By Alan Roxburgh, cross-posted with permission from The Missional Network.
Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder, Ken Greenberg (Vintage Canada) $21
At first glance this would appear to be a book that has little direct interest for a busy denominational executive or local church leader. But it’s worth the read. It is one of those books that crosses over genres and types. It surprises one with its insight into the art of cultivating the kind of imaginative change leaders are facing in the midst of deep, disruptive transformations.
Ken Greenberg is an architect addressing questions of how to make cities the creative, livable spaces of human thriving they were always meant to be. He learned his trade in the early seventies just as the oppressive modernism in city construction had reached its apex. Architects, urban planners and politicians were beginning to recognize that modernism, in all kinds of unanticipated ways, had created cities that weren’t contributing to the thriving of people in urban life. By that time a whole way of design, planning and construction had come to shape city life. Old, mixed-use neighborhoods had been bulldozed to make way for sparse, functional high rise towers separated from work, play and shopping in the conviction that this rationalization of efficiency would result in the urban utopia. Pathways through neighborhoods had been replaced by sleek highways and passovers that quickly moved people in cars through cities while also reducing the amount of face-to-face street-level engagements among people.
All of this social construction of reality was the work of experts and professionals who believed deeply in the new modern, rational, efficient design of social life. Onto this stage stepped Greenberg’s mentor – the decidedly un-professional, Jane Jacobs. She, alongside a host of others, began asking basic questions about the nature of a city and the ways we thrive as human beings in built environments. Greenberg’s story is the story of how he, with others, wrestled with these questions. They did not work from a blank sheet but had to engage a tough reality – the already constructed reality of high towers that had ghettoized people, strip malls, distant shopping centers, highways that pulled neighborhoods apart and a whole host of bi-laws that regulated and prevented innovation from taking place. In the midst of all this were the people in all those professionally designed communities – they were deeply suspicious of what another group of experts would do to them. Walking Home chronicles Greenberg’s journey of discovering how to work with these realities in order to cultivate a radically different imagination for living together in the city. It is still a work in progress!
So what does any of this have to do with denominational executives and local church leaders wrestling with the hard, day in and day out realities of imagining new life for the church? A great deal. Today, we too are dealing with a massive form of church that we now know was a huge mistake – the corporate denomination. From its many centers, staffed by professionals and experts it created a brand name, cradle-to-grave system from one end of the country to another. The world that made this system work is long gone but the structures and imagination, like the high towers that warehoused people, are still in place. Denominational executives still struggle under the weight of systems that bear no relationship to the realities of the worlds in which people live. Local leaders still work under the illusions of this professionalism even as they confess their own confusion and frustrations with the programs sent at them.
How do you creatively engage these realities? Too many of us know that the proposals to just scrap the old for some ‘new’ thing is basically silly and illusory akin to telling cities to just pull down all those towers, remove the highways, erase the strip malls and all would be well.
How do you create an alternative narrative that invites the people of God to join with you in constructing churches and church systems that contribute to the thriving of God’s people? Greenberg may not have intended it but his book is rich in descriptions of how to go about this.
Alan Roxburgh is a pastor, teacher, writer and consultant with more than 30 years experience in church leadership, consulting and seminary education. Alan has pastored congregations in a small town, the suburbs, the re-development of a downtown urban church and the planting of other congregations. He has directed an urban training center and served as a seminary professor and the director of a center for mission and evangelism. Alan teaches as an adjunct professor in seminaries in the USA, Australia and Europe. His books include: Leadership, Liminality and the Missionary Congregation, Introducing the Missional Church, Missional Map Making and Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood.