Keep It Local

Volume 43, Issue 4, by Michael J. Crosbie

Recent studies document the ongoing decline of organized, mainline religious groups, while the number of people who describe themselves as spiritual but not necessarily religious continues to grow . This is not good news for hierarchical denominations, especially those that need to hold onto congregants and their checkbooks to keep the doors open. The news of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection is one of the latest pieces of evidence that large religious organizations are in trouble.

Liturgical design consultant Richard Vosko, in a presentation at the Fall Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture (IFRAA) meeting in Minneapolis, spoke about the qualities of religious communities that are growing. First of all, they’re wired: members stay connected through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. OK, even the Pope has a Facebook page. But he’s not using it to stay in touch with congregants. Some religious communities are using social media as forums to keep up with fellow congregants, clergy, and the organization’s ongoing life. These forums are also un-hierarchical – another big difference.

Growing congregations are conveniently located. They help shape the community around them and are connected to life in the neighborhood. They provide outreach through such services as soup kitchens, crisis intervention, and activities geared for small groups within a larger congregation. There is a life to these congregations that everyone – young and old – contributes to. This challenges the stereotype that religion is just for those in God’s waiting room. Growing congregations also engage in the arts – music, visual arts, theater – connecting to local artists.

Growing congregations, according to Vosko, provide “Third Places” – social hubs between home and work. Coffee shops and cafes have long served this function, but a faith community can also be a social place after work or on a weekend morning, not necessarily to pray and worship but to just stay connected to each other. Strong congregations also remember. They have a living history in the lives and contributions of members of the congregation, which they commemorate. They celebrate tradition and history, but are not necessarily bound by it; they’re willing to build on their past.

After Vosko’s presentation it occurred to me that what he described was not a new kind of vibrant life for a religious community, but actually a very old one. It’s activated by connections at the local and personal level – by the kind of relationships that years ago depended on strong neighborhoods, extended families, and a certain “tribe” identity. This is the opposite of large, impersonal, religious institutions, which are now shrinking.

What might this mean for architects and artists? Realize community-life-building possibilities. Suggest creating a “Third Place” if a building committee hasn’t considered it. Accentuate arts that connect with the congregation, the neighborhood, and local history and traditions. Create places that are accessible to make sure everyone has equal access. Celebrate the “spiritual” over the “religious,” the personal over the institutional.

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