How can your church reorient its posture toward its neighbors and neighborhood? Minnesota Pastor Travis Norvell decided to conduct his ministry by bike, on foot, and on public transportation. He shares how this revealed new people, new partners, and new possibilities for ministry.
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Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel. I’m a senior consultant with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and I’m also co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. And I’m pleased to be the host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. My guest today is Travis Norvell who is pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And he’s also the author of Church on the Move: A Practical Guide for Ministry in the Community. It’s a very novel, very personal, and I think very provocative vision of how churches can reorient their posture toward their neighborhood and discover how God is at work there. I’m just excited to have the opportunity to talk about it with you, Travis. Welcome.
Travis Norvell: Well, thank you. I’m glad to be here. And thanks for being on Leading Ideas Talks. I just feel like an all-star. I listen to this podcast so much. So, yeah, this is great. Thank you.
Ann Michel: Well, great. So, in the opening of the book, you share an incident that happened in 2013 that was kind of a turning point for how you experience your neighbors and your neighborhood because you decided to give up your car. I wondered if you could share a bit of that story with our listeners, just so they kind of understand that starting point.
Travis Norvell: Yeah. I had always wanted to try to give up my car, but I didn’t have the courage or sometimes imagination to do so. I preached what I thought was a really good social gospel sermon and I asked the question of the congregation, “What are you willing to sacrifice so that others may experience joy?” And then, that night, when I was putting my then 11-year-old daughter to bed, she said, “Hey, dad? What are you willing to sacrifice so that others may experience joy?” And, you know, I just felt ashen. I felt like a complete phony. Here I was, all talk and no action, and my daughter was calling me out on it. She was just giving me a very innocent, you know, what you would hope for — people actually pay attention to your sermon and ask you questions about it. I said, “I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what. I’ll know in the morning.”
So, I turned my dining room into a kind of a midlife crisis center. I had my laptop and notebooks and pins everywhere. And I just came up with this idea. “Okay. I’m going to do it. I’m going to sell the car and keep the van. But I’m going to try to bike, walk, and take public transit for my job as a pastor.” So that’s how it started. But it was a pretty scary venture. When I told the kids in the morning that we were going to do this, they were horrified. I said, “Look, this is my experiment, not yours.” And they took a deep breath and said, “Okay, dad. We’ll be there for you, then.” So, that’s how it’s got started.
Ann Michel: And how has that changed the trajectory of your ministry?
Travis Norvell: You know, it changed everything. I went to Colgate Rochester, and you know social gospel was part of my blood. You know, it was just everything. But I realized I talked a lot about social justice, but I wasn’t really spending much time with the poor at all. So, when I started biking and walking and taking public transit, I just found myself with people that I had not been surrounding myself with, people I had talked about, but not people that I was in community with. And so that just changed everything about how we look at transit, how we look at housing, how we look at economics and jobs. All those things kind of came to light. And then it also kind of changed the trajectory of the church. It had always thought of itself as a destination church. But my trips on a bike and walking and taking public transit showed me that we were really a much closer church than that. About 75% of the church was really within three to five miles of the church. It was really only 25% that were people driving in from other places. It reoriented us to really think more about our neighborhood, and we realized that we had no idea who our neighbors are any more. That was probably the biggest reorientation.
Ann Michel: I moved downtown about 10 years ago. And I now walk around neighborhoods that I just drove by in the past. And I notice so much more when I’m on foot. I mean it’s just it’s amazing, I think, just being out and taking the slower pace changes how you see things and what you notice.
Let’s talk parking lots. I was around for the church growth movement in the 90s, and the assumption was that a church couldn’t grow without ample, convenient parking. So, churches were buying up adjacent lots in order to expand their parking lots, and megachurches were paving acres and acres of parking and had parking attendants and shuttles to get people to the building. You have a really different way of thinking about parking lots. In fact, your chapter on parking lots has been so attention-getting that it was the cover story for Christian Century a couple of months ago. I was so delighted to see that. What are some of the blessings and curses of a church parking lot?
Travis Norvell: Well, parking allows you to really become a “de-neighborhood church.” By that I mean it allows people to drive in from miles around, come to church and worship, and then get in their car and go back home. Now that that can be a blessing, because there are some places and there are some people in communities that maybe, on Sunday morning, that’s the only time they feel safe, the only time they feel surrounded by people that support them, the only time that they feel kind of really blessed as a human being with the community and the songs and the prayers. And that’s very important. We should never hold that against them, right? We need those kinds of places. People need those kinds of places.
