How one local Presbyterian church encourages people to “think local” and put down their spiritual roots close to home rather than shop for a bigger and better experience.
It is another example of how churches–even evangelical ones–are re-discovering the power and possibility of smaller, more local congregations.
Instead of encouraging parishioners to drive many miles to find the church with the most exciting music or preaching or the best coffee shop or child care—attractions that help build megachurches—Rev. Cannata wants people to put down religious roots where they live. Redeemer’s current membership of about 200 consists predominantly of worshipers in their 20s or 30s, a demographic that these days is notoriously difficult to get inside church doors. The members include tech entrepreneurs, charter-school teachers and nonprofit managers—not much in common, except that they almost uniformly say that they appreciate the idea of having a neighborhood religious institution.
Millennials have lower rates of car ownership than their parents and grandparents, and not only for environmental or economic reasons. Many like the idea of living “in walking distance” to bars, coffee shops and even church. That might describe Eileen McKenna, a 20-something Redeemer member and violinist who moved to New Orleans with her husband, a drummer, a few years ago. She trains horses during the day and plays music in the evenings. She notes that the “church scene” is not a separate part of her life. “I see people at my church in my daily life” and at her music gigs as well.
People behave a certain way when they expect they will run into their fellow churchgoers, notes Will Tabor, a campus minister at Tulane University and a Redeemer member, who says he also often sees other congregants during the week.
In describing what we Episcopalians might call “parishes”, Cannata thinks about a ‘theology of place.’ How do people who live and have been raised in a mobile society discover God where they are?
When worshipers come from across town to attend Redeemer, Rev. Cannata doesn’t turn them away, but he does make a point of asking if they have looked for a church closer to home.
Part of his “theology of place” comes not from the Gospels but from the bible of neighborhood preservationists, Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of American Cities” (1961). Jacobs’s influential critique of urban planning decried the clear-cutting of neighborhoods in the name of development, emphasizing instead the importance of citizens working together to revitalize city life. Rev. Cannata says he has read the book four times.