Churches have historically served as anchor institutions in the local community—often located at the physical center of a town and operating as a place of social gathering. Much of this reality has shifted in the collective American Suburban Experiment that has, at a universal level, diminished both town centers and vibrant places for social gathering. Our current crises of loneliness and polarization hint that there are severe downsides to this modern paradigm within the fabric of our cities.
I contend that, rather than submit to this status quo, we ought to muster greater intentionality for developing places that meet our human need for real-life social networks, which are established by way of knowing our actual neighbors and loving our actual places. Eric Klinenberg makes a great case for this in his book Palaces for the People.
In the book, he fleshes out the term “social infrastructure” by describing the places and networks that provide the social backbone so vital to fostering a healthy community. While Klinenberg hones in on the ways that public libraries have served this role, I believe that places of worship are also particularly valuable players in this arena, especially in view of their historic roots. In my experience, both urban and suburban places of worship have opportunities to stir the recovery of social gathering places in our communities.
A foundational starting point for any place of worship wanting to make inroads for connecting neighbors is to visibly open your space for public use. This may require a shift in your orientation to the property. While much time likely has been dedicated to designing the property to support the needs of the particular communities that meet and worship there, it is not likely much thought has been given to how the property is perceived, experienced, and valued by those outside the four walls.
Most places of worship have some form of quasi-public space, yet little is done to make it invitational for active use by the local community. Thinking of spaces, such as parking lots, front, and side yards, sidewalks, and possibly alleyways and playgrounds, as opportunities for community flourishing will provoke you to ask new questions, such as: “Would someone walking by our property experience an invitation to health, goodness, and delight?” Or, “How does this property serve those living in our neighborhood, even those who may never enter the church door?”
There are two immediate pushbacks I hear when I suggest that churches design and plan for public use of space on their properties. The first is property insurance and liability. I’ll start with the disclaimer that every place of worship is unique, and every insurance policy has its individual nuances, so always check with your insurance broker to mitigate risks as best as possible. But most churches already are carrying a hefty amount of insurance because they are inviting the public on to their property every week for services in some fashion. Adding for liability coverage for things such as public seating, gardens, playgrounds, and dog parks are usually negligible in cost.
The second concern is attracting unwanted behavior. This is not a problem unique to places of worship. For decades, city parks have been attracting individuals who may be “up to no good.” While safety is important, I encourage churches to dip a toe in the water to see what actually happens if they invest a small amount in some public placemaking infrastructure.
Oftentimes fears are based on hypothetical what-ifs, and if there is opportunity to root the conversation in reality, everyone is much better positioned to learn what does and doesn’t work and adapt to what really happens on the ground. Moreover, good behavior drives out bad behavior. The more activity and connections that a place sparks among neighbors, the less you will struggle with a forlorn, abandoned, and scary lot.
Here are three simple examples of ways that places of worship have embraced the public space mindset with their property and made it visibly open to public use.