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Writing in 1933 German geographer Walter Christaller came up with a theory called “Central Place Theory”. His idea was to provide an explanation for the distribution of services and people around cities.
Now Christaller was a clever chap and it’s over 20 years since I studied his theory and wrote a very average dissertation on it at University, but here’s what I remember about his theory: assuming that there are no geographical barriers (high mountains, raging rivers, impassable railway lines etc.), and that people being lazy always get what they need from the most convenient (local) place then the distribution of specific goods and services will be directly related to the density of the population. That means to sustain a shop selling newspapers, bread and sweets you only need a few people living close by but to sell specialist bespoke furniture you need access to lots of people.
The beauty of the theory is that it’s really simple and kind of obvious. Newsagents are local, ‘John Lewis’ is in the city centre. People want to buy a paper and a loaf of bread (Christaller called these “lower order goods”) from somewhere they can get to quickly without a car and people are willing to travel and pay to park to buy floral curtains (“higher order goods”).
Now here’s the question: in Christaller’s theory is the gospel offered by the church a “lower” or “higher” order good? Is it something people should travel to get or something that should be near to them? Is it everyday apples and milk or Emma Bridgewater plates?
As the church in the UK shrinks and less and less people “want” to go to church the gospel inevitably ends up like a “higher order” good whereby churches need access to larger populations in order to be able to continue in the way they once did. That means that over time the church scene becomes dominated by larger churches pulling in people from larger distances, and they set themselves up to do that job well with nice buildings, big car parks, and attractive programmes.
Now that’s all very well (and I’m not digging at big church) but in truth the gospel is not a “higher order” good, it’s an everyday, need it all the time, can’t last a day without it “lower order” good and so it needs to be local to me and those I want to reach. You see, if Christaller is right, there is a real danger that as the shrinking church becomes more like John Lewis’ we might be inadvertently saying something untrue about the gospel, giving the impression both to insiders and outsiders that it’s minority interest, for occasional use and can be accessed only by those wealthy enough to travel.
To avoid that we must keep church local, focused on communities, offering the gospel to people in a place where they are. Like our local newsagent we might need to be content with wobbly shelves and worn out floors because the gospel isn’t a special treat but an everyday essential.