Mennonite Church is going through a transition. It is both exciting and anxiety-inducing. The retreat reminded me of one of if not THE thing that attracts me to the fellowship there: community comes before construction. People before programs. Too often, as I see it, suburbs and suburban-like churches lay all of the well-designed streets, create beautiful green spaces in among the cookie-cutter homes and establish neighborhood regulations to keep everything in order. At PMC, we seem to move forward, mess up, back up and try again. Or we proceed knowing that we will flesh out all the details as we go. We have some basic structure in place, but it never preempts the primacy of community. Sometimes we design the structure as we move along. This approach gets a little messy and confusing and frustrating and protracted. But we are a community through it all. Gail and I did not commit to the church because it had laid out all the streets and parks and buildings beforehand.
This could be misread to mean that I think planning is nonsense. That is not the case. It is rather a case of WHO does the planning. Does the community itself do the planning or does some oxymoronic "community" developer draw up the plans before a community even exists? Many people seem to love the ease of life in the mapped-out suburbs and the over-programmed mega-churches (often found in the suburbs, by the way). I do not deny that people flourish in these contexts. But, to have genuine community there one must work hard to share life with others. It is quite easy to stay in one's SUV and drive down nice wide boulevards, get directed to the extended lot at church by someone in the parking ministry, catch a shuttle to the sanctuary, grab one's bible by the handle on its cover, sit through an entertaining service, and maybe even feel convicted to share the gospel more with the neighbors who live next door in a house whose floor plan matches one's own. Much of the "community" structure has already been created. It is safe and clean and well-presented, but it can also be sterile and lifeless without some effort at making connections.
This is also not to say that non-suburban churches and neighborhoods have it any easier. But, it seems to me, that community is built into their very DNA. The communities create the structures and programs as they encounter things in their midst. No pre-designed template will fit.