As my time at divinity school came to a close, almost 18 years ago, my church history professor made me promise him that I wouldn't stop reading. I wondered why he made such a bizarre request, but I gladly promised. After a few years of pastoring I realized why he made me make that promise. I discovered a bundle (I believe that is the proper nomenclature of more than two clergy) of clergy colleagues who stopped active/critical reading after they graduated.
I've been, I believe, a "stable"reader during my pastoral tenure.
I try to read 50 books a year. The titles of which are predictable: Biblical commentaries, church life, church problems, church solutions, books on prayer, books on self care. Nevertheless, I am surprised how the demands of the job, personal interests, and vocational aspirations shape and direct my reading. For example, I realize the importance of reading more fiction than non-fiction (fiction feeds my imagination more). But I never foresaw the day where I would voluntarily read a book on streets, this is what riding my bike has done to me.
Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars by Samuel I. Schwartz
from the prologue, "Street Smart tells the story of a transformation in the common travel decisions made daily and weekly in the industrialized world generally, the United States specifically. Its focus is a modest 9.72 miles - the distance of the average automobile trip, including to work, to shopping, to social encounters, to entertainment - how we've done so historically and how were going to be doing it in the future." That may not sound like the kind of book the average pastor would read, but it should be. Because the churches we serve are on streets and people get there, largely, via cars. But what if the formula changes? What if people start walking, biking, taking public transit to church more?
Rather than offer a regular book review I will of a book review for pastors (why should a pastor read this book).
How is church life shaped and altered by street design and street policy? Although this book never addresses this question, if a pastor kept this question in her mind as she read this book she would develop a more intentional approach to church life on the street level.
Church life was been dramatically shaped by two national policies: Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (which provided the funding for the interstate highway system) and the G.I. Bill (which only provided guaranteed loans for new
homes). Take these two policies and you have an incentive and subsidizing for folk to move out of urban centers to the suburbs. These policies shaped church life and growth (and decline) since the 1950s. But we are now seeing a generation, almost singlehandedly, reversing these polices!
Despite cheap gas, despite low car loans, despite the Chevy "denim" and "techno pink" car colors Millennials are driving less, biking more, and moving back into urban centers (as are other age groups). Cities are slowly being transformed back to their pre-car pasts with an emphasis on dense urban centers, public transit and walkability.
This book will give a pastor some reasons for hope and some reasons why they should be involved in the shape and direction of streets and urban policy. This involves showing up at zoning meetings, participating in Open Streets, and encouraging church members to take public transit, walk, and bike to worship and church life.
I don't foresee a revival of numbers and church plants in urban centers. But I can see urban/neighborhood churches experiencing new life, still as small communities, and possibly flourishing in light of Americans' desire to live in urban areas.