But my thought is that if you have a parking lot in most city neighborhood churches in America, that means someone’s house was taken so that you could park your car there. And my thought is, “Okay, if you’re going to do that, then you need to have as much respect for that place and use it as much as you can to kind of honor that it was a former dwelling place for someone else. So, I think you’ve got to reimagine what you could do with a parking lot. Because you’re only using it for at most six hours a week. And the rest of the week, it remains empty. So, what are the things that you can do with a parking lot that you’re not doing right now other than the temporary storage of an automobile? You know here in Minnesota, there’s a guy that started straw bale gardening. You can take straw bales and put them in a parking lot, and two parking spots can produce enough vegetables and produce to feed a family of four for a year.
You can think about basketball. There was a story I tell in the book about a Methodist church — sorry some of you that are listening. There’s a Methodist church in my hometown that put up nine-foot basketball posts. And it was the greatest event in the world for us because all of us could finally dunk the basketball. There were 150 kids on Saturday and Sunday mornings waiting to play. And the church saw us as a nuisance, and so one day they came out with a blowtorch and a grinder and cut the polls down. And I think, “Okay, look. You had a makeshift youth group that people would die for right there in your parking lot.” Labyrinths. Blood mobiles. You know, during COVID we found that we could use our parking lot for worship. We could do movie nights. We could have bands come out and play. There’re just countless things you can do. Bike courses, you know, you can help people figure out how to ride a bike on a church parking lot. If you look at the Dutch in the 1940s, when they really started thinking about biking, church basements were bike schools. So, why can’t we do it in our parking lots today? There are so many other things we can do than just a park a car. And I like to think of it more as a church plaza than a church parking lot.
Ann Michel: Thank you for that. It’s just so interesting. I think churches are really rethinking all aspects of how they use their space and their physical property. I think the attention that you’re giving the parking lots is long overdue. But biking and parking are really just part of a larger vision, I think, for how churches can relate differently to their surroundings. You write about how a church’s building is an asset to make itself more present to the community, so I wondered if you could describe some of the ways that your church has done this.
Travis Norvell: Yeah. Again, think of the parking lot as a way to start thinking about the inside of your building. So, we’d like to try to think, “Okay. Does the outside of our building communicate our inside values? And what do we do on the inside?” Again, just looking at floor space and how many times is it used, we don’t have that much even though we have a preschool, even though we have meals on wheels. At our church there are counselors and there are groups from the community that come in and use it. There are still lots of times when there’s not people using it. Right now, we have a beautiful baby grand Steinway piano that remains unused most of the week. But now we have a jazz musician who comes in and just practices throughout the week, so we get a twofer. He gets to practice. We get to hear great music during the week. But then on most Sundays, if I need him to play, I’ll say, “Hey, can you come and play?” You know, at Christmas, I want to do a Christmas pageant. “Can you play the Peanuts Christmas song?” And he comes and play the Peanuts Christmas song.
All these kind of arrangements …. I think the church library is a great place to start. Let people come in and use it. Where else am I going to find a kind of rich variety of theological books right on the shelf? They don’t have to request or wait in line for them. There’s just so many things about the church building that we could be using more, just like with the parking lot. Like the church kitchen. Why aren’t there hundreds of little entrepreneurial businesses in church kitchens? It’s a great open space. We have this history of these great kitchens and meals. But you know, six days out of the week most of the time it’s never used. So, it’s just trying to think of all the things in our building that we can use for other community groups to be a part of.
Ann Michel: You describe your ministry context in Minneapolis as a “city neighborhood.” It’s a relatively dense urban setting where there’s a mix of residential and retail. And it’s probably something like the neighborhood where I live in Washington, DC, where there’s a lot of foot traffic. But I’m wondering about churches that are really in deep exurbia or rural churches, where the lay of the land is really different. How might some of your ideas apply to them?
Travis Norvell: Well, I still think that there’s spaces for all this to apply. If you think of like the suburban and exurban places and even a rural congregation, there’s still places that people need just to come and congregate. People still need places to hear some music. People need places to meet. So, churches can provide that easily. You know, I had a Lilly Sabbatical grant a few years ago, and my wife and kids and I did a lot of walking in these rural spots in Scotland. And the church was this wonderful little place of hospitality along the pilgrimage trail. The doors were open. You could go in. And some had like a little tea kitchen set up, and anybody could just walk in get a cup of tea, sign the guest book. Sometimes there would be people playing the organ or the piano.
I think that churches can be way stations like that again, throughout wherever we are, providing space and just a place maybe for some quiet meditation. I think we don’t think of our buildings as the wonderful jewels that they really are. With modern architecture, it’s really hard to find a place with the kind of grandeur and just physical air that our congregations and churches provide. Just a place to sit down, relax, catch your breath, and think about life for maybe five minutes. There doesn’t have to be a church service. There doesn’t have to be anybody there. Just a place to provide to people. I think in rural settings, in the exurbs, in the suburbs, these are still very needed places in our lives.
Ann Michel: So, is your church building open during the day?
Travis Norvell: Kind of. Kind of. How about that? You know, we have a preschool, and we did have a guy come in with a gun a few years ago, so that really kind of made us a little bit more …. But like right now there’s a Somali artist here in town that was looking for a space to build a healing hut and couldn’t find one, so we said, “Well, you can build it in our sanctuary.” So, in the back of our sanctuary right now, she’s building this hut as we speak. And we’re going to have open times for the people of the community just to come by and see how she’s working. And she said, “On Fridays, I’m going to provide Somali tea and treats for people that just want to stop by and check it out.” So, is it open 24/7? No. But we do have times when we try to open it up to make sure that people can just stop by.
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Ann Michel: You present your alternate vision of how to connect with the community through the lenses of evangelism and community relationships. But as I was reading your book, I couldn’t help thinking about the really profound implications this has for our stewardship, whether we’re talking about environmental stewardship or stewarding the church’s physical assets. You write also about staffing, and so forth. So, I just wondered if you could comment on this through the lens of stewardship.
Travis Norvell: Oh, yeah. You know, Richard Foster had that great book Money, Sex and Power. And those are the three things that the church should be talking about. Yeah, so I think that through the lens of stewardship, it’s a great thing. Back to the parking lot. Maybe being a steward of your parking lot is using it as much as you can. And also, this venture changed the way I looked at stewardship before. There’s always scarcity. There’s not enough money. There’s not enough time. There’re not enough people. But, you know, when you ride your bike or you walk or you take public transit, you’re really not moving very fast. And it gives you time to think about things. “Okay. How can we apply a slow church approach to stewardship?” So, we started finding that, if we can use our building in a variety of ways, there’s more than enough money around. People are looking for low cost or below market rental space. And we started thinking about the scarcity of people. Well, you know what? The people may not be in your building right now, but there are people in the community that would like to partner with you. And when you’re out in the community, you start meeting people, and you start realizing that there are people that are willing to partner with you.
Here’s an example right now. So, the King Field neighborhood is where the church is located. I don’t live in King Field neighborhood. I live in the Diamond Lake neighborhood. But King Field had an open spot on their board. And I said, “Well, I don’t live there.” And they said, “Well, you work here. So, there is a place where we can have a leader of a nonprofit on our board.” I said, “Okay. On one condition. Will someone from the King Field board come and be an at-large member of our church board? Not to vote. I just want you to listen to what we’re saying. Does it make any sense? Are we even talking the right language?” And they said, “Okay, we’ll do that.” So, we’re going to start that this summer and we’ll see how that goes. But, there again, like the people are there. It’s not a scarcity. There’re people everywhere. It’s just how to find a way for them to be with you and partner with you for a mission in some form or capacity.
And then also about the money part, you know. Again, when you start thinking that if you’re so scarcity bound, I think your vision becomes limited, and you’re not seeing the real possibilities around you. But when you ride a bike, when you’re walking in your neighborhood, when you’re talking to people, you know there is abundance around. We really found that out after George Floyd was murdered. We’re about a mile and a half from George Floyd Square. And because we had been in the community and working, you know, we had a lot of connections. And when we put the call out, “Hey, if you want to donate in any way, shape, or form, please do so.” And we just put that on our webpage and through social media. And within I think three weeks we had over $50,000. And we had people from eight states and two countries that were sending funds in. But we knew where to put those funds. We knew the right people to talk to. We knew the areas with the most need. And we could give reports on those really quickly, with pictures and stories and narratives. It wasn’t that there was a scarcity of money. There was abundance. It’s just a way of trying to tell the right story, be in community with the right people, and just making yourself vulnerable and open.
