Why community gardens and co-working spaces are cop outs

Last week I approvingly quoted Andrew Forrest from an interview on Duke’s Faith & Leadership blog:

“Every dying church in America has a community garden. Every dying church in America has a co-working space. What do I mean by that? I have no problem with community gardens; a garden is a beautiful thing. And I don’t have any problem with co-working spaces. But Jesus didn’t tell us to start a community garden, and he didn’t tell us to start co-working spaces; he told us to make disciples. That’s literally the mission of the church.

The problem is not the gardens. I’m being provocative to make a point. The problem is that we often want to substitute secondary and tertiary concerns for the primary concern of discipleship.”

I quoted him because I agree with this “provocative” assessment. And it’s provocative nature proved to be true in conversations I’ve had since posting the quote.

Community gardens and co-working spaces are frequently (although not always) symptoms of a church’s inability to confront organizational reality. A church that has no unifying, God-centered vision for gospel ministry in its context will always turn to the easiest and most concrete ways of justifying its existence. Vision-less churches are always infatuated with their buildings and grounds. So they turn to those assets and look to them to provide a way forward.

In a case I’m familiar with, a presbytery is proposing that a group of less than 100 people be given a church property that can accommodate close to eight hundred in worship. There is no way that such a minuscule group of people could ever fund the operation of such a large physical plant. [Google: “hail Mary pass”]. Yet what is the reason given to justify such an inequitable decision: “we can rent out office space.”

Sure. There are legitimate businesses that are just lining up to pay commercial real estate market rates for leases on office space in your nursery. 

In reality, this is a form of magical thinking that is driven by the need to survive rather than by any affirmative vision of missional presence in a community. It’s the ministry equivalent of the widow who takes in boarders to try and keep her house.

Even if it does work, the results are underwhelming.

I understand most of the reactions to the interview. One response I don’t get is the almost perennial vehemence against large churches. Especially in the mainline, there is a near-religious loathing of large churches–an almost pathological anger towards them.

It’s crazy.

Now, let me be clear, I have served large congregations and I am under no illusion that large churches are perfect churches. In fact, I’m not even sure that a 2,600 member church is the ideal size–it’s certainly not my ideal size. Yes, large churches can be pushy and sometimes frightfully ignorant of the struggles of normal churches. I get that. There are a lot of things of which large church leaders need to repent. The desire for numerical growth, however, isn’t necessarily one of those things.

In the instant case what you have is a large church giving its resources to a small church. Not all instances need look like the one in the article. One of the models I personally find the most attractive is practiced by the Piedmont Triad Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem (NC) has planted churches that have begun as campuses, sharing the resources of the larger congregation. Eventually, those sites become particularized churches with their own sessions, but they continue to use the resources (now they are able to pay for them) of the larger church as a way to create an economy of scale for administrative services.

Here’s what it comes down to, at least in my mind. We’re all in this together. As long as we are united around a common confessional expression (in my mind subscription to the Westminster Standards) then large or small, we’re all working toward the glory of God and the salvation of men and women. Big or small is not as important as healthy and strong.




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