Last week I drank coffee with a former student of mine who is back in town doing a summer internship. He’s working for a new e-commerce start up company, using social media to drive more traffic to their website (which he also updated for them).
“Where’s your office?” I asked.
“In an old Baptist Church off of Lake Street.”
“Yeah, the church has less than twenty members, so they started renting the church space out to small businesses during the week so they can stay open.”
He shares the church office space with his co-workers, a priest who got into real estate to help make ends meet (more on that in an upcoming post) and a man who started a grain-based veggie burger business that recently broke into the market via Whole Foods.
“It’s cool. The building is beautiful, and when I need a break, I just go collaborate a bit with the priest or the veggie burger guy. We all help each other out.”
I’m seeing this collaboration– this sharing of church space with the secular world– more and more. It makes sense. Membership is dropping in so many churches, and churches are some of the only buildings big enough in communities for large groups of people to come and gather. Sharing becomes not only a creative, mutually symbiotic idea, but a necessity. Boundaries that used to separate church and life are blurring.
Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing eight New York based Lutheran pastors whose church buildings were damaged in Hurricane Sandy. They were struggling to rebuild because they could not apply for FEMA money initially. Because of separation of church and state, government funds were not available to churches. Several of these pastors pushed back on this specific restriction, however, because the community at large benefitted so heavily from the church buildings in need of repair. One Lutheran church housed up to three different non-religious meetings an evening for free as a service to the community. The pastor was proud of his ministry of space. He offered meeting space to groups like AA, NA, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. They ran a thrift store for the whole community out of the basement. Community forums and even political debates during election season happened in the church because it was the biggest building in the community. In many of these churches, there were more non-religious people using the church for non-religious purposes than there were people coming to worship. The pastors talked about the ministry of space and the importance offering space for community to gather and grow no matter what the purpose.
A few decades ago in the United States, it seemed that the “normal” experience consisted of an employed adult going to work to do work from 9-5 Monday through Friday. Home happened at home at night and on the weekends, and church happened at church on Sunday mornings. That compartmentalization, I think, is breaking down. More people are working from home, telecommuting, working multiple part time jobs or taking on odd hours. More men are working less than full time to have more time at home with kids. More people want to see church happening in the context of the world and not boxed into Sundays and a building.
And now people, like my former student, are going to work at church. Some may see this dissolving of boundaries between the church and the world as a weakening of the church. I don’t. Not only is the church needing to go out into the world, but the world is needing to come inside of the church. I find that young people want to be making a difference in their communities, wherever that is happening. They want to be able to call their church relevant in the world. Jesus’ ministry happened wherever it needed to happen whenever it needed to happen. I think today more than ever is a time to let the boundaries dissolve a bit for the benefit of the church and the community.