There was a time, decades ago, when homes were built with large front porches. It’s where family life and neighborhood conversation all convened. You could drive up and down any street in any small town and find people sitting on the porch, maybe an iced tea on the table next to the chair in which they sat, a paper fan in their hands, a newspaper on their laps, and a smile on their faces. Kids would drop their bikes in the front yard and sit on the front steps for a while to listen to the grown-ups talk. Every car that passed down the street got a friendly wave, no matter if the occupants were known or not. It’s how community was forged among neighbors. It’s how life was shared among friends. It’s how relationships deepened and life-long connections were made.
And then it happened… newer homes were designed in a different way. People opted for patios and decks off the back of the house rather than in the front. And the culture shifted. Grills appeared on the deck along with fancy porch furniture, piped-in sound, and fire pits. Landscaping gave privacy and families tended to cloister around themselves. Streets that were once filled with neighbors talking and swapping stories, laughing, and even sharing home baked goodies, soon became barren. Garage doors opened, cars slide inside, and quickly the door slammed shut again. Life wasn’t bad on the back porch, mind you… it was just different… more privacy, less interference, and fewer relationships. And interestingly enough, those neighbors who once stood in the front yard soon dissipated to backyards of their own. The occasional invitation to join another family on the back porch was rare… good when it happened, but rare.
The same thing has happened in church life. Churches once went to great lengths to have people join in the front-porch conversations. Neighbors were welcomed to come. People were warm, friendly, and engaging. Needs were met. Hearts were shared. Lives were intertwined. But somewhere along the way, the back porch became more important. The “family” became a little too exclusive. Those on the front porch were kept at arms-length and never really invited to the back porch. Churches lost the vision of being in community with the people who lived all around them. An insistence on doctrinal purity, Biblical correctness, church rules, and historically cemented mindsets kept new people, new thought, and new spirit away. Oh, it’s nice on the back porch. Everyone believes the same way, looks the same way, and judges others with the same contempt. Closed groups and closed minds like the privacy that the well-protected back porch offers. Enjoy it while it lasts. By 2030, 1/3 of all the churches that now exist in America will be closed. Neighbors will drive past the house and wonder where they will go to find community.
It’s not too late for the church. But it does require a new mindset. To be the neighbor on the front porch means churches will constantly remind themselves, “It’s not about what we want, but what they (outside world) need.” It will require flexibility, a willingness to be Spirit led, tolerance, grace, and a willingness to act like Christ in words, attitudes, and action. It will mean giving up the insistence of conformity so that a spirit of neighborliness takes root. Churches don’t have to abandon Biblical principles, core values, or healthy traditions… they just have to abandon intolerance, judgment, and caustic attitudes.
I’m not planning on building or buying another house anytime soon… but if I do, I’m going insist on a front porch. Community trumps privacy, neighbors are important, and life is too short to live exclusively on the back porch.
-Dr. Jon R Roebuck, Executive Director