On a warm day during Lent, you’re driving by a church in a suburban neighborhood. You see a Christmas wreath hanging on the church door. Quick, what’s your first thought? Is it, “That’s the place for me!” or “What’s wrong with those people?” Church buildings convey volumes of information, much of it by accident.
Recently I’m working on a pair of projects on opposite ends of the congregational survival spectrum. One project is a survey of the vulnerability of Philadelphia’s “sacred places.” The other is a freelance writing gig for Association Reserves, a company that does “capital plans” for various nonprofits, including congregations. The Philadelphia project is about the ever-looming threat of congregational closure, while capital plans are all about sustainability and thriving. Sometimes the contrast makes me dizzy!
by Sarai Schnucker Rice
Six years ago, I made my very first trip overseas – to New Zealand – and it was fabulous! Breathtaking scenery, generous people, amazing art. With the exception of the indigenous Maori culture, which was literally another world, I felt like I “got” everything about the country.
My next trip? China. And again it was fabulous, but this time I “got” nothing. I couldn’t automatically tell whether someone was well-off or not. I couldn’t distinguish one neighborhood from another. I had no way to process cultural norms like split pants or outdoor kitchens. That’s when I realized for the first time that I carry in my brain an enormous vocabulary of visual cues that didn’t apply in China, and that I was used to processing these cues at lightning speed without even noticing.
We do this with churches all the time – we look at the building and draw conclusions without even noticing.