Ann Michel: That’s a wonderful testament to the work that you were able to do in response to the George Floyd situation. I actually was going to ask about that. One of my sons lives in the neighborhood of your church in Minneapolis. And I’ve seen with my own eyes how that neighborhood has changed since the George Floyd murder and the protests that followed. I guess what I wanted to ask is, how do you see your ministry changing? How do you see urban ministry in general changing, given the changes of COVID and some of the other major occurrences of the of the last two years?
Travis Norvell: Well, I think everything changed. You know, nothing feels the same again. From talking to colleagues from around the nation, there are people — probably 20–30 percent of people — who just said, “I’m not coming back.” You know, I think maybe COVID was maybe just the nudge that they needed. But then there’s an interesting part. There’s 20–30 percent of people that are interested that weren’t interested before. So, it’s a whole new nudge. We’re rethinking everything now. The language we use. The partnerships that we’re in. How we’re using our money and resources, and how we’re just thinking long term. What is long term right now? Two years? That feels like a 20-year plan, so what’s working right now may not work in six months. For us, it’s been really just how can we be as nimble as possible? How can we be open to the movements of the Spirit? And how can we really just make ourselves vulnerable again? I mean we always feel vulnerable. I go back to that metaphor that Pope Francis gave us. This is not a mighty fortress. This is a time for a field hospital church, and I feel that’s kind of where we need to be.
Ann Michel: Thank you for that. In the opening of your book, you started with some assumptions. And I want to quote one. You wrote, “We’ve heard it said small churches will be extinct by 2050. But I say small churches are exactly what the world needs at this time.” So, why do you think that’s so?
Travis Norvell: I think people need to be known. I think they need their names known and their stories known. And they need a place where they can really kind of delve into life’s questions and meanings in a place where they can ask some dangerous questions, where they can be messy, where they can be themselves. And for me, I think small church provides the most beautiful example of that. You know, right now we’re in a place in our country where, if you disagree with someone, you either unfriend them or you just say goodbye. And I think small churches, if you stick with it, they give you the capacity to love the unlovable or at least to get beyond just getting along and appreciate someone for who they are and realize that we’re all in the journey. And they may not be where you are. Or you may not be where they are. But over time, relationships change and hearts get broken. And a broken heart is an open heart. People are just available in different ways in small churches than in large churches. I love large churches. I grew up in one. It nurtured me and all that. But I really feel that I myself and I think other people are allowed to be themselves maybe even more so in a small church atmosphere.
Ann Michel: Do you think this moment is inviting people to see how small is beautiful. It seems to be coming up in my conversations with a lot of people. And I hope that’s not a justification for the fact that so many churches find themselves smaller than they used to be. But maybe it is God nudging us in the direction that we need to be.
So, I want to end on a fun note. I read a lot of books on church leadership and congregational life, and yours is the very first that included a recipe collection. So, I want to let our listeners know that they can find out about 100 Mile Granola and Church Plaza Pizza and Instapot Pulled Pork if they read your book. But the question I want to ask is, why?
Travis Norvell: I mean so much of church is based around food and so much of Jesus’s ministry and the Hebrew Scriptures revolves around food. Think about all the church cookbooks, too. I was always like, “Why don’t church leadership and theology books have recipes?” It seems like such an important thing, central to our faith. And yet other than Robert Capon, I’ve never seen a recipe in a theological book.
Ann Michel: Well, I don’t think I have either. I was really intrigued by it. I mean your book is novel and personal and I think the recipes just add to that wonderful quality. Again, the book is Church on the Move: A Practical Guide for Ministry in the Community. Travis, I want to thank you for sharing such an interesting perspective on what ministry means in place. And thank you for your work and your witness.
Travis Norvell: Oh, thank you. And thank you for Leading Ideas. It’s just been a real North Star for a lot of us. So, really appreciate the work that you all do. Thank you.
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- Church on the Move: A Practical Guide for Ministry in the Community (Judson Press, 2022). The book is also available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
- Making Your Ministry Present in Its Physical Space by Travis Norvell
- How One-to-One Conversations Reintroduced a Church to its Neighbors by Travis Norvell
- “It’s Time to Reimagine the Church Parking Lot,” by Travis Norvell, Christian Century, March 10, 2022.
- Reimagining Church Buildings by Dave Harder
- Taking Church to the Community Video Tool Kit