The decline of the neighborhood church model

Discussion in 'Pastoral Ministries' started by Joseph M. Smith, Jan 11, 2011.

  1. Joseph M. Smith

    Joseph M. Smith
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    For 20 years I was privileged to serve as the pastor of a neighborhood church. That means that it was located in a city (Washington, DC), but not in the urban core. It was in a residential area, with some business and institutional areas a couple of blocks away ... but mostly single-family homes and some apartment or condo buildings. A large percentage of our membership lived nearby, many within walking distance (at one time I could look out my office window and see the homes of a half-dozen church families). We did not even have a real parking lot ... just a small space behind our building. Most who drove could park on the streets.

    In fact that was the model for many of our Baptist churches in the Washington area, and there was, 50 or so years ago, a church planting strategy that focused on centering new churches on major roads that were adjacent to significant residential areas.

    But things have changed. If a church does not have a parking lot now, it will suffer, because its members nearly all drive in from some distance. In our situation, among Baptist churches in the Washington area, there has been considerable decline as neighborhoods decayed or members moved farther out. My experience is that once a family moves away from the vicinity of the church building, they will be less consistent in their attendance and involvement, and, more important, less inclined to share the Gospel with their neighbors and influence them to join them at their church.

    Are others seeing this phenomenon? Notice that I am not blaming megachurches for competing with the standard brand churches. Megachurches too depend on commuters rather than a neighborhood constituency. No, we in the traditional churches have not learned how to deal with this new reality.
     
  2. annsni

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    It's not just the churches but all of our society now. In my small village that is about 2 miles away from my home, there used to be a little grocery, a hardware store, a general store, a pharmacy, a butcher shop, and a few other small stores. Now instead of that, I go to the large supermarket 3 miles from here, use Home Depot that is 6 miles from here, Target that is 7 miles away, and the mall that is 15 miles away. In my little village, there are now specialty shops - no longer the little necessity shops.

    Additionally, less people attend church. 50 years ago, the vast majority of people attended church and would usually attend their neighborhood church. That is no longer the case.

    So I agree, things have changed in a big way and we are less "neighborhood" focused today.
     
  3. ichthys

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    I think like ann said, in all of our personal transactions, we are more willing to go to the [usually bigger] places that are farther out than we used to be willing or able, whether it's church or building supplies or a Wal-Mart. There are more "farther out" options than there used to be too. We do it for the same reason people break laws: "because they can."

    I think part of that is also because of the fact that most people do not want as much intimate-regular personal contact with the same people, they seem to be happier with less of that, and want more distance. Western independence and all that. Again, that's because it's an option now, more families have their own houses in different neighborhoods, not on the same plot of land, they never cook dinners together, never get together on a regular basis except Christmas and Easter. That's also impacted how they participate in church. Clearly, people seem to have changed over the past 50 years, in what they expect and what they seek out, and it's hard for a church or The Mom & Pop Shop to adjust to people's changing whims, or even see them coming, because I don't think most people see their own whims coming.
     
  4. gb93433

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    Making disciples takes care of so many things. The church is not about making programs as if it were a dress to make things look good and attractive, but rather making disciples and investing in people for eternity.
     
  5. preachinjesus

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    I read the OP with interest because I have never had that environment. Every church I have attended since my earliest memories were ones which we drove to and parked in a parking lot.

    I can't think of anyone in our current church who walks.

    Maybe this is more about the American obsession with their cars than it is about ecclesiological models. :)

    Good OP for thought.
     
  6. menageriekeeper

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    This I believe is a big cause. I have a church within walking distance. I don't attend it, but there is one. I don't attend because their beliefs and mine don't match well. (though they are SBC) When that church suggested on its sign one week that people shouldn't think for themselves they completely put themselves out of any consideration that I would even visit.

    I also refuse to worship with my extended family. Why? Because I got tired of being judged by their perceptions of how I should live my life. Not scriptural things mind you, but things that fall under the heading of "liberty in Christ". I refuse anymore to allow my father to bait me into telling him if I went to church on Sunday. He holds a double standard and thinks *I* have no excuse for not attending a service even though he may not have attended himself! It irritates the life out of me for him to criticize me about my church attendance when I know good and well that I was sent to church all of my teen years, not taken!

    Why would people willingly put themselves up for nonsensical stuff like that? And that is what happens many times in a smaller neighborhood churches (or even bigger ones like the one I attend now).

    Nowdays we have a greater capacity for travel which leads us to seek out likeminded people. Often times we aren't going to find them "in the neighborhood".
     
