The Wall Street Journal

A Church in Big Easy Walking Distance
The 'theology of place' prizes local worship over the megachurch model.

By Naomi Schaefer Riley June 5, 2014

When Ray Cannata reads the Bible, he is often struck by how rooted it is in specific places. The pastor of Redeemer New Orleans, an evangelical Presbyterian church near Tulane University, notes that in almost any biblical passage you are likely to be told where something occurred—"to remind you," he says, that the Gospels are "an earthly thing. . . . It's not a fairy tale. It's not 'Once upon a time.' " The Rev. Cannata and other religious leaders—like the theologian Fred Sanders at Biola University outside Los Angeles—have taken that message to heart, calling it "the theology of place." 

"We believe Jesus is God in the flesh, breaking into time and place in history," Rev. Cannata says. "He didn't pick Greece. He didn't pick Illinois. He picked Bethlehem."

As for Rev. Cannata, he had once picked suburban New Jersey. He was preaching there in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, ravaging New Orleans. Three months later he decided to take his ministry south to that wounded city. He embraced the Big Easy wholeheartedly, joining the Crewe of the Rolling Elvi, a group of civic-minded men who dress up as Elvis Presley for Mardi Gras, and he was the focus of the 2012 documentary "The Man Who Ate New Orleans," about his successful quest to dine at every one of the city's 700 or so independently owned restaurants.

When he arrived at Redeemer, the church had only 17 members. It was basically a blank slate for the new pastor, which was good because Rev. Cannata had many plans. He wanted to introduce a more liturgical service, offer weekly Communion and bring more music into the church. Redeemer now has an excellent jazz ensemble, in keeping with its New Orleans identity—and with Rev. Cannata's priority to make the church feel more specifically part of its neighborhood, to emphasize "a sense of place." The church had to be focused, he says, "on one geographic area and really minister to that."

The approach marks a distinct change from the megachurch model that has dominated evangelicalism for the past couple of decades. Instead of encouraging parishioners to drive many miles to find the church with the most exciting music or preaching or the best coffee shop or child care— attractions that help build megachurches—Rev. Cannata wants people to put down religious roots where they live. Redeemer's current membership of about 200 consists predominantly of worshipers in their 20s or 30s, a demographic that these days is notoriously difficult to get inside church doors. The members include tech entrepreneurs, charter school teachers and nonprofit managers—not much in common, except that they almost uniformly say that they appreciate the idea of having a neighborhood religious institution.

Millennials have lower rates of car ownership than their parents and grandparents, and not only for environmental or economic reasons. Many like the idea of living "in walking distance" to bars, coffee shops and even church. That might describe Eileen McKenna, a 20-something Redeemer member and violinist who moved to New Orleans with her husband, a drummer, a few years ago. She trains horses during the day and plays music in the evenings. She notes that the "church scene" is not a separate part of her life. "I see people at my church in my daily life" and at her music gigs as well.

People behave a certain way when they expect they will run into their fellow churchgoers, notes Will Tabor, a campus minister at Tulane University and a Redeemer member, who says he also often sees other congregants during the week.   

The notion of a neighborhood church isn't exactly new to a city, like New Orleans, that once had thriving Catholic parishes knitting together entire communities. The church no longer presses people to keep to their own geographical parishes, but some evangelicals seem to have picked up where Catholics left off. When worshipers come from across town to attend Redeemer, Rev. Cannata doesn't turn them away, but he does make a point of asking if they have looked for a church closer to home.

Part of his "theology of place" comes not from the Gospels but from the bible of neighborhood preservationists, Jane Jacobs's "The Death and Life of American Cities" (1961). Jacobs's influential critique of urban planning decried the clear-cutting of neighborhoods in the name of development, emphasizing instead the importance of citizens working together to revitalize city life. Rev. Cannata says he has read the book four times.

Ms. Riley is the author of "Got Religion: How Churches, Mosques and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back," just out from Templeton Press.