Congregations are born from a generative spark of interaction between stories of faith and stories of place. Some person or group looks out on a particular landscape and says, “There should be a church—or there should be a congregation of our preferred type—in this particular community.” That conclusion is not an isolated thought but part of a larger narrative that has shaped the awareness of the founder or founding group, a story about “who we are” (cultural and religious identity), “what we are called to do or be” (religious purpose), and “where we are now” (community and cultural context). Throughout the history of a congregation, narratives of faith and narratives of place collide and converge, compartmentalize and connect, in many and changing ways.
Congregations that take responsibility for their ecological relationships will have a deeper, more grounded ministry. Even the congregation that is regional in scope and highly associational in style is still part of the physical, social, and narrative web of those communities where its building is located and where its members live, work, and play. As congregations explore the intersection between their own core narratives and those of their local community or communities, new possibilities for ministry and mission may emerge. Specifically, congregations may discover new ways to interact intentionally and redemptively with the narrative life of the places they inhabit.
Place-based narratives are a powerful component of personal, civic, and congregational life. My awareness of this was heightened when I moved to a new place in 2002. My experience is captured in poet and social critic Wendell Berry’s remark that it is good for the young to leave home and explore the wider world, but at some point it is important to stop and say, “This is it, this will be home.” The seeds of significance and commitment that were present at the time of my own move sprouted with surprising urgency during a sabbatical summer in 2005. In the stillness that summer allowed me, I experienced an almost physical ache to know and work with my fellow citizens, and to help make my city a good place to live. So my attraction to the subject of place-based narratives arises at the intersection of at least three personal story lines: a quest story about finding and claiming a home place; a discernment story about scratching the itch for some new departure in my professional life; and the palpable narrative force of this place itself as it works on my imagination.
As a result, I have come to believe that “Where am I?” and “What is happening here?” are among the most profound questions congregational leaders can ask. This vocabulary of place or location is often used metaphorically in congregational planning and discernment. “Where are we now?” may be a figurative way of asking what steps the congregation has completed in a planning process, how far the congregation has progressed in a size transition, or how close the capital campaign has come to meeting its goal. In this discussion, I want to wake up these dozing metaphors of place and refocus on their immediate and physical meanings.
Place-based narratives are shared, persistent, and dynamic stories people commonly tell about “here.” While one could look at narratives of place at a completely individual level, I use the term place-based narratives to mean the stories that are shared within the community context—those that may be referenced in civic life through commemorative events, memorial structures, newspaper articles, library displays, and the rhetoric of local controversies. The focus is also on persistent stories that have remained active in the public imagination over time and on dynamic stories that are called into service in a variety of ways and assigned new meanings as circumstances change.
Place-based narratives always accomplish certain tasks. First, they give “here” a name—a powerful act, to be sure. The title people bestow on their place defines a narrative space, a special little world. This power of naming came to my attention when I moved to my current home in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a city of sixty thousand people located about an hour north of Boston. My house is situated in a leafy old neighborhood called Bradford. When people ask me where I live, I usually say, “Haverhill—one of the old mill cities along the Merrimack Valley.” My neighbor, on the other hand, always says his home is in Bradford and describes himself as living in the suburbs. These place names and definitions locate us within different narrative frameworks, connect us with different channels of information, assign significance to different events, and lead us to connect with our shared environment in markedly different ways.
Second, place-based narratives provide “here” with a trajectory that stretches over time. They sketch out the remembered past—who came here first and from where, what used to be here that the community is proud of or pining for, what tragedies occurred here that marked people’s memories, and which notable personalities have left their imprint on local life. These narratives describe the place’s present reality—who lives here today and what they are like; what is changing now, for better or for worse; and what forces are affecting lives in the community. And they outline imagined futures—the paths of “progress” or “development”; the trends of breakdown and demolition (physical and social) that people seek to resist or to hasten; and the potential shape of the common life in years to come.
Finally, a shared narrative of place gives rise to a common field of concerns, possibilities, and relationships. Social theorists have begun to borrow from physics the concept of a field of forces (such as gravitational, electrical, or magnetic) to describe change and movement that cannot be accounted for by a visible, proximate force. Comparing one place to another, different patterns, tendencies, and habits of interaction and development become evident. A major “unseen force” is the story a community tells about itself. This is not the slick, promotional version on the Chamber of Commerce website but the grassroots version of the story, the one people tell each other to explain and comment upon important happenings or controversial proposals.
A new resident to a particular locale will notice certain events and eras that other residents reference repeatedly in a variety of settings. Over time one gains an impression of the meanings commonly attached to these events and the uses that are made of them. How does a community resident like myself become a true participant-observer who can maintain perspective, stay open to a variety of voices, and create trustworthy space for conversation? And how might a connection be made between local congregations and this important type of community dialogue?
A beginning point with an individual congregation might be to invite exploration of its own history in this place—to examine how the character, fortunes, and evolution of this city have affected the congregation’s own identity and development, and vice versa.
A second step might be to encourage a congregational group to use its spiritual, theological, and biblical heritage to develop images of the soul of the city they live in—that is, to discern and describe a corporate personality for the city, then to consider the soul struggles this personality is experiencing at this time.
A third step could be to ask what opportunities this congregation might have today to minister to the soul of their city. Such ministry could take myriad forms. A congregation with many public leaders might pay special attention to forming the conscience and attitude of those leaders. An African American congregation might remind the city that true success is measured by the way it treats the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. A congregation with a strong civic identity might cosponsor with other
partners a series of public dialogues on issues of soul significance.
My hope is that new forms of ministry to the soul of place will be generated as the imagination of congregational leaders is stimulated by such inquiries. By exploring place-based narratives, through internal practices of congregational discernment and through new forms of community dialogue, a faith community can experience a profound renewal of its identity, its mission, and its role in its wider community.
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Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission and Message by Nancy DeMott, Tim Shapiro, and Brent Bill
Buildings communicate. Stained glass windows, high altars, multi-purpose worship/gymnasium spaces, Plexiglas pulpits, padded pews—these and all other architectural elements say something about a congregation’s theology and mission. They point to a faith community’s beliefs about worship, identity, purpose, and more. Holy Places is designed to be used by congregations who are involved in or are contemplating work on their facilities. Approaching this work with mission at the forefront is the key to having a final result that strengthens the congregation’s ministry.
Mark Lau Branson demonstrates how concentrating on needs and problems can mire a congregation in discouragement—and how, by focusing on memories of the congregation at its best—members are able to build on those positive experiences as they shape the church’s future. Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to the lives of congregations.