A Theology of Place

I recently heard a pastor call for the need for a “theology of place.” His statement was a reaction to a discussion about Emergence Christianity, a movement within the faith with a particular aversion to buildings and real estate. Emergence Christians tend to prefer a more nimble community of faith; the pastor who made the comment presided over the construction of a large, expensive, new sanctuary complete with a grand pipe organ.

The conversation left me thinking. Is the Emergence Church wrong—should it be more concerned with a theology of place, interested in buildings and real estate? Or is the traditional church wrong—should it be less concerned with buildings, enabling it to be more ready to respond to whatever comes its way?

As I have reflected on these seemingly opposing arguments, I am convinced that neither approach is “right”—neither approach is “wrong.” Both ways of doing church are necessary to meet the diversity within the church during what Phyllis Tickle calls the Great Emergence. For the record, both approaches are biblical.

Consider David and Solomon. Their temple in Jerusalem was a thing of glory—a fixture on a hill representing the height of Jewish power and influence as well as God’s covenant promise coming to fruition. Try telling Solomon that his temple wasn’t necessary. He might just lose a little wisdom. Later on as the diaspora was coming to a close, one of the first steps of the Jews returning to Jerusalem was rebuilding the temple, chronicled in the book of Ezra. That same site is now a point of great contention between the three Abrahamic faith traditions. The embattled temple mound remains the destination of pilgrimage for people of many faiths. There is a powerful “theology of place” at that “holy” place in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, consider Jesus and company. He and his followers were mostly itinerate, moving about, telling people of a new way. While Jesus learned and then taught in the temple and in synagogues throughout the region, he seemed nominally connected to the buildings of the institutionalized faith. He was doing a new thing which required freedom from the moorings of traditional Judaism and the buildings representing it. The early church distances itself from the bricks and mortar of Judaism as well, meeting in homes until that was no longer feasible.

Emergence Christians, like Jesus, are doing a new thing. Unsure of what the future holds, they need the flexibility of mobility. The traditional church, on the other hand, enjoys the rootedness that comes with bricks and mortar. The primary concern of the institutional church is preserving the faith while emergence Christians are more concerned with evolving the faith. They are on a journey, which requires agility. The traditional church prefers being settled, which requires stability. High vaulted ceilings and pipe organs speak to God’s transcendence, while meeting in coffee shops remind us of God’s immanence. Both approaches are needed in this era of transformation.

Emergence Christianity and the traditional church have much to offer one another. Emergence Christians may need the buildings of the traditional church to be a sort of “mother ship,” returning from time to time for rest and reprieve for the difficult work of starting a new colony. The traditional church may benefit from the energy and thoughtfulness of emergence Christians. They are keen observers of “what matters” and what does not serve the cause of Christ well. Like the parents of young adults who recently left the nest to create a new life, perhaps the traditional church can send emergence Christians out to do their “new thing” while leaving an open door and offering the open arms of hospitality to them. All parents want their offspring to succeed, to venture off and create a vibrant, healthy, independent life of their own. At the same time, most parents want to remain in relationship with their adult kids. Perhaps the traditional church and emergence church can find a way to love, appreciate, and respect one another while allowing one another to live quite separate and distinct lives. This is called relationship. This is the calling for those on both sides of this new thing in our midst.

Rhonda Blevins, 4/26/12
Helen