Monday, March 1, 2010

How close should you live to your church?

I've been wondering off-and-on this year: How important is it to live nearby to the church you worship in/with? (Here I am referring to the church as a building where the baptized gather for weekly worship.)

Of course in years past, when people lived among ethnic enclaves within either a more distinct rural or urban setting, and at best had one car--and forget expressways--this wasn't a real question. In my German- and Pole-stocked childhood hometown of Bay City, Michigan, there were three options: Catholic churches for the Poles, Catholic churches for the southern Germans, and Lutheran churches for the northern/western Germans. Churches were everywhere, and everyone near Germania St. was German, and over by Kocscuisko you were a Pole. Every Lutheran church belonged to the Missouri Synod and used the same liturgy, hymnal, and sermon texts. It just didn't matter.

But nowadays we have a smorgasbord of church options. What happens if the "best" church is farther away from a "good" or even "so-so" church? And how far is "too far"?

Certainly I think it can be difficult for a church's members to invest themselves in a church if they live far away. People are less likely to come to other meetings or take up opportunities to serve if they have to drive thirty minutes instead of five. And I think living far away also hinders one's ability to buy into a church's vision and outreach. A church's mission focus ought to be the neighborhood around it. But if your church is in the middle of the city, and you live fifteen miles out in the suburbs, how much harder might it be to invest your heart in city-dwellers whom you may walk past on Sundays but who aren't truly your neighbors?

Anyway, I'd appreciate any feedback and thoughts you have to offer.


Ryan P.T. said...

I've thought some about this, and approach it from a denominational perspective. I have heard members of our churches say that they drive a ways to get to St. X. Church because St. Y (again, of the same denomination) has better music or teaching or liturgy. Or, the one near them is too high/low church. To a certain extent, I sympathize with this; I don't want to be stuck at some church where the preaching is vapid and the liturgy flat.

That said, there is a lurking consumerism behind all this ought to be discouraged--namely, I CHOOSE where I want to go to church, based on my PREFERENCES. That is not to say there aren't more and less faithful churches, and one ought to prefer the former to the latter. Among churches in communion with one another, however, there is a shared commitment to orthodoxy--even if the preacher the next town over is more charismatic, or whatever. The LCMS has historically planted geographic parishes because we believe, or believed, it was important to worship among your neighbors, in your neighborhood. Not necessarily the case anymore, but I'm still a curmudgeonly advocate.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Andrew, Great question. This is a tough one, and I can't figure it out. I don't think church buildings or denominations are evil or second rate. We lose a lot when we're not committed to one group of believers, one local church (cf: Bonhoeffer's "Life Together"). Yet for better or for worse we have the freedom in this country to go where we believe the gospel is proclaimed, taught and lived out, unlike being stuck in a state, parish system which may not only seem dead, but in reality is dead.

Ryan's comment reminds me of an ideal, that of staying in one's own denomination. But even that's hard to come by these days because people care less and less about such labels. So much to think about around all of this.

Ideally I think we all ought to be active in our neighborhoods, so that for me it would be best be committed to a church as close to where one lives as possible. Deb and I don't practice that, as we get on the freeway and fifteen or so minutes we make it out into another community rather far removed from our own. We love our church, but I don't like being so far removed from it.

And getting neighborhood activities going, through contacts, helping, friendships, home Bible study, special times together, that all appeals to me, or once did (and we once had a neighborhood event at our place). Now I just want to grow in loving and praying for others, especially being open to God's Spirit, really being present and with the difference of Jesus, and all of that, though detached in itself from the local church, as one blessed and sent out by our local church to do our God-given part in the mission of God.

So I have no answers as you see, and not sure I have confidence in an answer, since the Spirit may move people in different ways which only God could unravel.