The front porch is back. A growing number of buyers are asking for designs that include the iconic hometown amenity, according to Chicago Tribune interviews with building contractors. Front porches provide families and friends with a place to gather while they keep an eye on the kids. By facilitating small talk, they build local community. And local community is no small accomplishment with so many reasons to stay inside and watch television, surf the Web, or play video games. The front porch's comeback suggests that some people have found no suitable substitute for knowing their neighbors.
If the latest figures on geographic mobility are any indication, we would be wise to make nice with those neighbors. Despite commercial air travel, interstate highways, mobile phones, and e-mail, the mobility rate has declined steadily since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking such data in 1948. In the aftermath of World War II, as suburbs began sprouting from farmland, a record 21.2 percent of Americans moved between 1950 and 1951. But only 13.2 percent of Americans moved between 2006 and 2007. Then in April 2009, the Census Bureau reported that a mere 11.9 percent of Americans moved in 2008. This rate was the lowest in recorded U.S. history, and the 1.3 percent drop between 2007 and 2008 was the second-largest one-year decline. The number rebounded only barely in 2009, to 12.5 percent.
With more Americans than ever staying put, I visited three churches—one urban, one suburban, and one rural—to see how the body of Christ is loving where its members live.
Approaching Chicago's old Cabrini-Green neighborhood, Salvation Army resale shops and storefront Pentecostal churches gradually give way to upscale bars and new condominiums. Once home to America's most notorious public housing project, Cabrini-Green has gentrified. Gone are the high-rise buildings that blotted Chicago's skyline just one mile from Michigan Avenue's upscale shops.
The neighborhood's new kid on the block matches the community's retooled profile. If you're a single 20-something Christian living in Chicago, there's a good chance you attend Park Community Church. The nondenominational church's immaculate new auditorium offers a panoramic view of the Chicago skyline. But on one summer Sunday evening, the curtains were drawn and the lights dimmed to create a club-like, intimate worship experience.
After a few songs, a pastor asked the congregation to arrange themselves according to neighborhood. Park's congregation is composed of people from across the city. A layout of the auditorium appeared on the video screens, with sections labeled by neighborhood. The largest block encompassed popular neighborhoods for urbane young professionals, including Lincoln Park and Wrigleyville.
Pastor Jackson Crum preached about what it means to be a good neighbor—a timely topic for the church, which had moved into its new facility one year earlier. He asked the church to imagine what Chicago would look like if the winds of revival blew through. He said the neighborhood is already buzzing about Park. The church's auditorium had recently hosted graduation for Jenner Academy, a nearby elementary school. Park has drawn from its deep well of highly educated members to find mentors for the schoolchildren.
But Park's greatest strength—its vibrant youth—is also its most daunting challenge. Many members are hardly older than the church, founded nearly 20 years ago. And contrary to the national trend, every year some of the church's most active, giving members relocate as their attention turns to marriage and kids. When a pastor recognized the dads on Father's Day, no more than 10 in the crowd of hundreds stood.
Park is a great place to find a spouse, but a less popular place to settle. Teaching pastor J. R. Kerr states plainly that the church has few answers and lots of questions about how to reach its neighborhood. At the local school, 120 kids are homeless. Church members, whose average education is a master's degree, are eager to learn about the neighborhood and invest in its future. Kerr hopes that small steps today will result in great leaps forward 20 years down the road. In one new effort (partly to retain families as well as to serve the community), Park hosts a Christian elementary school.
"A city gets transformed when neighborhoods marked by the gospel are redeemed," Kerr says. "To do that, we need to stay 20 or 30 years. We need young people who will say, 'Chicago is my city.'"
Perhaps no social factor in the U.S. has contributed to the growth of evangelicalism like suburban sprawl. Where American farmland yields to acres of tract housing and subdivisions, megachurches soon follow. Uprooted from their native towns, many disoriented suburban families search for new community networks and find them in megachurches.
Calvary Baptist Church in suburban Woodstock, Illinois, more than 50 miles from downtown Chicago, was founded about 50 years ago to give displaced Southerners a place to call home. Visiting the church building, with its purple and yellow windows, feels like visiting the Deep South in the 1950s.
