A prominent and long-serving leader of Judson Church before Norvell tried for decades to compete with growing suburban congregations by seeking out land in the neighborhood to construct a large parking lot. If people only had a place to park, they would flock to the old city neighborhood church, he argued. For his last sermon as leader of the church, the elder reverend told the congregation “the essence of their future hung one one word. That word was PARKING.”
He argued that if only Judson could acquire enough space for parking, then folks would drive in for miles around and easily park, and the church’s future would be secured.” Two very successful churches nearby had parking, but Norvell decided to see that lack of parking at Judson as a blessing instead of a problem. After all, he told himself, Christian churches like his flourished for 1,900 years before parking lots ever existed. The need for parking lots came about only after members moved to the suburbs, away from his city-neighborhood church and into an auto-centric lifestyle.
“Before they drove and parked,” Norvell writes, “most congregations walked, biked, or took public transit to church.”
A property next to Judson became available at one point and the congregation considered buying it to convert it to a parking lot, but they realized they would need to buy and tear down eight similar units of housing to accommodate just Sunday school attendance: a non-starter.
Norvell suggests transforming existing parking spaces into plazas, hosting Saturday farmer’s markets, impromptu wood-fired pizza parties, or pop-up play spaces for local children.
He took his ministry to a local coffee shop, where he held weekly meetings asking folks in the neighborhood questions about their needs, the fears, their hopes, and also about their perception of Judson Church. He discovered people didn’t know much about the building which had been there 100 years. Norvell felt the cultural barriers between him and the community begin to fall away, and he credits these revelations to getting out of his car.
He noticed people in their backyards, folks who wouldn’t answer a front door bell, and he struck up conversations. He had deep conversations about fundamental questions of faith while bumming a ride to church events.
“(W)hen we walk, bicycle, and travel on public transit, we become more hopeful and more trusting of others because we engage with them face-to-face and see them at a ‘human speed’…we tend to trust more,” Norvell writes.
Observing humbly how people struggle, is the first step in the Strong Towns approach to public investments. Norvell shares this playbook and even quotes writings in the book from Strong Towns staff, including Charles Marohn, Daniel Herriges, and John Pattison.