As I began to read “Social Geographies”  I wondered what would a book on eight different spaces where society intersects life offer my church-centered research? Next came the rather simple question: “Where is the church?” What societal space does it fill? What space should it fill? Also in the back of my mind was the observation from Jason and my cohort that sociologists and cultural anthropologists often have keen insights on society—they also wrestle with the same worldly issues as pastors and church leaders but without our perspective, and without or assumptions.
So what “societal space” does the church fill? I guess if we tried hard enough we could see it in all eight spaces that Valentine describes: The body, home, community, institutions, the street, the city, rural areas, and the nation. I see it, for good or ill, typically positioned as an institution within American society.
From a sociological perspective “institutions” exist primarily to help people change: the four institutions discussed by Valentine are schools, the workplace, prisons and asylums. Within each there is a measure of social control where the occupants or participants have certain therapeutic or tangible outcomes.  The author also indicates that the meaning of “institutions” is flexing from brick and mortar to functional networks: “In this sense, institutions are regarded not as stable or fixed entities but as things which emerge in practice and which, instead of being thought of as impacting on people, places or situations in set ways, are understood to both transform and be transformed by them.”  Notwithstanding this movement away from “brick and mortar” definition, these institutions seek to use their space, their power, their structure to exert some form of discipline to bring about their desired outcomes. There is an on-going pressure to conform within the institution and not to stand out. In referencing children’s school culture, Valentine writes “To be socially competent is to be acknowledged as ‘one of the crowd’, rather than being the anonymous one among the crowd, yet also to not express inappropriate individuality and therefore be excluded as an outsider.” 
“The church as an institution” is the fundamental paradigm since Constantine in the early fourth century. Complete with its hierarchical politics, its brick and mortar structures, its programming is designed to control and eventually conform as many people as possible into the desired result: believer, church-goer. Churches use their space, their power, and their structure to produce members and attenders. The paradigm has been in place for centuries.
I believe the church in America needs a wake-up call in the form of a whole different paradigm about what it means to be “the Church”. The institutional paradigm uses its resources and influence to create Christian clones, and strengthen itself; one thing today’s millennials don’t care for is big institutions that are primarily self-replicating, self-serving.
Regarding the social spaces offered by Valentine, I suggest “the home” is a far better social space for the church, not the institution. The early church met in homes; there were no church buildings, and there was no institution. First century persecution scattered the believers away from the centralized and hierarchical religion of Jerusalem and it became gatherings/ecclesia meeting in homes all around the Greek-Roman Empire. Home would be a better social space because it emphasizes relationships over organization. Institutions typically have a class distinction between the professionals and the constituency (teacher-student in the school, or doctor-patient in the asylum, guard-inmate in prison). Likewise, the church has the inherent professional clergy vs. the laity, a distinction that might limit creativity, empowerment, and mission.
There is no one perfect social space for the church to occupy; there is much to recommend, for example, “community” as a relevant space to enhance the missional purpose of the church. The point of this post is simply to say that the American church has had an institutional paradigm that needs to be abandoned to allow it to once again see itself as an apostolic movement of missional families—instead of resembling a school, a prison, or, God forbid, an asylum.
 Gill Valentine, Social Geographies: Space and Society (Harlow, England: Routledge, 2001).
 Ibid, 141.
 Ibid, 142.
 Ibid, 145.