  7. Batt4Christ

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    There are a lot of factors - already mentioned is the changes in a church's particular neighborhood - often leading to a "commuter" church member base. Add to that the current trend for churches to intentionally build away from residential areas - and it is no wonder neighborhood churches are generally in decline.

    But I believe there is a more nefarious cause... The Great Commission begins with evangelizing "our own Jerusalem" - that isn't our city - that is our NEIGHBORHOOD. Hard to do that in an organized way when the church members are not mostly in the same neighborhood.

    Add to this the very real factor that - by not living in the neighborhood, it is less likely people will be checking in on you. A phone call - maybe. A note with a bulletin... maybe. But personal visits are a lot less likely.

    The church I pastor - I would venture that less than 3 active members live within a mile of the church. Probably less than 10 live within 5 miles... Most are in the 5-8 mile range. This makes my own ministry to them much more challenging.
     
  8. David Lamb

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    Yes, this happens in the UK, too. Sadly, some churches seem to be little more than "preaching stations", to which members drive from many miles around, and then drive home again afterwards. That means thgat few, if any, members of such a church actually live out their day-to-day lives among the residents of the area in which the church building is situated.
     
  9. Joseph M. Smith

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    I appreciate the thoughtful responses. Let me focus again on one part of this matter ... attention to and concern for the life of the community. Today I will attend a meeting of the team in our church that develops outreach projects; the last time we met there was a sudden outburst from a couple of people who had been members a long time about how "back in the day" people did walk to church because they lived close by, but now "new people" have come, and they are not coming to our church. For "new people" you can pretty well substitute immigrants, either Central American or African.

    Over against that I put two stories I have heard: years ago, I heard Joe Matthews of the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago speak about how EI (a church for all practical purposes) had decided to stake out 1 square mile of Chicago around its building, and to attempt to meet EVERY human need in that one square mile. Visionary, impossible, I know. But his point was that a religious institution can and should care for its "Jerusalem", as one of our commentators has termed it.

    And then more recently I heard Walter Fauntroy, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington, talk about how his congregation had become middle-class and suburban, even though the church building is in the city, and so they had decided to do a block-by-block survey, going house to house, starting from the corner where the church building is, to ask the residents about their needs. If I understood Walter correctly, it would be about their spiritual state as well as about whether they needed tutoring, job placement, marriage counseling, or something else. That excites me, except that I know that when you ask such questions you raise expectations that you are not always in a position to answer. Nonetheless, the idea is to care for, in the most thorough ways possible, the place where you are planted. Sounds a bit like Jeremiah 29!
     
  10. gb93433

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    Most people work outside the home and therefor each meeting must be well prepared and done with intention . Everyone has neighbors and that is all the more reason for personal discipleship rather than relying on the preacher.

    Today many people do not want personal visits because of their time constraints.
     
  11. glfredrick

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    I'm of a mind that if we really "got it" that we would abandon the parish church mentality all together.

    A parish church is one where a single church represents any given community. They are geographically oriented instead of people oriented.

    God called us to go to "panta ta ethnae" (all the people groups) of the world, not to cities, nations, or other geographical places. The culture in any given church may need to be modified to reflect the people that live there -- one of the most precious lessons learned during the mission expansion period of the 19th century.

    The whole concept of a parish church is a Catholic idea, and once they had a preaching post set up in any given community, the considered that community "churched." That would be funny if it were not so sad.
     
  12. Joseph M. Smith

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    I certainly did not intend to advocate the "parish church" in the Catholic or Church of England sense, but I did want to explore the idea of taking a mission responsibility for everything that happens in one's natural environment. It seems to me that when you speak of adjusting to recognize the changing demographics that you are saying much the same thing as I have said.

    Let's pick up on that theme. I mentioned that near the church where I am now a member there are several house churches or congregations that meet in space rented from established churches, and that most of these are Hispanic/Central American or African. In fact, our church houses a French-speaking African congregation, and the nearby Lutheran church houses an Ethiopian congregation ... not instead of but in addition to the English-speaking churches that built the buildings, etc. Now ... how do we respond to these new neighbors that seem to prefer to worship in their own languages? Landlord/tenant relationship? Excluding ... "You can't meet here because it's inconvenient for us"? Or partnership ... we will work together to reach and minister to the people of this community and will not worry about who gets the credit or fattens the membership rolls?

    Or is there some other option? I confess that I do wonder how long some of the language congregations will last in their present form. Will the next generation prefer the home language instead of English? Or are there cultural ties that will continue and will keep these churches going?
     

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