Eric Jacobsen speaks passionately about things such as sidewalks and storefronts. But he is not an architect or developer. He is a Presbyterian pastor.
As Jacobsen sees it, city planning has an important influence on religious experience. He is an advocate for "new urbanism," the architecture movement that calls for interdependence among residents, with neighborhoods in which shops and homes coexist, streets that are pedestrian-friendly and parks that are gathering places for residents.
New urbanism has become a mantra for people interested in restoring urban centers and reconfiguring suburban sprawl. Its designs have sprouted across the country, in new towns such as Seaside, Fla., and in the redevelopment of existing places, including Gaithersburg and West Palm Beach, Fla. The Congress for the New Urbanism started as a small movement 12 years ago and now includes more than 2,300 architects, developers, planners and urban designers.
Christian leaders also are adopting the movement. They say the philosophy behind new urbanism is a possible antidote to the isolation experienced by many churches and Christians. Across the country, influential Christians are thinking theologically about urban design and applying its principles to the church. They advocate for new urbanist concepts because they encourage people to share with one another, live among their neighbors and participate in a healthy exchange of ideas.
The national advocates for new urbanism include Randy Frazee, a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, a trend-setting mega-church near Chicago attended by more than 20,000 people. Frazee says there is a "movement brewing" in which Christians are striving to capture the values of new urbanism because of an urgent need.
Frazee compares mega-churches to castles surrounded by moats. A few times a year, the drawbridge is lowered to let people in, where they become a subculture separate from the outside world. They become so involved in church life, he said, that they are not involved in their neighborhoods.
"You have to disengage from your community to be involved in the church," Frazee said, describing the problem. "Now the church has become irrelevant to the community."
Willow Creek is a laboratory for new ideas in the evangelical world. Frazee said the push for new urbanism will include the 10,500 churches in the Willow Creek Association, which links smaller congregations that share the mega-church's philosophy of ministry.
Jacobsen, 38, was associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Missoula, Mont., when he became interested in urban design. He wrote the book "Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith" and is studying for a doctorate in theology of the built environment at Fuller Theological Seminary, one of the largest seminaries in the United States.
On a recent weekday, Jacobsen rode his bicycle to the Zona Rosa Caffe, a coffeehouse a half-block from Colorado Boulevard, where Pasadena has its annual New Year's Day parade. Over a cup of coffee, he extolled the virtues of the location, which bustled with passersby.
The shop's entrance abuts a wide sidewalk instead of being separated from it by a parking lot. And only a pedestrian could appreciate the stained-glass artistry of a neighboring building, he said. Someone in a car would miss its beauty.
Jacobsen said places such as Zona Rosa might make an ideal "third place," the term new urbanists use for a location where a person spends time that is not his home or place of employment. The third place is an important part of a community, he said: It's where people from diverse backgrounds learn to interact.
For Christians, the third place also provides opportunity for spontaneous ministry, he said. Jesus did much of his ministry in the context of everyday life. Jacobsen notes that in one Bible story, Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of a synagogue ruler named Jarius when a sick woman touched his cloak and was healed.
Today's ministers might not have noticed the sick woman because their ministry is too structured, Jacobsen said. "She's not going to call for an appointment," he said.
Christians must see their ministry "as not just supporting the programs inside your church but also caring about the whole neighborhood," Jacobsen said.
Christian advocates of new urbanism are not in the majority. Jacobsen said many Christians resist or ignore his appeals about architecture and design. Part of the challenge, he said, is the historical propensity of Protestants to dismiss architecture, arguing, according to a saying, that "the church is the people, not the building."
"That slogan obscures the fact that the building influences how people relate," Jacobsen said.
Christian advocates of new urbanism cite suburban sprawl as an isolating factor for many churches. The sprawl began in part because of federal subsidies after World War II, said Philip Bess, professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. Bess, who has a master's degree in church history, is a Catholic and new urbanist. The low-interest housing loans the government provided to military personnel returning from the war applied only to new houses. Meanwhile, the government was funding the interstate highway system; zoning laws separated communities into commercial, industrial and residential areas.
The suburbs were born, neatly dividing people by economic class and forcing them to drive everywhere -- to the market, to work and to church.
Churches followed people into the suburbs. Bess said they also adapted suburban development patterns, buying sizable plots of land, erecting a church and surrounding it with a surface parking lot. Churches then offered multiple programs to draw members, who drove to the site, leaving neighborhoods behind.
Sprawl makes it more difficult for churches to achieve their objectives, Bess said. For example, anyone who can't operate a vehicle -- the young, old or disabled -- is disenfranchised.
"Just as a matter of social justice, it's arguably better to make mixed-use, walkable environments," Bess said.
Curt Gibson, director of neighborhood ministries at Lake Avenue Church, an evangelical mega-church in Pasadena, said new urbanism is a hot term in the world of Christian community development.
Several years ago, a survey at Lake Avenue found that few of the children in the youth programs were from the low-income neighborhood surrounding the church campus. Instead, the children were mostly white-collar youths who arrived and departed by the carload from nearby cities. Most attended private schools. The smallest group of students was from the struggling Pasadena Unified School District.
The church poured resources into the Lake Avenue Community Foundation, which expanded its neighborhood outreach and tutoring programs. Now, Pasadena Unified has the largest representation of any district in the youth program, Gibson said.
"There's been a heart change at Lake Avenue," Gibson said. "A subtle transition has happened where they recognize they need to be an active participant in the local community."
Leaders at First Presbyterian Church of Spokane, Wash., also realized that low-income neighbors were almost absent from the congregation, said Kevin Finch, the church's associate pastor of mission and evangelism.
A few families from the church moved into "Felony Flats," a crime-prone area within a mile of the church. While Felony Flats is a rough neighborhood, Finch said, it also promotes community interaction. There are sidewalks, and the homes face the street. One of the families that moved to the area hung a hammock in front of its house, and the home soon became a gathering spot for neighborhood children, Finch said.
Now the church is planning to form a nonprofit organization to create new urbanist-style affordable housing throughout the area, Finch said.
"I see some of the principles of new urbanism as a perfect parallel for what I think the church should be involved in," Finch said. "And not just the church, but anyone with a heart for the city."