Ecclesiology As Urban Renewal
Tomorrow morning, my wife & I will join hundreds of others to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Harry Lehotsky, friend, pastor and urban hero. Over the last few days since he died, I have been considering all the ways Harry has impacted my life and ministry. While I couldn’t recall in this post all that he has done for us, one aspect that has been most significant is his community/neighbourhood centre model for church ministry.
When I asked him how he would best define his approach to being a church in our West End area, he cited Dr. John M. Perkins’ book “Restoring At-Risk Communities: Doing It Together and Doing It Right”, specifically focusing on the three R’s of community renewal- Relocation, Redistribution and Reconciliation. Relocation calls people to live their lives in the communities they seek to impact (what the New Monasticism calls “Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire”). Redistribution is about the intentional investment of our lives, resources, skills, etc. into the community (including how and where you spend your money, where you work, etc.). Reconciliation is about loving your neighbours as Christ does, overcoming the barriers that divide us (race, religion, economics, etc.). While the model isn’t flawless, it has deeply shaped the way we live and serve.
Perhaps what I have most seen as a result is how deeply urban planning (or lack thereof) has impacted our ecclesiology, yet how often we fail to recognize it. Take, for example, the emergence of mega-stores, such as Walmart, allowing consumers to get all their shopping needs met in a single location. We think very little about commuting to these locations for the convenience and savings. In the same way, when we choose a church, we approach it with the same perspective- willing to travel outside of our neighbourhoods to connect with churches were we establish our a new network (or networks) of relationships.
While this could be challenged on these merits (and I believe it often should be), we need to look at how this ecclesiology impacts our communities. Winnipeg’s West End is a prime example. While it is known throughout Canada as an example of inner city problems, many experts of urban renewal see within it seeds of great potential, in large part due to its layout as a city within a city. Clear residential streets flank strips of small businesses, schools, hospitals and community centres. Sadly, our participation in the socio-economic shift (as seen in the Walmart trend) is contributing the demise of this potential as urban housing is abandon for the suburbs, businesses are boarded up, torn down or, at best, languishing, and where churches shut down, leaving the inner city behind.
I truly believe that the role of the church in the community formation and urban renewal is critical (one of the redemptive elements of the parish model), in fact, I believe it to be a sacred responsibility. Imagine communities within communities, where we live our lives, invest our resources and build our relationships. How much more authority will the Gospel hold to neighbours who see how much we care for them, their children, their neighbourhood? How much more accountable will we be to “practice what we preach” when our churches are within the very personal spheres in which our lives are rooted?
Further, what if our missional commitment would be to patronize, invest it and even create businesses in the community? In addition to being a source of income, it could provide jobs and create a third space for building relationships. This example of redistribution and relocation is daring and demanding, but an entirely achievable project, especially when done with the support of a truly missional church community working together.
Another example is the powerful impact of and the desperate need for public spaces, such as parks, community centres, drop in centres, public markets, etc. The development and creation of these areas, aligned strategically with a broader community/urban renewal, is so critical to our missional vocation as the Church. Urban specialist are increasingly seeing how significant these spaces are to the well being of communities. If your urban renewal centres around streets and traffic lights, you will see renewal in how much traffic moves and perhaps how efficiently it flows. However, by investing in those space most intimately connected to people and shared community, the renewal you will see will be reflected in revitalized neighbourhoods in so many respects. Further, no matter how important our government systems are, urban specialists also see community volunteerism to be THE critical element for making this shift. Who better than the church to lead that charge?
I have seen inner ciy communities across Canada, the US and throughout the world, and one thing remains true of all examples- there is a tragic lack of vital Christian community living within these neighbourhoods. This MUST change. I am not saying that life in rural communities or the suburbs is evil and must be abandon- by no means! However, without question and without apology, I believe that there are far too many Christians who are ignoring their responsibility to these communities. This will only be reconciled through people choosing to sacraficially embrace the three R’s- relocating, redistrubuing and reconciling on every level- and not just individuals and families, but entire local church communities! Imagine the possibilities!
I have only brushed the surface here, but these are some of the seeds planted by Harry, my friend and my hero. Harry is the best kind of hero was so real, so flawed, so frustratingly human. His example does not allow us to excuse ourselves from similar commitment and sacrafice, because he was a person just like you and me. The difference is found, not in his character, but in his obedience. I can only hope my own obedience can have a fraction of the impact that Harry’s has.
So, what do you say? Where do we go from here?