Towards Authentic Placemaking

“What turns nondescript space into a particular place is what embodied persons experience or do there.. the challenge is to play Christ in ten thousand places, and this means place-making” (Vanhoozer 2014 p175-176)

The question that Ive pondered over the last few weeks isnt ‘whats the difference between a space and place’, more- what kind of placemaking is authentic? and does authenticity matter in the pursuit of placemaking anyway?

As a youthworker one of the ongoing dilemmas, especially in the kind of youthwork that i’m involved in with DYFC, is the question of ‘when is it appropriate, or when should we tell young people about faith, about salvation, about Jesus?

On the streets, we don’t work with young people who are actively interested, or for whom Jesus has been anything like a predominant feature of their day, their school or family life, its much the same in the junior clubs or mentoring in the schools.  The young people attend the clubs for a variety of reasons, or we meet them on the streets with open, inclusive, conversations, stemming from christian values that underpin the work.

Equally other spaces exist for you, in your youth work, in the centre, in the church based youth fellowship, the drama club, the after school group.

Spaces are inhabited by ourselves as youthworkers and young people- created in such a way to either attract, to have conversations with, to educate, to entertain, the social spaces have been constructed in such a way. Cultures of the group, dynamics of the groups, activities and discipline all stem from the people in the space, its history.

The question is, then, how important is it that for a space to become a place where God communicates, or is discovered is in an authentic way?

If you think about the image of the earthquake, or more specifically the ariel photos of the earths crust as it has moved like this below:

instead of the earth plates moving to cause an earthquake (apologies for the bad science) – but what about the image of the earth cracking open a little to let the light shine through?

If it really is that there are thin spaces of the earth surface and the light is easier to shine through, and thicker spaces elsewhere – is it authenticity of the context that allows the appropriate light to shine?

So, what about the type of space that it created, under what pretensions, values and structures means that to open up the space for God to be discovered is appropriate and likely to find as suitable hearers and discoverers?

At the acoustic cafe in Perth, we created a space where young people gathered to play, listen to music and socialise, in the first few weeks it was felt appropriate to give a short message from the front about faith. Somehow we’d earned that right after all it was a space we had given to young people, thus we had a right to do this. It was uncomfortable. not because the message was uncomfortable, but it was inauthentic to the space, it wasnt what young people expected or why they were there, it was imposed.

Instead we left bibles on the coffee tables to be thrown around or burned. Yet when it was appropriate to young people they’d ask about them, read them and be interested, we created places authentic to the space where collaboratively God could be discovered, places that fit the tone of the space.

If its an informal setting – why does ‘the God bit’ occur with the formality of school?  ie ‘this is the bit to be listened to?’ (shut up johnny at the back)

The fear we might have is that people wont come to events or activities if they know that something is going to be said, such as a band ‘with a christian message’  or the fun day at a theme park followed by some random christian giving a testimony.  Its as if the right has been earned because the space has been created – that the God will be accepted and become known in the space. Even if people know its going to happen – does that make it authentic to the space?

Nicholas Healy argues that the role of the Spirit is to confuse conformity and work over and above what is settled. (Healy 2001) What this might mean is that for a few people – despite it being and seeming inauthentic that a few people on a few occasions will respond to God in the space, the spirit will move to disrupt, and something that looks just a bit awkward is enlightened by the unpredicatable movement of the spirit. Yet should the unpredictable be aimed for and ‘hope for the Spirit to act’ to validate inauthenticity?

When i was training for Oasis Trust back in the day we were given street evangelism training. Or should i say balloon modelling training. Or should i say an afternoon to try and blow one balloon up. The idea being that if we used balloons to generate a crowd on the streets, then this would generate interest and so then we could talk to people about our events, or share a testimony. Yeah right. People go into a shopping centre to go shopping. Maybe the Spirit might humour us by guiding us to one or two people – and often that then is narrated as success for them and an approach that could have offended and upset countless others.

Surely if the Spirit might work in situations that are awkward and inauthentic – how much more when the space created is done with  authenticity- the appropriate method for the created space. Is it our role to endeavour to create authentic spaces so that the light might shine in the everyday cracks that might be opened up, and use appropriate tools to open up those cracks.

The church is to enact parables, to be theatre in dramatic conversations, to play appropriate performances in the space. The Spirit might work to redeem even the most inappropriate place-making endeavour,  but the Spirit might only have so many  ‘bail-out’ tokens. Creating places in empty space is part of the communicative act of God, its what he did in creation, the space was formless and empty, in the spaces created where might God communicate – rather just be spoken of and on behalf of.



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