Blog post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
When I was executive presbyter in Milwaukee, there was one city whose economy was based on the GM auto plant. During the great recession, the plant closed. This resulted in increased unemployment and under employment. Downtown became a ghost town as stores closed and shops boarded up. The downtown Presbyterian church took a hit too. Membership dropped along with collections. It was a matter of time before the church could no longer afford a full-time pastor.
I fret and worry about congregations in cities and towns where industry is drying up. I am concerned when I visit a church and the people inside of the building look very different than the people walking around on the outside of the church. James Taylor wrote a song about a struggling small town. The song, Letter in the Mail says, “Little by little, light after light, that’s how it died.” And “The church bell still rings on Sunday, old folks still go, the young ones listen on the radio.”
However, I noticed that even in the areas where industry has dried up, there are still thousands of people. These people are finding new ways to live and thrive in the community. They may commute further to a different job that pays less. They may not be able to buy as much as they used to, but they are still there. What does that mean for childcare, food, and social life? What does it mean for the local church?
In the book Holy Conversations, Gil Rendle and Alice Mann believes every congregation should ask three questions: Who are we? Who is our neighbor? What has God called us to do?
To learn “who is our neighbor,” our congregations can get out of the building and walk around the neighborhood to see what is going on. Sometimes our congregations become commuter churches as members move further away when the neighborhood declines. But there’s no substitute for heels on concrete, and taking the time to observe the spaces, homes, and buildings of the community. We can sit in a room and guess about the needs and identity of our neighbors, but until we get out and meet them we do not know who they are.
At the August 23 presbytery gathering, we are going to leave the building and go into the community of Edwardsville to conduct a Neighborhood Exegesis. This is a walking survey that is part of the Vital Congregations Toolkit, available here, developed by our denomination. They write, “The goal is to get to know more about the neighborhood and its people. We do this by using all 5 senses. We are not going out to teach anything, to convert anyone, or to change the neighborhood, just to learn from the people who know more about it that we do.”
Wow! My hope is that we will learn about Edwardsville, but also return to our congregations and conduct a Neighborhood Exegesis in our community. The future church is a community connected church. Our neighborhood shapes our community and congregation. Let’s leave the building and learn who they are.
Registration for the Pre-Session and Gathering is now open and can be found here.
Rev. Craig M. Howard