Navigating Diverse Cultural Differences—From the Church Architect’s Desk
Aaron and Michelle Reyes sat down with Carey Nieuwhof this week on Barna’s ChurchPulse Weekly, to talk about making space for difficult conversations as church planters of a multiethnic church. They discussed how they navigate racial and political differences within their congregation, what they have done to meet their community’s needs, and future innovations they dream of for their physical gathering space.
If you haven’t listened to this episode, “Aaron and Michelle Reyes on Navigating Diverse Cultural Differences During a Pandemic,” you can listen here, and don’t forget to download the free discussion guide!
It’s been so much fun to explore conversations about church spaces in a new way over the past six weeks of podcasts with Barna’s ChurchPulse Weekly. The opportunity to listen to Aaron and Michelle Reyes this week was a unique conversation with a church that we often wouldn’t get to work with—a small urban church plant—but one that is representative of a lot of growing young churches today. It’s so important to include their voices in this research.
Sign up to receive updates on the new research project Aspen Group and Barna are launching, Making Space for Formation!
Inconvenience, Permanence, and Formation
One of the things that I think bigger churches with more financial resources can learn from smaller churches is that inconvenience develops community—which is to say, there’s a trade-off when we create more convenient spaces. Michelle and Aaron illustrated this in a few different anecdotes, including talking about their stolen storage trailer. The experience of shared inconvenience and even suffering was something that brought them closer together as a church.
Aaron also talked about how the supposed convenience of digital worship services actually “eliminates the ability to participate” for poor and marginalized communities—that’s pretty stark language pointing out that we sometimes unintentionally exclude the very groups that Jesus so often sought out to serve! Likewise, Michelle mentioned single people are dependent on the community of the church for a sense of family and connectedness.
So many of the churches who come to us for help with their spaces are dealing with inconvenience—they have run out of space, or it the parking lot is too full and it’s a challenge to escape the sea of cars in between services. Or they want designated space for a particular ministry so they don’t have to set up and tear down every week. But I think sometimes we miss the opportunities in those inconveniences to build community. Who hasn’t seen the sense of togetherness that develops when everyone starts stacking chairs at the end of Sunday morning services?
However, Aaron also talked about the challenge of not being seen as a legitimate church when they didn’t have their own physical space. In cities, especially, where people are more transient, it’s easy to see a church as transient too when they don’t have a permanent location in the neighborhood. As Aaron said, marginalized communities tend to feel this even more acutely. The lack of a church building feels like living out of a hotel room.
Solving Problems and Creating Culture
It’s easy to make assumptions that space doesn’t matter—“we can do church anywhere!”—or that just having space or having more space will somehow solve the church’s problems. Don’t get me wrong, we strongly believe that good space can help to solve problems for the church! But there’s always a tradeoff to consider, and that tradeoff comes in the culture we create through our use of space. Not having a building might mean more time spent on ministry, but it also might mean less legitimacy in the community and fewer opportunities to reach people. Having more convenient space might save time and require fewer volunteers, but it also eliminates some of the opportunities for relationships to develop through shared work and experiences.
One of my favorite things about this episode was the creativity that Aaron and Michelle have in thinking about future spaces. Their vision to create space for a barbershop or a trade school as a way to disciple their community is something I wish more churches might imagine! I mentioned at the beginning of the episode that my hope is for churches to start to imagine anew what might be possible with space that they didn’t imagine before.
The church has a unique opportunity as a non-profit entity with a mission that does not subscribe to the priorities of the culture-at-large to create something different from the consumer world. From incorporating fine art, to creating spaces for the community simply out of a sense of generosity, to building in ways that blur lines between socioeconomic demographics and cultures, the church can do things that no other entity can.
I can't imagine it's easy to lead a multi-ethnic, demographically diverse congregation in a historically neglected part of Austin, Texas as the Reyes are doing. It takes great creativity, vision, and grit. My hope is that the Church will apply that same creativity, vision, and grit to the spaces we create, and in turn, the culture of formation that we build.
This is only the beginning of our research with Barna Group on this topic of the theology of space. Sign up to receive updates on the research project, Making Space for Formation.
About Derek DeGroot
Derek DeGroot is President of Aspen Group. After graduating from University of Illinois-Chicago’s architecture program, Derek began his career in residential design. At the same time, his church was embarking on a building project. Derek quickly realized that churches needed to find a better way to build. Soon after, he discovered and joined Aspen Group in 2007.