I’m a week into my sabbatical and have a few minutes to reflect on what I’m doing and where I’ve been. I’m calling my sabbatical project “Evangelism and Sacred Space,” which may sound exciting or off-putting, or both. Briefly put, I’m interested in how churches can respond to the rapidly changing religious scene in twenty-first century America, with growing numbers of people no longer identifying themselves as religious or as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In addition, people who do self-identify as religious or Christian are practicing their Christianity very differently than previous generations, with much lower regular attendance and institutional commitment. These trends have radical implications for congregations and denominations.
But those demographics are only part of what intrigues me. In Madison, for example, there is significant population growth downtown with millennials and retirees drawn to the restaurants, entertainment, and lifestyle of a vibrant downtown. So a second piece of my interest is in city planning and urbanism, specifically how can churches participate in creating vital neighborhoods and communities. Many city planners talk about “third places,” spaces in addition to home and workplace where people can find community and connection. Churches are often cited as examples of third places but it’s rare that churches actively think about how they can create such spaces for people besides their own members.
It seems to me that some churches have something to offer, namely sacred space. To enter a space like the neo-Gothic Grace Church, for many people is to enter a space unlike any other they experience regularly. The beauty and transcendence of such spaces call out to the deep yearning in our souls for God, even if we have no vocabulary to describe that yearning. Opening our doors, truly becoming a “third space” for Madison, is not just about creating community, it is about inviting people into a spiritual journey, the goal of which is God.
Finally, I am interested in finding ways to deepen and broaden community across the divides of race, class, and religion. At Grace, we have been exploring for several years how we might address the deep racial inequities and divisions in Madison. We have also sought to be a witness to the positive value of interfaith work. I hope to learn from others who are doing similar work.
My travels will take me up the East Coast from Richmond to Boston, to Seattle and Portland, and finally to San Antonio, where I will join my wife at the American Academy of Religion meeting and hopefully find time for a quick trip to Austin.
At the end of it all, I hope to be able to share with Grace and with anyone else who is interested some of my reflections on what I’ve learned, and some questions that might spur our own future work.