But that Calvary Baptist Church is no more. For half a century, the church never grew larger than 70 and struggled to make a dent in the town of 25,000. When pastor Steve McCoy was called, he wanted the church to become more outwardly focused and friendly to visitors. Last year the church changed its name to Doxa Fellowship. Effectively restarting, the church loaned its building to a Hispanic congregation and moved into a third-floor ballroom overlooking Main Street. During Doxa's Sunday morning service, you can hear the sound of drag-racing Harleys and smell popcorn cooking in the vintage theater across the street. The balcony overlooks the commuter rail station and Woodstock's idyllic town square, where Bill Murray filmed Groundhog Day.
McCoy and I talked about the challenges and opportunities of suburban ministry as we enjoyed the sounds of a folk festival in the town square. Just a few weeks after the church moved, he noted an uptick in visitors, including Hispanics, a rapidly growing segment of the town's population. McCoy has found a little neighborly interest can go a long way in showing God's love to Woodstock. The declining mobility rate may offer the potential for long-term relationships both within and outside church walls and foster deeper community bonds in cities and suburbs alike. McCoy opens family cookouts to the community and finds that something as simple as carrying around a tennis ball (for pickup games of hot box or pickle) helps foster friendly conversations with strangers.
McCoy knows how urban enthusiasts malign the suburbs as safe, secure, and boring. But just as Park members are trying to encourage people to settle down in the city, so also suburban churches now cope with the urban challenges of racial and economic diversity. The financial factors that have stunted mobility everywhere have worsened poverty where you might not expect it in the suburbs. McCoy could sit back and lament Woodstock's many challenges. Instead, he's looking for ways to help it flourish.
"We want to find what's already beautiful in the community and relate redemption with what people deal with in real life," McCoy says. "But we're also trying to display God's beauty through community and holiness to help people understand Jesus' work of redemption."
Foretaste of Heaven
Mobility is deeply ingrained in the American experience. Even with an all-time low mobility rate, 35.2 million Americans moved in 2008. Rare today is the person who grows up, marries, works, raises children, and dies in the same place. Except for Native Americans, everyone traces their roots to ancestors who left their homelands to settle in a new, unfamiliar land. Setting down roots in a particular place sounds nice, but given the choice, many will opt to uproot in search of a good job and a nice home. Declining mobility may mask an American population itching to move but temporarily tethered to a mortgage.
Taken for granted by many Americans, mobility is a prominent theme in Scripture. The motivation to move accords with the biblical mandate, at least in part. Jesus commissions his disciples to fan out into the nations (Matt. 28:19-20). The Christian life has been pictured as a pilgrimage, most famously by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress. But in the biblical storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation of God's kingdom, we see that mobility is not a virtue in and of itself.
Sometimes it is a curse. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God's warning, he banished them from the Garden where he had placed them (Gen. 3:23-24). Only one generation later, the Lord cursed Cain to be a wanderer on the earth after Cain killed his brother (Gen. 4:12). When the whole earth conspired to build a city and tower that would reach to heaven, "lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth" (Gen. 11:4, ESV), the Lord scattered them (Gen. 11:8-9).
But more often than not, mobility stands in tension with settled existence; in the Bible, life is essentially a pilgrimage, but always toward a final destination. God called Abraham to leave his native country and family to settle in a new land (Gen. 12:1). But even then, God settled Abraham and his descendants in a place he had prepared, the Promised Land of Canaan. The Exodus was God's grand plan to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt and settle them in a place like Eden, flowing with milk and honey (Ex. 33:3). Despite the Lord's miraculous deliverance, the Hebrews lacked faith that God would clear out this place for them. So God made them wander in the desert for 40 years (Num. 32:13). When they finally settled in the Promised Land, the Hebrews flourished under the leadership of King David and King Solomon. But once again, the Hebrews pursued the gods of the surrounding nations. So God used those nations to exile Israel and Judah from the Promised Land (2 Kings 17:1-6; 25:18-20).
