What Churches Can Learn From Public Libraries
Reverend Chase Peeples is the Pastor at Park Hill Christian Church. Pastors are communicators, and this message is one that resonates with the mission and vision of the Parkville Living Center, despite the PLC not being a church.
“I thought about […] your work with Parkville Living Center as I wrote an article”
– Chase P.
Today is the third anniversary of the morning my mother died from an inoperable brain tumor. I’ve been thinking about her more than usual as this date approached. Some of the best memories of my mother are of our regular trips to the public library when I was a child. My mother was a lifelong avid reader who would bring home piles of books to read. Near the end of her life, she shared with me how it grated on her as a child when the librarian in her small Arkansas town refused to allow her to check out books she was interested in because they were books about subjects for boys not girls. Perhaps that’s why she encouraged me to check out whatever books I wanted. I would come home with stacks of books so tall there was no way I could ever finish them, but my mother never minded. I learned libraries are magical places. Just imagine a place where you can take home as much as you like for free with the only requirement being you must bring it back so the next person can do the same. Magic.
It’s too bad most American churches refuse to function in a similar way. Our giving to our communities comes with strings attached. We offer worship services, programs and ministries explicitly for free, but the implicit expectations are those who partake of what we offer will join our churches, increase our membership rolls, raise our attendance figures and most importantly give to our budgets. The almighty figures of weekly attendance and contributions drive everything we do. Given Jesus’ selfless giving of his very life, one might think we would know better. I realize libraries are funded by taxes, have membership drives and take donations, but everyone knows what their mission is–to serve their communities. I expect most people would say the same is not true for churches. Declining numbers and budgets have only heightened the anxiety of congregations and led churches to adopt bunker mentalities. We are less likely to serve the people around us. Our communities rightly understand we serve them for our own selfish reasons.
Sociologists, community planners and social service providers have declared we are losing so-called “third spaces” in our communities. Third spaces are places where people spend time and build relationships other than home (first place) and work (second place). Traditionally third spaces could be houses of worship, community centers, barber shops and hairdressers, coffee shops and bars, and yes, libraries. Yet, the combination of zoning which isolates people by income, age, race, etc. along with technology allowing for online connection, shopping, entertainment etc. has led to dwindling numbers of third places. Architects, planners and government leaders have learned that communities without third places lead to social isolation (especially for seniors) and declines in community health of every sort.
Public libraries continue to meet this need for a third place in all kinds of ways besides the very important service of supplying free books, periodicals and similar material. A University of Pennsylvania study described public libraries as “dynamic, social responsive institutions, a nexus of diversity, and a lifeline for the most vulnerable among us.” (When was the last time you heard a church described that way?) Libraries partner with area health systems and social services to address community needs. They provide “neutral” meeting spaces and public events responding to community demand. They offer literacy programs, assistance to immigrants, programs for children, support to LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. They provide access to technology many people cannot otherwise access including internet access, computers and printers. Libraries even help feed their communities via community gardens, farmers markets and nutrition programs. The list of creative services libraries provide is endless.
One of the greatest things libraries offer their communities is grace. In our commodified society where everything has a price and most interactions are transactional, libraries are the exception. You can use a library whoever you are even if you do not pay taxes to support it. Increasingly libraries are doing away with fines, because they realize the fines penalize the people who need library services the most. In a society intent on trying to sell us something at every turn, libraries remind us of how great it is to share, borrow and return things. We don’t have to get everything from an Amazon van and then pay for a storage unit to hold all our stuff we didn’t need in the first place. Instead, we can simply borrow it from the library and return it–for free!
90% of Americans describe their local library as “friendly and welcoming.” Two thirds of Americans say closing of their local library would have a major impact on their community. 50% said they had visited their local library in the last six months. As a local minister, I can tell you the chances of your average church getting such good ratings is slim and none. Maybe it is time we consider why this is the case.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
Our mission is to engage the whole individual; mind, body and soul through connection, education, events and activities that celebrate our personal life journey within our diverse and dynamic community.
In the heart of Parkville, a space in which individuals commune to learn, support, and foster the mind, body and soul throughout the various life stages we each encounter.
How We Got Started
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Where We Are Now
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