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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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”
- 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.
- 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:
- discipleship (1)
- evangelism (2)
- reaching the unreached (3)