Thursday, December 3, 2015

Cool Church

We’re beginning to see a push for walkable cities. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a walkable city is one in which an automobile is not a requirement. You can walk (or ride a bicycle) to the store. You can walk to work. You can walk wherever you want to go. It turns out that walkable cities are healthier cities, which is due to residents being more active and because of better air quality. Walkable cities are less stressful. Apparently, they are also cool. Walkable cities have more young people than other cities.

The cool factor of walkable cities got me thinking. There are a number of churches that structure their worship services around being cool. The preacher is more likely to have a tattoo than to wear a suit. The music is new. Their praise team uses lighting that would make a rock band envious. They offer classes focused on things that interest young people. But for all that these churches are doing to look cool, I don’t recall seeing any that are trying to fit within the walkable city model. If walkable cities are attracting young people, then surely a church that wants to attract young people should be walkable. But what does that look like.

As with cities, walkability is often an afterthought for churches. Ask most pastors where we make a first impression with visitors and they’ll tell you it is in the parking lot. Can I find parking near the door? Where is the door? But if the parking lot is the answer, then we’ve bypassed walkability. Before people ask where they are going to park, they are first going to answer the question, “How do I get there?” For many church goers, the only good answer is to get in a car and drive.

Here in Dallas-Fort Worth, we have a bunch of megachurches. The largest, I suppose, is Fellowship Church in Grapevine. It is built on a frontage road in an industrial park, across a major highway from a very large mall. The closest residence to their front door is a mobile home 1.8 miles away and it would take 35 minutes to walk, or about 10 minutes to ride a bicycle. I see that as about as extremely non-walkable as a church is likely to get, even though it is one of those churches that attempts to be cool.

Many churches have walkable features by accident. Small and mid-size churches are often surrounded by residences. Our church has the added benefit of a bus stop on the north side of our property. But there are some things that are missing. For one thing, the pedestrian walkway on our property doesn’t connect to the sidewalk on the street. That doesn’t prevent walkers, but it is like going to someone’s house and finding leaves blocking their front door, because they always enter through the garage. It just isn’t very welcoming. Another thing our church is missing is bicycle racks. It isn’t that there isn’t a place to secure a bicycle. The cages over the air conditioners are quite secure and near an entrance, but a bicycle rack near the main entrance sends the message that bicycles are welcome.

But to be truly cool, a church needs to be located in a walkable area. That means that a young couple can wake up on Sunday morning in their apartment building. They ride the elevator down to the street below and instead of getting their car out of the garage, they walk a block or two to reach their church. If they go by bicycle, they might go even farther. After church, they walk to one of the restaurants nearby. Then they walk back home. Other than the inability to purchase land in a cool neighborhood, it seems like a smaller church will find it easier to be walkable than a large church. I imagine a church in a walkable area might meet in a storefront. Parking would be along the street or in nearby parking garages and public lots. Bicycle racks and bike sharing kiosks would be nearby.