You learn a lot serving on the school PTA. One lesson in particular is transforming my ministry.
When I joined my kids’ parent-teacher association, their school was housed in an old building with a green space—a grassy, urban oasis, complete with trees for climbing and the longest slide in town. When we let our kids run around there after class let out, we thought it was for their sake. But so much else was going on. While her kids were playing tag, one mother shared that she had just lost her accounting job, prompting other parents to offer to bring her meals. While their children were fighting over who got the next turn on the slide, one couple with food allergies in the family offered support to a dad who had just discovered his six-year old daughter’s gluten aversion. As PTA members, we listened to the concerns of fellow parents and invited them to get involved.
The value of all of this interaction for the broader school community remained invisible until the school moved to a newer building that didn’t have a green space. We watched as the school took on more of a car-line, drop-off-and-pick-up culture. Those sweet after-school moments of hanging out on the lawn were gone. As a PTA, we noticed how many more phone calls we had to make to recruit volunteers, how parents no longer knew each other’s names. The sense of community we had enjoyed became a thing of the past.
In our efforts to have the right approach to our church environments, it’s easy to underestimate the value of physical space in our church and community life. A recent Vox article, however, helped me name the green space phenomenon I had experienced at my kids’ school. It references various studies which found that “[a]s external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” The article sums up what I had learned on the PTA: “The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact.”
It may be hard to justify the value of these spaces in churches—after all, we may never be able to measure the networking, community support, and pastoral care that’s happening organically there. Even the folks involved may never remember how the coffee shop we built was where they had the conversation that led them to choose to become a foster parent, or how the community garden we created was where they learned about a local depression support group. But while common space may not lead directly to hard, measurable growth, it still benefits the church by playing a significant role in our personal, family, and community lives.
If this is the case, then it may be time for church leaders to think harder about space beyond the sanctuary. How can we, as Christian leaders and churches, tap into the need for a shared, communal gathering ground? How can our church buildings create places that foster this kind of spontaneous contact? How can the church not only inhabit, but also create those spaces in our broader communities?