Along the way, God has always made provision for his pilgrim people to honor him. The Lord made Joseph a successful aide to Egyptian leaders (Gen. 39:2-6). Moses was raised by Pharaoh's daughter (Ex. 2:1-10). Even when God sent Judah into exile, he left them with instructions for how to live among the Gentiles. They should build homes, plant gardens, marry, and multiply, all the while seeking and praying for the city's welfare, for they would share in its prosperity (Jer. 29:4-7).
Though the Jews returned to the land after 70 years, they remained in a form of exile under foreign dominion through the time of Jesus. Even the Son of Man had no place to rest his head (Luke 9:58). After Jesus ascended and the apostles huddled in Jerusalem, God scattered them to preach the Word (Acts 8:4), first to Samaria and ultimately to the capital city of Rome.
But the story didn't end there. And it doesn't end with us today. Numerous biblical passages indicate that a renewed and glorified earth will be Christians' eternal home (Isa. 60; 65:17ff; Matt. 5:5; Rom. 8:21; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21-22). The places we build and sustain today may give the world a foretaste of the New Jerusalem. So in one sense, the places where we live are not way stations along the pilgrimage, but rather signs of our final destination.
Christians understand this about life in a way their unbelieving neighbors cannot comprehend. And how Christians live in the way stations can implicitly give their neighbors a glimpse of the New Jerusalem (1 Pet. 2:12), and hopefully attract them to the faith.
As my car cut through corridors of corn on the way to Stillman Valley, Illinois, I noticed a surprising sight over the horizon: vapors emitted by a nuclear plant. The farming in this part of the country is good, but the plant provides much-needed jobs for several small towns in north-central Illinois.
Pulling into town with 20 minutes to spare, I was surprised to see an early-arriving crowd walking toward the Congregational Christian Church of Stillman Valley, more commonly known as the Red Brick Church. Eventually, about 200 of the town's 1,000 residents filled the pews on a cool summer morning as Pastor Chris Brauns preached about the covenant-making ceremony in Genesis 15. He appealed to the congregation's experience to help them understand the setting.
"We're farm people," Brauns said. "We know a three-year-old heifer is a big heifer."
Though Brauns himself grew up on a farm, he had never served a rural church until the 151-year-old congregation called him midway through his ministry. He likens his return to the pivotal moment when one of his favorite literary characters, Wendell Berry's seminary dropout Jayber Crow, crosses the river on his way home to Port William.
As we sat together in Stillman Valley's only restaurant, Brauns explained how he recently began reading Berry, the acclaimed Kentucky agrarian and novelist. Brauns says Berry's "membership" of fictional Port William has showed him the beauty and loveliness of community.
"These people can't fully know how much I love them," Brauns says, tears welling in his eyes.
Stillman Valley, not particularly mobile, offers its share of challenges, Brauns admits. He focuses on foreign missions to help ward off the provincialism that plagues many rural communities. Brauns has immersed himself in local history in order to understand the people he serves. Driving around town, he points to several houses and explains their family history. Noticing the library, he tells how he helped acquire every novel and collection of essays the 75-year-old Berry has written so far.
Brauns recalls one particular Berry passage that calmed his restless spirit. In typical Berry fashion, wisdom ushers forth from simple characters.
"Uncle Burley said hills always looked blue when you were far away from them," Berry writes in the voice of title character Nathan Coulter. "That was a pretty color for hills; the little houses and barns and fields looked so neat and quiet tucked against them. It made you want to be close to them. But he said that when you got close they were like the hills you'd left, and when you looked back your own hills were blue and you wanted to go back again. He said he reckoned a man could wear himself out going back and forth."
Indeed, the pilgrimage of life can threaten to wear a traveler out, unless he knows that the blue that seems far away will become an everlasting home.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and co-author, with John Woodbridge, of the forthcoming book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (Zondervan).
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A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous articles on neighborhood in Christianity Today include:
Memphis's Other Graceland | For over 40 years, JoeAnn Ballard has grown a ministry that has transformed thousands of lives. (February 13, 2009)
There Goes the Neighborhood | Do I have to love my neighbor if he breaks the law? (January 21, 2009)
Neighborhood Outpost | Changing a culture takes more than politics. (November 13, 2000)
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