A Review of
Church on the Move: A Practical Guide for Ministry in Community
G. Travis Norvell
Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee
Pedals and feet make for good community. Steering wheels not so much. Cycling, walking, and the occasional public transport allow us to move with purpose yet at a pace open to observation and interaction. This is the premise of G. Travis Norvell’s book, Church on the Move: A Practical Guide for Ministry in the Community. In it he effectively proposes that a church rooted in its community is one that maneuvers within that community; it is on the move in interactive ways. In contrast, movement which isolates – primarily by car – makes for a static congregation and is easily uprooted from community.
Norvell is a local congregational pastor radically committed to engaging the local community in the day-to-day and through the most simplistic of personal activities – commuting. He notes that before making the commitment to doing his personal commuting – by bicycle, on foot, or public transit – he often prayed for the welfare of the city, yet, until riding the bus, walking, or riding the streets, he didn’t know what to actually be praying for.
His commitment to interactive commuting goes beyond himself and calls for the community church to engage a similar approach. But he found it is a modeled way of life that requires the spark and commitment of a few, if not just one. Soon the intimacy of the local community inspires others until a subtle movement is born. Curious parishioners would ask him of the logistics such as sweatiness, safety, convenience, etc. of his chosen commitment. After allaying concerns and sharing stories, some parishioners caught on. Some didn’t. Eventually, though, a critical mass joined his novel, yet mundane lifestyle to where the culture of the congregation itself began to make steps towards engaging the community via day-to-day interactive commuting.
Cycling advocates have long eschewed the benefits of cycling for local communities. Increased personal health and happiness, less traffic and congestion in the streets of the cities, safer places for kids to play and interact, etc. Others, like Sean Benesh or Eric Jacobsen have been calling for similar approaches to being church in a community for some time. Surprisingly, Norvell does not reference either of these two local church and social geography champions. He does mention Sara Joy Proppe, Jacobsen’s partner in launching the Embedded Church Podcast, but misses out on the richness of the work already built upon by others. In this way, Norvell’s simple book does not bring much new to the discussion.
Nonetheless, this quirky little book (replete with random food recipes at the end of each chapter) does a good and succinct job in addressing some key pragmatic questions that pastors and their congregations may have about becoming a church that is accessible by walking, biking, or using public transit. The beneficial economics of cycling and walking is easily accessible on many urban planning websites and is quite convincing. However, Norvell’s chapter on efficiency – or rather, upside-down efficiency – is very helpful. His pastor-to-pastor conversational style in this chapter provides the best motivation as it comes through testimony and passion more than statistics and ledgers. His commitment is simple, initially inconvenient, but his appreciation is inspiring.
I also liked the chapter on “Embracing Risk”. Vulnerability is a bad word for the American, risk-averse way of life. Yet, vulnerability fosters reciprocity, and reciprocity begets belonging. Again, the testimonial style by Norvell is the most convincing. He shares how the little community church he pastors in Minneapolis engaged this vulnerability slowly, but surely. It started small. Small enough that it modeled steps forward so that any congregation thinking about engaging their communities this way could easily accept. And slowly but surely, these steps moved from embracing risk to embracing connectivity.
Norvell is explicitly concerned with issues of justice, and on the heels of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he is sure to include this current and relevant passion. Unfortunately, this seemed more like an abrupt insert rather than an integrated tie. He alludes to all the pieces of how fostering justice– especially racial justice– may be a link that can help his parishioners to engage the neighborhood through an interactive commute. Unfortunately, his writing style is not seamless and that makes this topic feel spliced-in rather than symbiotic.
Overall, Norvell’s book is a fun, easy, and short resource for engaging the community and making the day-to-day commitment of pedaling, walking, or commuting by public transit for a congregation to truly be a community church. This works for urban congregations, and perhaps for some suburban congregations, but a resource of how to address some similar concerns in more rural towns or sprawling suburbs would be helpful here. How can these principles be adapted for these congregations where a car culture is still almost forced? What commitments might they have to make? If these questions do not get answered, congregational leaders will quickly write Norvell and others off.
I recommend this book for what it is, a short primer and quirky testimonial that is convincing because of Norvell’s personality and lived experience, through his use of concrete and real examples. What can be more concrete (literally) and lived than praying for the sidewalks one walks upon? And this is the genius of the book. It is hyper pragmatic and thus doable. It is incredibly specific, but tweakable. It is hyper passionate, but engaging and hopeful. It is as unique, improvised, and grounded just as it would be to walk, cycle, or ride the very specific streets of a particular community.
Kevin Book-Satterlee has been serving in cross-cultural and urban missional engagement for over 15 years. He is the director of Avance España, faculty adviser for Sioux Falls Seminary's Kairos Project, and completing his Doctor of Ministry in theological education and service-learning.