Are cars killing the Church?

Are cars killing the Church?

This is a post by our good friens Marcus check out his full blog here:

Bear with me for a moment. No, this isn’t an environmental diatribe — there’s plenty that’s been said elsewhere about carbon emissions, gas prices, etc. This isn’t that kind of blog.

Rather, as we as the Church do some real soul searching with regard to how we got where we are, and how we truly can resemble that “Happy Days” Acts 2 church, there’s room to question everything. And as I was driving home from Gresham last night, I had a peculiar thought…

What if our ability to travel long distances quickly has been severely detrimental — not only to the Church, but to community in general?

I think about the town in which I live, the city of Sandy. The 9,500-person burg sits just east of the Portland metropolitan area, simultaneously straddling both rural and suburban living. It’s known as a “bedroom community,” which essentially means that people wake up in Sandy, walk to their cars, drive to work in another town, and come back at the end of the day to sleep.

The term “bedroom community” is a misnomer because for the most part, there really is no community. People are pretty much locked in their cars, which take them out of town, and in their houses during dinnertime and bedtime after work. It’s like everyone lives in fortresses, and then pod capsules eject from them every day… offering no hope of human interaction.

When I was editor of the Sandy Post, I wrote business article after business article, secretly knowing in the back of my mind that most of these businesses wouldn’t last long. Boutique shops, restaurants, arcades — the things that give a downtown character — all failed, because of a simple truth: People can travel away from Sandy to shop, and they do, even if it’s just to save a few bucks.

And there’s also the issue of personal preference — brand loyalty? — at work here, too. If a person knows they like the products at Insert-Name-Of-Big-Box-Store, they’re most likely going to stick with that. And since they’re making the trip anyway, they’ll just do their other shopping while they’re out.

Why do I say all this about one town’s local economy? Because it’s a pattern that is ever-present in the American Church today.

Ever since I attended the Cultivate Conference in Huntington Beach last month, I’ve been grinding on a statement made by Mel McGowan of Imagineering Studios: “Ministry is soil-specific.” It’s a statement that was echoed by Donald Miller at the Storyline Conference yesterday: “Setting is key. Where you do what you do matters.”

Think back to the early church. Was there such a thing as church shopping? (Hint: No.) You didn’t have people in Ephesus driving to Philadelphia to go to church, even IF their worship was more “cutting edge.” (Ha.) The early church was very soil specific.

It’s still that way in some portions of the world, in places like Africa, where cars are limited and “churches” are very much within walking distance — and Shanghai, where believers build home churches in high-rise apartment buildings, one neighbor at a time. There’s no church shopping there.

I think of my immediate neighborhood. There are other Christians nearby, but we don’t really know each other that well. One couple goes to a church down the street. Another goes to a church in a neighboring town. Each lives out their faith in a completely different way, and really, there’s no living that out together. We’re each part of different churches, and each are busy contributing to them in different ways.

That’s not soil-specific, is it? It reveals to me a problem with our community building. No wonder we’re not “winning cities for Christ” — we aren’t truly living in community. We aren’t organized. We aren’t missional in our location.

Our ability to get away, our independence to travel long distances in a short amount of time, gives us a buffet of options. And when we’re given many options, we’ll choose the one that best fits our needs and desires — regardless of how long it takes to get there. We shop.

In the New Testament, churches were known by their location. In Revelation, Jesus addresses the seven churches in the seven cities. They are all tied to a place. (Another Mel McGowan thought: Somehow we’ve divorced PLACE from our concepts of COMMUNITY.)

Around here, there’s been lots of talk about the “Church of Gresham” and the “Church of Portland.” But the concept really is more of a cooperation of churches — not a bad thing, by any means — rather than a single church. It’s not “a” Church of Portland, it’s the churches of Portland — plural.

If one day we woke up and our cars were raptured (ha!), if our independence of travel was stripped away, what would church look like? If we didn’t have the power to get away and shop, if a giant fence was placed around each of our geographic communities, what would happen?

I think it’d be pretty interesting. It’d be messy, for sure. But it’d be soil specific. It’d be a group of believers discovering each other’s existence, and banding together for the sake of worshiping Jesus. Meetings would take place in houses, like they did “back in the day.”

You’d see petty stylistic things and doctrinal differences take a back seat to unity, because, as they’d say, “You’ll all I’ve got.” I think you’d see entire blocks, entire neighborhoods and entire cities embrace Jesus because they’d see their neighbors live out their faith in peculiar community with one another.

So how do we overcome the difficulties associated with our transportation independence? Identify the believers around you and start meeting them. Make your small group soil-specific (not church specific). Perhaps the next time you move, make it a point to attend church in your neighborhood. Or start one.

A truly missional mindset means we consider more than just good schools, safe neighborhoods and house prices in our decisions regarding where to live. God thinks place is pretty important. Imagine if we started thinking that, too!

Cars themselves aren’t really killing the church, but our desire to use them to get away certainly handicaps our ability to create a community, rather than a facility.

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