Neighborhood Church (Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller) -- A Review

NEIGHBORHOOD CHURCH: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission. By Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. 136 pages.

                Once upon a time churches sat in neighborhoods and were important players in the lives of those who lived within the neighborhood. The very idea of the parish is reflective of that reality. If you lived in the vicinity of the church, whether a member or attendee or not, you were part of the parish. I hear that something like that may still exist in some places of the world, but not so much in the United States. In the context in which I live, the freedom of choice coupled with the automobile, has freed people to pick from a wider range of congregations. In fact, it’s common for large churches to park themselves near a freeway off ramps. Back in the day, long before I was born, neighborhoods were filled with congregations inhabited by people who may or may not live within walking distance. Today, at least in metropolitan areas, we’re likely to commute to church. Even a small congregation like mine is a commuter congregation. Nevertheless, congregations often exist within neighborhoods, whether they’re engaged or not. 

There seems to be a growing sense that place and space are important to spiritual life. Neighborhood Church is one of those expressions of the recognition that place is important. The authors of this book, both of whom are Presbyterians, seek to provide guidance to congregations, helping them reimagine their ministries and the use of their buildings for ministry.

The authors are pastors with a vision for revitalization and mission. Krin Van Tatenhove currently leads a nonprofit called Torch of Faith, which provides development services to nonprofits working on social justice. Rob Mueller is the pastor of an urban Hispanic congregation in San Antonio. His understandings of church life have been influenced by the Christian Base Community model developed in Latin America. Thus, the authors have a social justice, liberationist sensibility to their work. Thus, this book could be considered a church-growth manual for progressive congregations, especially those congregations that continue to inhabit urban spaces. As the pastor of a small suburban congregation with certain space issues, some of what they suggest is unworkable. We don’t have a lot of unused space. Had we remained in our former location in the city of Detroit, we might be in a different position. Nonetheless, for those congregations with space available, there is good advice here as to how to make use of this space, especially when offering space to outside groups. Their word of wisdom is to not just rent out space but find ways of partnering with those entities who will make use of the space.

The authors present what they view is a vision of incarnational ministry, so that the congregation might live out God's kingdom in the space that is available.  They want to encourage congregations to pursue a new kind of relevancy, "especially in a country where Christianity is too often a civic religion, supporting a nationalistic worldview out of sync with biblical admonitions for justice. If we are to change, it will require listening to some painful questions and their prophetic challenges" (p. 5).

The book begins with a chapter on communal conversion. This involves moving from a vision of scarcity to one of abundance (I will admit that I probably am bound by a vision of scarcity and thus need conversion). The calling here is to move from focusing inwardly to looking outwardly, so that notice can be taken of one’s neighbors. From there, the congregation can begin to engage their neighbors. This leads in chapter two to a conversation about listening, not only within the congregation, but also with one's neighbors. What is happening in the neighborhood? How might the congregation engage? There are many similarities between what they are encouraging and the principles of community organizing.

Listening leads to transforming partnerships. That is, once we engage the neighbors, the parties themselves will experience changes in perspective and concern. There are, of course, pitfalls to avoid, but also great possibilities. As a congregation engages the community, it may find that it has opportunity to share space or at least make space available. The authors take note of conversations about repurposing church buildings but want to push things further. It's not just about making space available but engaging with those who would come into the building. Thus, not every opportunity is the right opportunity. The idea here is to move toward forms of cross-fertilization (and not just in terms of membership growth). This involves understanding the question of ownership. Do we own the building? Or does it belong to God? If the latter, then how would God have this bounty used?

The final chapter is titled "Sustaining the Vision." How do we move forward and sustain the work begun? This is a question of planning and stewardship. It is also a question of leadership development and what they refer to as "Spirit-filled worship." It is worship and mentoring that they wish to focus on. This is a good word, as we tend to struggle with both. Worship can become routine, and we can forget to bring along new leaders. All of this requires understanding one's context.

Having laid out their vision in relatively brief form, including in their presentations case studies of congregations that have demonstrated the principles they espouse, they provide four appendices. One is a Sample Asset Mapping Workshop, which will assist in the listening process. They provide suggestions for joint use agreements in appendix 2. Appendix two lists six dimensions of a partnership: 1) A clear definition of the target; 2) A Clear definition and recognition of each partner's contributions; a defined process for negotiating interdependencies; 4) the ability to manage crisis and change; 5) the ability to manage conflict; 6) taking time to pray. Regarding the final dimension—there is need to celebrate and enjoy one's company outside the working relationship. Finally, they offer a bibliography of asset-mapping resources.

This should be a helpful book for many congregations that are seeking to envision how they can engage their community. It offers good advice to those congregations who are seeking to make their buildings available to the community. At the same time, I struggled with how this book might speak to my own suburban congregation. Not all suburbs are alike, and many are not designed for community building. In addition, many suburban congregations are made up of people who do not live in the neighborhood, or even the city where it is found, and therefore the members have few connections with the community.  Nevertheless, there are possibilities for mission. Thus, we listen. It is a brief book, which could easily be digested by congregations seeking to better envision their mission. It is written with progressive congregations in mind, who hare committed to social justice.

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