This is the last in a series created by a partnership between Baptist News Global and the Campbell University Center for Church and Community. Each month’s columns explore one of the seven types of capital described in the Community Capitals Framework developed by Flora, Flora and Gasteyer.
The pastor looked confused when asked about the assets of his church for the community. Perhaps it was the instructions to be specific in describing those assets, but once the example was made to describe the Fellowship Hall as a meeting space that can accommodate 125 people around round tables and provides access to a commercial kitchen, the light came on.
Suddenly there were new descriptions for Sunday school rooms, the sanctuary and its organ, even the playground and ballfields behind the church. These examples of built capital are prevalent in how we see our churches and communities.
According to Flora, Flora and Gasteyer, built capital refers to the “human-constructed infrastructure” of a place that “provides a supporting foundation that facilitates human activity.” In our communities, we may think of the churches, schools, restaurants and shops that we visit, as well as the roads and various utilities that we use every day.
Built capital is also a “first impression” of how a community is doing. As we have discussed in a previous article, the built capital of a place is a window into its history, its culture, and also tells a story about its future.
“Examples of built capital are prevalent in how we see our churches and communities.”
Think for a moment about a person passing through your community or visiting your church for the first time. What are the impressions they might make based on what they see? Are there vibrant businesses and colorful murals in the downtown area or boarded-up store fronts? What do redeveloped areas or outdated spaces signify?
In the recent book Our Towns, James and Deborah Fallows ventured across the United States visiting small towns dotting the American landscape. In several thriving towns, one symbolic measure of their success was the built capital of the community. As the authors note in the final chapter (“10½ Signs of Civic Success”), the downtown area of a community “is probably the quickest single marker of the condition of a town.” By visiting downtowns — including local schools, parks, libraries, stores, restaurants, coffee shops and brewpubs — the authors were able to construct a sense of the place, even as outsiders.
Now think about it beyond what a visitor sees: What does the daily sight of these spaces tell the community about itself? One impression that built capital creates is how financial capital is invested in how spaces look and how infrastructure is resourced. Importantly, Flora et al. note that built capital “is effective only when it contributes to other community capitals.” In many cases, of course, development projects “can cause deterioration of other capitals,” especially when they are driven by an ethos of economic development over and above community development. You can likely name examples of this in your own community, but the authors raise the important point that built capital “can also exclude certain people (those on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’) and divert financial capital from other investments.”
Who gets the benefit?
In this way, there are larger implications for what a community’s built capital represents. Is it geared more specifically toward economic development or community development? What do the structures suggest about community values?
“Built capital can be used to provide and advance human and social capital.”
For example, is financial capital invested in a new prison or small businesses? As Flora et al. describe it, “Community development is what people do to improve the overall quality of life in the community. Although community development often involves economic development, it implies far more.” Built capital can be used to provide and advance human and social capital. As a reminder, we previously discussed appreciative inquiry as an approach to community development in our political capital article.
Consider for a moment the time of COVID since March 2020. A need for an infrastructure of broadband access became deeply apparent in rural areas, as educational and social structures dependent on access were not always widely available. Prior to this, a lack of broadband access in many areas already had created a homework gap that was only exacerbated by the need for remote instruction during the pandemic.
The absence of such important built capital at a community level further drives an outmigration of human capital from rural areas, which according to The Daily Yonder is the leading cause of population loss from nonmetropolitan areas. Thriving schools and communities needed this capital to remain competitive.
Churches have resources
Churches themselves often own significant built capital in their buildings and surrounding properties. As a result, one might ask, who is the built capital of the church for? For example, in Littleton, N.C., First Baptist Church sits across the street from First United Methodist Church. Both are lovely structures housing active congregations. Each has a Fellowship Hall and a parking lot. However, the Baptist church parking lot is far larger than the Methodist lot, while the Methodist Fellowship Hall is far larger than the Baptist building. These churches realized the best use of resources was to enter into an agreement where they use one another’s spaces as needed to accommodate events. They are also a part of a collection of churches that rotate vacation Bible school coordination on an annual basis. The built capital arrangement allows them to be better stewards of resources for their churches and community.
“Churches themselves often own significant built capital in their buildings and surrounding properties.”
There are other important questions to ask about the built capital of the church and who it is for. Is it inclusive or exclusive?
The two churches described above are examples of inclusivity at one level. You likely can provide examples of other churches that are shining examples of inclusivity of their capital, maybe sharing Sunday school space with a school, or unused buildings with nonprofits and community organizations.
You are also just as likely to be able to provide examples of churches that are examples of exclusivity, where space is protected, locked down and closed to anyone not a member of the congregation. Our intent is not to pass judgment, for there are many reasons churches operate with facility policies as they choose to do. We simply ask: What does your church’s use of its built capital suggest to your community?
Broadband as an example
Returning to the example of broadband Internet, during the pandemic many churches responded to their own needs for better access, upgrading service to accommodate livestreaming of worship and video conferencing for meetings or Christian formation groups. While this is important, we ask a question to dig deeper: If these upgrades were important enough to implement or build during the pandemic for spiritual formation or congregational connections, then how important should it be for the broader community to thrive? Further, how often and by whom does this high-speed internet access get used?
Broadband access is a digital technology form of built capital that churches can share. Churches can be advocates for access, or simply set up community spaces where access is available to children or working parents.
Let’s ask questions
Religious communities like the church are hopefully asking more questions about the built capital they possess. How does it get used? What partnerships could we invite? What repurposing of space could we support for new initiatives in the community? What spaces does the community lack that we could share?
“What spaces does the community lack that we could share?”
These are big questions for churches in communities where a mindset of scarcity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Imagine if, as church leaders, we looked at our built capital as an entry point into the words of God through the prophet Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
If we are busy only looking at what was, we are likely to miss what is and is to come. As a final word about built capital, we encourage you and your church to begin wrestling with the questions we’ve posed throughout this article and take the steps listed below.
To do today:
- Take stock of your resources and assets (through the lens of all the community capitals: natural, cultural, human, social, political, financial, and built)
- Be specific about these assets in your church. What types of built capital does the church have?
- Who is the built capital of the church for?
- How and when does it get used?
- What do the answers to these questions tell you?
- Do the same process for the community (follow the same steps above) and think about ways the church and community can combine and leverage assets for the common good.
- Read Our Towns by Fallows and Fallows, specifically the chapter on “10½ Signs of Civic Success,” and visit their Our Town Foundation to learn more.
- Take a look at the work of Sympara, a nonprofit devoted to sacred-civic placemaking, for examples of how to make use of built capital in church-community partnerships.
Brian Foreman serves as executive director of the Center for Church and Community at Campbell University. Justin J. Nelson serves as assistant professor of sociology.
Previous articles in this series:
- On social capital, churches often do one part well and one part not well
- Let’s begin a conversation about the church in rural areas
- The importance of natural capital for the rural church
- Rural churches need to understand the cultural capital of their communities
- Understanding human capital makes volunteer recruitment easier
- The power of political capital to shape communities and churches
- How churches can help encourage financial capital in nonmetro areas