How our going to church is destroying the church

How can going to church, be destroying the church? Isn’t it the people who aren’t going to church that we should be worried about?

Let’s take a step back and come with me to the area I have just moved into in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

For security reasons, I’ve made my location slightly unclear, but otherwise this map gives you an accurate picture of my area.

Within 1 mile of my house, we have:

  • 2 Presbyterian Churches (with 2 more just outside the mile walk)
  • 2 Roman Catholic (with another 2 just outside the mile)
  • 2 Church of Ireland congregations (with another just outside the mile)
  • 1 Independent Methodist (with 1 denominational Methodist just outside the mile)
  • 1 Congregational church
  • 1 Baptist
  • 1 independent evangelical church
  • 1 pentecostal church
  • 1 Brethren Gospel Hall (with another just outside the mile)

Without visiting them all, I could fairly confidently say that within a mile of me, at least 7 of these churches would hold to historic evangelical doctrine. 2 would be reformed in their understanding of doctrine and practice.

I go to none of them.

Instead, I choose to drive 6 miles into the city, to a church which has its membership on average commuting similar distances.

What difference does this make to church life?

Dr Carl Trueman in his (free) lectures on the Reformation, famously said that the greatest impact on the church post-reformation, was the invention of the motor car. In our cars, we become the arbiters of churches.

In our cars we can get to churches miles away in minutes (I travel to mine in 12 minutes on a Sunday).

In our cars, we can be tempted to go elsewhere. Many of those who I’ve sat beside in church recently (deliberately sitting beside new-comers where I can), said they’re just popping in to visit from their home church – miles away.

In our cars, church discipline (in the positive sense of the term), no longer is effective, as we can jump in our cars and drive to the next church, where the elders know nothing about our character or actions.

In our cars, we no longer see each other as much, as we all live so far from each other. Scripture has 52 “one-another” actions which the church community are called to practice. Can we do them from distance? Debatable.

In our cars, if we were to do these “one-another” practices, we would spend a good chunk of our time driving, and thus dwindle our time with non-Christian friends (who are unlikely to see the need to drive the same number of miles, past perhaps past 50 other churches, in order to go to one which meets our theological niche or stylistic preference).

Is geographical proximity necessitated by New Testament Church principles?

Of course not! You don’t find Paul stating that the main problem in the church was their lack of geographical proximity. But you do find the New Testament authors giving 52 “one-another” practices they see the Church ought to be fulfilling, whilst living as a missional community together. I could imagine geographical proximity was never a problem in NT times, apart from, for example, Ethiopian Eunuchs passing by, who might need to go and plant their own church amongst their own servants and people.

Take a look at this next picture, in the same city (Belfast) that I live in:

Lots of churches still here, but now the breakdown might be more like:

  • 3 Roman Catholic Churches (with another just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 evangelical church
  • 1 brethren Gospel Hall (just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 Church of Ireland hall (1 Church of Ireland just outside the mile walk)

Here, for a similar density of population, in a Irish Nationalist community, we have only one evangelical church (that I’m aware of). I could imagine some places in West Belfast where there would not even be this.

Is it really a problem?

In some ways, no. Middle class people, due to cars/transport, are not geographically bound anymore, particularly in the cities. Our friends are not our nieghbours (often). Consider 3 scenarios:

  1. If I was to live in London, the people I see most during the week are my colleagues in central London, or my friends I meet with after work. Not as many are bound by the area they live in. Many travel on the Underground 30 minutes to meet for coffee or a pint.
  2. If I was to live in Ballingeary or Goleen in rural West Cork, it would take me over 30 minutes to drive to an Evangelical Church. But many farmers, although tightly knit to their communities, drive this distance to the shops or for other things.
  3. If I was to live in Khemisset, in central Morocco, with a population of over 130,000, I might have to drive well over 1 hour to find an accessible underground church community (given as a local I may be not allowed to attend a foreign-led one). This may be an advantage to me, as I may not want to be seen going to a local fellowship.

But really, is there not a problem?

Could I suggest there are several problems here, which are destroying the church, because of travel. We can come back to each in due course.

