Friday, April 8, 2011

Follow Up on the Impact of Church Buildings

Earlier this week, I wrote on the difficulty the Catholic Church has in both spreading the Gospel and maintaining its aging, underutilized buildings. I contend that this is a major problem for the Church in the 21st Century. It needs to adapt to new circumstances, not continue to operate under the assumption that its buildings are the central gathering places of its communities.

Well, count on Walter Russell Mead, my favorite blogger, to point out a useful and instructive contrast:
Historically, the Pentecostal churches in the United States as elsewhere are strongly rooted among the poor. In the favelas of Brazil, the “informal settlements” of South Africa and in the squalid slums surrounding emerging megacities like Nairobi and Lagos, as well as in America’s inner cities, Pentecostal churches, many in storefronts, are often the most active, the fastest growing, and the most connected to the aspirations and the needs of the communities they serve.
Mead is making a larger point that populations afflicted by multi-generational poverty need more than government-subsidized welfare, they need faith (or something equally as powerful and motivational) to change the essence of their lives. In passing, he mentions the effectiveness of Pentecostal churches in accomplishing this mission, noting that they often set themselves up in humble storefronts.

But think about the flexibility and persuasive power that approach entails. First, a Pentecostal church can spring up wherever there is demand, because it will not wait for a formal building to be constructed. It could be sandwiched between the corner deli and the laundromat, but it is there and can have a presence. Second, this church will have low overhead, allowing it to spend the donations it gets towards good works and outreach, not maintenance and utilities. Finally, the humble surroundings likely resonate better with the community and the times than an elaborate structure. The ostentation of a Catholic church, meant to inspire and attract, can seem quite out of touch.

No one knows where the faithful will live in a decade or a century. Mobile populations call for churches that go where the believers (and the needy) are.

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