Faith Works 5-31-14
On the public square, virtual or otherwise
Something is happening in downtown Newark.
Right now, it's the Strawberry Festival. Michael Harris and his merry Kiwanian minions are keeping the ice cream and shortcake shoveled out to waiting customers with lots of berries on top, and across the Courthouse Square, the Squonk Opera is putting on amazing shows today and tomorrow thanks to the work of the Midland Theater crew.
Just this past Wednesday, inside the Midland, a series of short films by Newark High School students were shown to rousing and sincere applause from a countywide audience, hundreds who came to be inspired and impressed by what youth can see and share and cinematically express. Teachers and staff from NHS & the CTAG program, like Doug Swift and Travis DeFraites plus indispensible volunteer Jace Delgado, along with the Project Main Street team out of the Sparta Restaurant, Chris Ramsey and Stephen Fowler, were cheering them on (and I was getting tweets from Josh DeVoll about his son Grant being born as we were sitting there), plus a healthy contingent of Denison staff and faculty: there's just a spirit about that kind of community gathering that was present in that grand old room.
And on Tuesday before that, across the square and over one more street, word comes from Sarah Wallace of a dream fulfilled for Gib Reese, young at heart but feeling the years enough that he couldn't be with us to see it, but a Farmer's Market and renewal of the Market St./Canal St. corridor there from the parking garage (which will get its own face lift) over to the Old Jail, which is showing signs of new life of its own.
The week before, Denison had a full faculty retreat, arguably the first time that august institution has had an "all invited" faculty retreat since the first four professors sat in a room together in 1831, and it was held in downtown Newark. Not just at the Metropolitan (their base), but in spaces and places all around downtown, including the Advocate boardroom. Faculty walked from session to session saying "something is happening in downtown Newark," and I think they're right.
Downtowns will not be again what they once were. Everyone understands that. It won't be the retail and entertainment hub around which the entire community revolves. Retail is dispersed, first to outlying shopping centers up Mt. Vernon Rd., then down in Heath to malls and big boxes, now onto your sofa and the internet.
Entertainment and public gatherings still happen downtown, but they're no more central than is the multiplex in Easton or Weathervane Playhouse up off Price Rd. After a period of centralization, these functions of government and shopping and amusement are now distributed around the landscape, and are available literally in your home.
Once, as central cityscapes were the hub of a community, it only made sense for faith communities that wanted to make a statement and play a role in the shaping of a town to be downtown. Granville embodies this perfectly, the main intersection bracketed by four churches. Newark has steeples & church towers jutting up just around the edge of Courthouse Square on all four sides, keeping an eye on what goes on there and ready to offer a reflection, a comment, a prophetic statement.
But my own congregation, Newark Central Christian, made a decision after their 1946 fire to move away from the center, and relocated a mile up Mt. Vernon, just a step ahead of the first shopping plaza in this area barely another mile north. Those leaders in 1951 saw that the role of "central" places was changing.
Now we see new churches building out in the countryside, not feeling disconnected from the community or their communities. Web pages and social media and cell phones mean that the downtown location has no natural advantages over a rural location, and in fact can give your message and membership a wider reach – you're not just seen as part of one city or village or school district, but can relate to all of them.
People joke about Heath having no center, and that's simply true. In some ways it's the mall, other ways the school complex over on Licking View, during the summer it's the water park. But what is more physically true for the civically younger Heath is now practically true for all our communities. There is no center.
Putting the challenge before churches: how do you become a center? Because it doesn't happen by where you put your building. But by the same token, even a downtown church can become a center today, if it wants to.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he'd argue that the center is always wherever the Gospel is proclaimed. Tell him where you find a center (or how to build one) at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.