  1. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in “one-another”ing, each other (discipleship)
  2. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in evangelism because we turn it into an individualistic burden instead of living out authentic community: “that they might know that you are my disciples by your love for one another”
  3. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we refuse to keep the main thing, the main thing. We divide over secondary issues and often form our identity round them (great as they may be). In this, we fail to prioritise the most unreached areas, instead prefering our own style or theological nuance.
  4. By traveling miles to church, we are telling some communities (whether linguistic, geographical or cultural) that they must become “other” in order to believe. The trouble is, this “other” isn’t often commanded by scripture.

Now all this I say with two caveats. (1) I am part of the problem and (2) I have no intention of moving house or church right now. I would like to think I’m a bit of a unique case (don’t we all??) but lest I get caught up in justifying myself, I’ll refrain from telling you all about it, and allow my elders and church family to ask those questions, my neighbours and friends to decide how effectively I’m living for Jesus amongst them, and my friends of other denominations to see whether I’m dividing us all by placing too much weight on secondary things or not.


You can read more about these specific issues numbered above, here:

Sleeping in your car in North Africa

Having just finished the first draft of my book on faith and travel, I thought I’d include a story here for the fun of it, that didn’t make it into the book and has nothing to do with anything specific.  Thanks to everyone for your support and prayers throughout this process!

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North Africa:

Night was falling and we’d been on the road for a week already.  We had hit a part of the country with 3 major cities near each other and our usual sleeping arrangement (camping in a 20 euro festival tent we bought on the internet a few days before going), wasn’t going to get us anywhere in these rough cities.  Enter the brainwave from Dan!

“Peter, have you ever slept in a car before?  I think it’d be quite fun.”

I groaned inwardly, wondering how I was going to get out of this one.  I had indeed slept in a car at various points in life, and despite it being in pleasant locations, I cared little for the cold, uncomfortable, stuffy, public nature of choosing such fine moments to get some “shut-eye”.  Seen through other lenses: I cared nothing for adventure.

He didn’t seem put off.  And so we continued, finding a spot on a “business park” on the outskirts of rough suburb of the city we were nearest to.  Pulling in to what looked like a place where some had parked cars before, we put on the breaks and set in to brushing our teeth.  The trouble with brushing your teeth in the car, is much like the problems associated with anything to do with sleeping in your car: your car is not designed for this.

And so the door was opened to dispose of the toothpaste filled mouth into the gutter nearby.  But as if they had smelled the sweet aroma of minty freshness, at that moment, a pack of wild dogs had decided to come past scavenging, and just as quickly as the door had been opened, we jumped back inside, slammed it shut and breathed a sigh of relief as the dogs, after surrounding the car, decided there was easier things to scavenge that two scrawny Irish-men locked in a pile of metal.

After that brief excitement, we settled down to sleep, reclining the chairs of our tiny car to full stretch.  We were still a little nervous at how public that cars make sleeping, and were a little annoyed at not being able to open the window for air, lest some mosquitoes or bugs came in.  But eventually we started to settle down.

That is, until our next interruption, this time more unexpected.  Dan was the one to spot when the bright light started shining out of the dark and gradually getting bigger and bigger, as if it was coming towards us.  Our plan was just to lay low and hide there – it probably wasn’t anything, we convinced ourselves.  But the light did indeed keep getting brighter and brighter until it was close enough that we were panicking.  Who was this?  And why did they care about our choice of sleeping venue?  Catching small glimpses of a  figure outside moving through the darkness, silhouetted against the light they were carrying, we could see that whoever it was armed.  Hostel anyone?

And without further a-do, when the figure was still approaching the car, Dan stuck it into reverse and accelerated hard, leaving our first choice of sleeping venue in a cloud of dust behind us.

The fact that my clever idea of a hostel wasn’t much better, shall be left for another story.  Asides from saying that for about three euros, a night in a “prison cell” far worse than any in the west, was an interesting experience.

But it was enough to rest, and in the morning we were on our way again, laughing over the things that were panic moments of the previous day.  Everything in hindsight seems rosier.

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