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The local church and gated communities

15 May 2009

Bishop Alan’s Blog: Birds of a feather?:

I’ve been reading Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort: How the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart. This shows the devastating effect on social cohesion of gated communities in many areas of American life. But this is not just a sociological problem; it’s a missional issue. What hapens when we do Church like this?

Well, I suppose, we are saying that we believe we can only do our Christianity with real people if we get the option to pick the kinds of people they are. And that doesn’t include all the people whose homes we drive by on our way to Church.

It is indeed a missional issue.

We have lots of these “gated communities” in South Africa with new ones springing up everywhere. But I wonder how accurate it is to call them “communities”?

Another blogger writes Dale Williams: On being a recovering racist:

Often I have taken Margaret, the lady who helps us bring up our children, to her home, also in a suburb on the Cape Flats. We chat about our different worlds. My children live in walled gardens and we have little daily contact with our neighbours and almost no sense of community.

Her children walk freely on the streets in a community which stretches for blocks. Everybody knows everybody else and mothers keep an eye on not only their children but also those of neighbours as they play in the streets.

I’m sad for the financial poverty of her world while I am envious of the strong sense of community. Her neighbourhood is opposite to mine.

Ten years ago a new Orthodox Church started in Midrand. They met in a house on a smallholding where the priest lived. They used the sitting-room and dining room for the Divine Liturgy, and on big occasions used the double garage. They bought a piece of land on a bare hillside from which one had a view of the freeway between Johannesbutrg and Pretoria in the distance on the other side of the valley. It was on the edge of the suburb of Noordwyk (which, being interpreted for the benefit of Americans, “suburb” is a “neighbourhood” or “subdivision”), which was full of suburban houses, each on their own plot of land, with trees in the gardens just beginning to reach over the roofs of the houses, to present a green vista from the freeway.

After five years the temple of St Sergius of Radonezh was ready for use. A bishop came from Russia, and with the local bishop consecrated it (the bishop from Russia is now the Patriarch of Moscow). And now it is well established. But the bare hillside is no more. It is now all over gated “communities”.

St Sergius of Radonezh Church in Midrand, with members of our Mamelodi congregation who were visiting for the partonal festival

St Sergius of Radonezh Church in Midrand, with members of our Mamelodi congregation who were visiting for the partonal festival

When the church was still being built, the congregation occasionally went out from the house after services and held prayers at the church site, on the foundations, and on a couple of occasions were joined by a bloke from neighbouring Noordwyk who walked up to join in, and said that when the building was completed he would like to join the church. But how many people in the “gated communities” could or would do that? They’d have a long way to walk to the gate in many instances, and it might be at the far end from the church, so they’d have to walk all the way back.

And now megacities are all the rage. Midrand is part of Johannesburg, and across the hill, where you can still see the freeway over the roofs of the gated communities, is the City of Tshwane, of which Pretoria is now only a small part. From the freeway you can still see the golden domes of the church, if you know where to look. But soon the freeway will be lined with wall-to-wall factories, which may obscure the view.

So how does a church surrounded by “gated communities” reach out to its neighbourhood?

The first time I saw a gated community, it wasn’t gated. It was about 35 years ago, and back then it was called “cluster housing”, or, as an architect friend called it, “high-density low-rise housing”. I went with some friends to look at such a development, in Yellowwood Park, in Durban. It was called Woodhaven, and the houses were in clusters of 12, built around a central open space. They were sold on the “share block” system, which meant that one didn’t have individual title, but shares in the company that owned and managed the site. At the time it struck us as an interesting idea, with more possibilities for community living than the detached suburban houses that were most common up till then. Such a place could be a good base for a new monastic community or Christian commune, for example.

The new gated communities have one thing in common with Woodhaven — they are high-density, low-rise. But their design philosophy is completely different. Woodhaven could facilitate community, if one wanted it to. The dwellings in the new gated communities are designed to exclude it as far as possible. Though the houses are close together, they are designed in such a way that as far as possible you can come and go without seeing or meeting your neighbours. Privacy trumps community.

If we had ever fulfiled our pleasing daydream of a community in a place like Woodhaven, however, it would not have been a local church. A community like that is what missiologist Ralph Winter called a “sodality”, a group of people drawn together by a common aim or vision or task. A monastery is a sodality, a new monastic community is a sodality, a commune is a sodality, a missionary society is a sodality. But the local church is a modality.

A modality includes different generations, it includes people of different social groups. It includes rich and poor, black and white, Greek and xeni, old and young. It includes the tall, the hamfisted, the pompous and the good-looking.

So how does one have mission in a gated community? Or, as in Midrand, a place where a substantial proportion of the population lives in gated communities? One possibility might be to try to establish a church within each gated community. A house church, in other words. But it still doesn’t solve the problem of inclusivity. Gated communities are usually designed for three kinds of people: the rich, the very rich and the filthy rich. A neighbourhood church in one of those places might find it difficulty to be a modality.

In Orthodox ecclesiology the local church is the diocese, with its bishop. So though many parishes may seem to be homogenous, composed primarily of one kind of people, in the diocese we are all in one pot. So there are Greek, Russian and Serbian parishes, composed largely of people who speak those languages, and the services, or a substantial portion of them, in those languages. There are, however, some parishes that are more of a mixup. Perhaps on the basis of that, one could justify the homegeneity of house churches in a gated community, because they also form part of a larger community that is not homogeneous.

But as Bishop Alan points out, it’s a missional problem. I’m not sure exactly how one solves it. But a good start would be to see that it’s a problem, and to talk about it.

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