Does your worship space open to the street or the parking lot?
While walking my dog, I noticed the church buildings in my neighborhood all seemed to have been built in one of two ways; they either have their main entrances facing the street or facing the parking lot in the back.
It struck me there is likely a difference in the way these churches are perceived by the people walking and driving past.
For example, if a church has an entrance facing the street, the community sees people walking in and out of the building before and after services.
The neighborhood can see the people who worship there, learn the rhythms of the church’s life and overhear the types of conversations they have.
The door, visible from the street, is an open invitation for passersby to become participants in that church’s community.
If a church’s main entrance is on the back of the building facing the parking lot, most pedestrians of those neighborhoods will never see people in or around the building; they’ll only see the building itself.
This type of construction makes the building more easily accessible for people who drive to the church, of course, because they don’t have to walk around to the front of the building to enter it.
Yet, that raises the question I’m working through following my walk.
Until relatively recently, churches were built around their neighborhoods.
The people who participated in the life of a church lived nearby and it was a center of the community’s life – not just on Sundays, but throughout the week.
When U.S. society began shifting to more suburban lifestyles, we became accustomed to commuting to work, school and church.
As more of us began driving to church, bigger parking lots were necessary; sanctuaries were built to accommodate the modified people flow.
So, the shift from having a front door on the street to one near the parking lot happened, I think, as our churches became less local and more commuter.
In this change, we’ve realized the church is no longer the same center of community it used to be because our people were no longer living and working nearby.
“Going to church” has become something we schedule, not something we do throughout the week. Even if we do it on both Sundays and Wednesdays, church just isn’t part of our daily existence in the way it once was.
Another big shift in our churches is online church. Especially since COVID-19 shut down our in-person services, it has become common for churches to broadcast our services through Facebook, YouTube or other livestreaming platforms.
This was a vital shift during the pandemic, but the larger trend has the intent of reaching people who no longer want or are unable to commute to our church buildings.
On the face of it, this shift toward online church seems to encourage our people to take another step away from the local community of a neighborhood church.
However, if we develop our online experiences with intentionality, online church can empower our people to embed themselves deeply in their local community and take the church with them in the palms of their hands.
The key is to no longer define “church” in terms of a weekly worship service. The act of being the church has never been confined to participating in worship services; we can’t let online church be confined that way, either.
We have to develop online spaces for discipleship, care, connection, support, lament, prayer and praise, and we have to do so in ways that are not limited to certain days of the week.
One of the most powerful, beautiful – and dangerous – aspects of online connectivity is that it is always available. We can engage online whenever and wherever we want or need.
An online church is always open. We don’t need our people to come to our buildings to be the church; they can be the church exactly where they are.
They can take our church into their neighborhoods, whether that neighborhood is within walking distance of our front door or on the other side of the country.
When our people have their church community at their fingertips, they have the tools, resources, motivation and support to embody the kingdom of God in every moment of their day.
The church is no longer a weekly destination or a service they attend, but a constant presence in their lives.
So, as we continue to figure out what it means to build online churches, we need to make sure it keeps in mind two things:
1. Church isn’t just a worship service; it is a commitment to a Christian life that permeates our days.
2. Online isn’t an experience that pulls us out of the “real” world; it allows us to empower our people to be more deeply, authentically engaged in their local communities wherever they are.
A digital marketing strategist who works closely with churches and other missional organizations. He has an M.A. in Theological Studies from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and is the lead for digital communications at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.