“We’re new to the area” he said. “We moved here to plant a church.”
When I asked him where they were planting the church, he mentioned a nearby development where the cheapest loft is $190,000 and the houses start at half a million dollars. It has everything — a new grocery store, a restaurant opened by a “Top Chef” finalist, a boutique home goods store. I sincerely wished him well but reserved my reservations about how the theologically conservative model would fare in a relatively affluent, progressive community where at least four other recent “plants” are within less than a quarter mile.
A few days later I read of a local brewery that is expanding and opening a second brewing facility. Proudly touting their commitment to staying “in city limits,” the release spoke of a brewery with a new tasting room and an urban orchard, with nostalgia about how the company was created, by inviting neighbors and strangers to a garage to taste and talk. They then listed their priorities for finding a new property and said, after being courted by many other cities and states, one priority was to have their “physical location in an underserved part of Atlanta.” What’s more, they are “reaching out to the various neighborhoods and organizations operating around us.”
The release further states, “We obviously want to make sure this new space is economically viable, but we also want to make sure we are building something that enhances and reflects the community that surrounds it. We hope to be a meeting place for these neighbors, to employ these neighbors, and to invest back into the community when possible.”
Building buildings, engaging community, creating industry, planting an orchard: it reminded me an awful lot of Jeremiah 29 — the part before verse 11, the part where God via Jeremiah says, “Settle down, seek the peace of the city.” I do not wish to malign the good-natured church planter that I met, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast in approach. A group of folks moving into a place they did not know, strategically chosen at least partially because the median household income is the highest in our zip code, compared to a group of local folks who made good and when given opportunity to expand chose to double down literally across the tracks in their own hometown.
Full confession: I’m not a drinker, though I hold no moral judgment of those that do. But I had to confess, when I read the brewery’s mission statement that the company “exists to deepen human relationships over some of the best beer in the country,” that there’s something much more than bottles, cans and distribution lines at stake in their business plan, I couldn’t help but think “no wonder folks would rather go to a tasting room than a church service.”
Sure, there’s alcohol, but there is also the chance to learn something new, experience something new and build community — or simply enjoy deep conversation and a shared experience with a friend or loved one.
There is much hubbub about the rise of the “nones” — the so-called “spiritual but not religious.” A friend of mine hosts a podcast on reading Harry Potter as a sacred text — seriously and rigorously, using spiritual practices like Lectio Divina and havruta, the Jewish practice of conversation around a text. Presently it is the number one Religion and Spirituality podcast on iTunes, ahead of every big-name, book writing, TV preacher you can imagine. And lest you think that a novelty, it was downloaded over 500,000 times last month alone, meaning this is a real source of formation for many.
Many prophesy the decline and perhaps even the death of the American church. That may or may not be true, but the church of Jesus — the one that takes seriously both the Divine image and the image of the Divine in every person — can never die, but it certainly can and does evolve. I am becoming convinced that we are entering this era and for those of us leading and doing church in traditional spaces it presents a unique set of challenges.
Are people willing to forgo comfort for community? Are we in the business of societal transformation or consumeristic brand building? Are we willing to accept that our way may not be the best way? Are we willing to believe that Jesus may be in the tasting rooms and the headphones? How can we find creative ways to “seek the peace of the city” where we find ourselves?
I have few answers and I am eager to hear yours, but as we go, a word of caution. Emulation doesn’t get us very far. The things that connect with us on a visceral level happen because they tap into something real and true and meaningful. We have been “seized by the power of a great affection” but does that translate into what we are doing? Turning the fellowship hall into a brewery probably won’t get us there. Clever sermon series on pop culture where everything is a bait and switch for the sinner’s prayer likely won’t either. And yet, if all truth is truly God’s truth, there is so much more for us to seek and to know.
After all, we follow someone who said he was the Way, the Truth and the Life. Not religious systems, not denominations, not buildings — him. So let’s follow him. I wonder who he’ll drink with tonight.