“What if?” is a Disney+ series that takes well-known characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and changes one thing to create an alternative timeline, such as “What if Peggy Carter was the one who became Captain America?” Likewise, this new series at Hacking Christianity asks “What if” in novel approaches to persistent questions about church growth and vitality. We may recoil at first but mind find ourselves drawing nearer to the idea. Take a read on this idea from a guest author and ask yourself…well, what IF?
What IF…We Replaced Local Churches with Apartment Complexes?
Rev. Kathy Neary
I am a dreamer. I stubbornly cling to the ideals of our faith and dream of how we might live into those ideals. My dreams are not of halfway schemes or slight adjustments to the status quo: I imagine ways to do what God calls us to do with joy and energy. I dream of ways to foster discipleship to Jesus Christ that completely transforms people into new beings. In my dreams I see us in communities of being made new folks, all in different stages of growth toward full humanity, all supporting the renewal of life on earth. These dreams give me hope and fill me with energy. Often to the consternation of my friends, I also think my dreams can and will become reality.
You might assume that my job as a small church consultant would put an end to my dreaming. It has come close. I spend my days immersed in facts about the United Methodist Church here in the Pacific Northwest and talking with people in congregations of less than 25 people. The picture is disheartening. The standard model of “church” in this area is of a pastor with a congregation that meets once a week in a building designed for a once-a-week worship experience. I won’t go into details, but these two facts summarize our current situation: 1) we are not fostering discipleship well in these local churches, and 2) we have now all the people we are ever going to have in these churches, and a large majority of these folks are quite elderly. This traditional mode of “being church” is ending. While this is a painful truth to face, I find great joy in imagining what will come next. I imagine a whole bunch of us opening to the possibilities God places before us.
A New Direction…
One of my dreams has us fostering discipleship among people using a residential model of ministry that replaces our current model relying on local churches. By residential model, I don’t mean separate monastic communities for a few people. I am envisioning apartment complexes providing homes for anyone who agrees to live grounded in these three Wesleyan values: do no harm, do all the good you can, and deepen your relationship with God or the Universe. These apartment complexes would provide spiritual and practical support to all residents as well as the folks who previously attended local churches. An example of the transition that might happen in the Pacific Northwest Conference is that within 10 years we would build 25 apartment complexes while simultaneously reducing the number of local churches to 40, from our current number of about 220.
The rationale for this vision is that discipleship (a transforming life in relationship with God and others) is fostered through relationships of mutual care, compassion, a shared struggle for justice, and love. Our current ministry model invites people to engage with like-minded others one hour a week. A residential model of discipleship invites people to live in a community in which they grow to share core values and commitments, and they encounter the transforming love of God.
…Already becoming real
We already have examples of apartment complexes built on the sites of former United Methodist Churches. Many are focused on housing seniors, but that is not the only option. We might dream of building communities for low-income families, new refugees, people exiting incarceration, young adults newly graduated from college, or some combination of these options. In all scenarios, we would provide people with opportunities to grow as disciples. Formal ministry would look like a combination of hospital chaplaincy and campus ministry: inviting and not coerced, experimental and not rote, addressing the immediate reality and not the past.
To build these communities, we would need to collaborate with city and county governments, private developers, and housing agencies. We have numerous examples now of private/public partnerships working well, so we have a foundation to build upon.
Dream with me…
Now wasn’t that fun? Dreaming of future possibilities for effective and faithful ministry should be a routine part of our United Methodist way of life, along with mechanisms to put dreams into action.
The United Methodist Church must become an organization that is built for innovation. Currently, we have few mechanisms or pathways for people to suggest and implement new ideas for the future. (In the Greater Northwest Area we have our Innovation and Vitality team promoting new ministries, but those efforts are narrow in scope and not designed to change our overall approach to ministry.) Our entire operational ethos is centered on maintaining and propping up the status quo. What if we had an annual meeting, the equivalent of our Annual Conference, that was devoted to dreaming about our future as United Methodists? What if every district had a Dreaming Superintendent, whose job it would be to gather dreamers and implementers of dreams from their area and let them have at it? What if, as we ready ourselves to elect four new bishops in the Western Jurisdiction, we elect people who, first and foremost, know how to encourage us to walk into the future with courage, imagination, and faith?
What if we did what God is calling us to do: Imagine “What If?”
Rev. Kathy Neary is an elder in the PNW Conference. She has served as a campus pastor (Washington State University), as pastor of 6 local church charges, and as a pastor for 2 interim ministry appointments. She is currently the small church consultant for the PNW Conference.
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