My seminary building is a lot like many parishes… It is on a Main Street, literally, but situated in a way that no one would ever naturally try to enter it. When it comes to having any actual relationship with the reality of the community it is not ever going to happen by people naturally coming inside. It is also never going to happen by any meeting or plan that gets put together inside the seminary compound.
Now to be clear I am all for seminary compounds. I maintain a carol in the remotest corner of the library stacks and can get work done there I cannot get done anywhere else. The church has to maintain places and worship that allows for isolation. Jesus fled the crowds and the disciples on a regular basis for good reason (mainly the fact that people have a tendency to be frustrating as all get out). One can reflect in isolation, one can learn from mistakes in isolation, one can even go so far as to strategize scenarios in isolation… What an individual or group cannot do, isolated in a seminary or church compound, is effectively plan or relate to the community around them.
Sitting in my carol or church office, gathering a group of parishioners or seminarians in the parlor, to plan out ministry and mission will in the end create plans only capable of falling flat on their faces. These plans relate to the neighborhood as to exclusive consumers. The church might use bread from a local bakery at its Eucharist but it views the bakery as a place from which to purchase and consume not as a space that allows the church to enter into the Holy. The church might create a meaningful and viable community garden on their land but see it as a way the neighborhood can consume the church’s theology about Eco-Justice. These are things that might look “missional” or “emergent” but are simply a continuation of capitalist Christianity.
The cure for this is “officeless” and even “homeless” clergy. Now I am NOT advocating that clergy should not have studies and safe secure places to live. What I am saying is that clergy should not have “offices” like a doctor or a CEO and that parishes should not have “conference rooms” like corporations, aka remote places that people go to for a specialist or where data, marketing strategies, and growth prediction algorithms are analyzed on high. Now to be clear there is essential spirit filled ministry in data analysis, marketing strategy, and growth prediction algorithms, the church needs to support and recognize the value of these ministries for itself and the world. Life giving Godly mission cannot live on theory alone, however.
This is why it is essential that the local coffee shop or diner be likened to the clergy’s living room or office. Any Main Street has that place, the place that organically forms a hub for the community where people talk, the mayor shows up to get the beat of what is going on, where the owner is a central part of the local better business bureau. This is where the clergy has to be. Not to set up in the corner an extension of the Parish’s isolated space a few blocks away but to become an empathized and knowledgable part of the community. To be sought after to interact with the community not because their is an office in a church down the street but because as an individual they are a valuable part of the community that is part of the heart of the day to day life of what is going on.
It is only when this happens, when the community’s living room is also the living room of the clergy, that actual Missional/Emergent church dreams can enter into the emerging mission of God in the world.