Last week, Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan released a statement sharply criticizing the recent New York court decision to ban religious groups from meeting in New York public schools after school hours: "I disagree with the opinion written by Judge Pierre Leval that: 'A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church.' This is an erroneous theological judgment; I know of no Christian church or denomination that believes that merely holding a service in a building somehow ‘consecrates’ it, setting it apart from all common or profane use. To base a legal opinion on such a superstitious view is surely invalid. . . ." Keller is right and the reasoning does sound strangely superstitious, as if a religious group has somehow cast a spell on a classroom and that cannot be removed.
In addition to disagreeing with the judge's logic, Keller pointed out that these religious groups who use public school space are not simply taking resources from the local community. They are also serving that community. "A disproportionate number of churches that are affected by this prohibition are not wealthy, established communities of faith. They are ones who possess the fewest resources and many work with the poor." And it matters that they can find a meeting space in these communities, in a place where kids and parents are used to going.
If you speak with people from religious, particularly evangelical, communities you will inevitably hear them talking about "meeting people where they are in their spiritual journeys." By this they used to mean something simply metaphorical: Don't go up to some staunch atheist, hand them a bible, start preaching and expect them to take to your message. But increasingly, they mean something much more literal. Something they like to call "the theology of place." I spoke with one of Keller's disciples recently who told me he had read Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities four times already.
He thinks that it's time for American religious institutions of all stripes to return to something resembling the Catholic parish model, in which it is a neighborhood that determines the makeup of a church. People are much better able to keep track of each other's needs and meet them if they see each other regularly and outside of church as well. The Catholic church still has parishes, of course, but many of the faithful often opt to belong to one outside of their immediate neighborhood. The Mormon Church is still fairly strict about which geographically determined ward members belong to. In an era when Americans like to religion-shop and church-hop as if they are browsing for a new pair of pants, there is something important about this idea of tying faith communities to neighborhoods. (An interesting article along these lines appeared in Christianity Today recently.)
For religious leaders and members who are willing to tie themselves to a community, particularly a community in need, it is important that society find a way to support that. It is those bastions of civil society that will help rebuild impoverished neighborhoods. (Public schools are certainly not doing the job.) The least the government can do is not stand in their way.