Doing everyday church when your community is spread

Missional community life and everyday church requires a certain level of proximity. I’ve had a lot of questions on this issue, especially when I’ve been in the United States. Let’s take a church I spent some time with in New Jersey as an example. They have people living half an hour drive from the church building in one direction and half an hour drive in the other direction. So some people live an hour away from each other. How are they going to share their lives?

Three options.

1. Join or plant local churches

I wonder how many churches people pass as they drive half an hour to church each Sunday. Some will be dead and ready for burial. But many will be good churches. They may not be as good as the church people attend. But they may be faithful and engaged in their locality. Why do people do this?

It reflects a consumer mentality. We shop for churches like we shop for groceries. If we don’t like the product then we take our business elsewhere. We end up at the big convenience store with the large parking lot and the local shops in Main Street that the old and the poor have to use wither and decline.

A particular instance of the consumer mentality, but a very common one is this. If church doesn’t have a big children’s programme then we find another church. Who’s going to say we shouldn’t out our children’s spiritual needs first? Me! A lot of Christians have made an idol of their families. So it becomes an excuse not to do mission or community. Look at what Jesus has to say about biological families. It is all negative! Really, it is. ‘Anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37). That’s what Jesus said. Get over it. And think about what moving church for children teaches our children. That the world revolves around them. That church is there to entertain them. That relationships with peers matter more than relationships with  people who unlike them. At best you will teach you children to be church-attenders. You will have missed a big opportunity to teach them to be radical disciples and missionaries.

2. Move closer to one another

Come back to our church in New Jersey. One of the members lives in a neighbourhood of homes, fairly well defined. It centres around a lake. There is a strong sense of neighbourhood, an active residents’ association, regular community events. This Christian family are getting to know their neighbours and last year they ran a backyard Bible school. Imagine if two other families moved into that neighbourhood with perhaps a single person living with one of the families. Now you have a team of seven, attending the church each Sunday, but then working together to reach that neighbourhood. Building relationships with neighbours. Getting involved in the residents’ association. Praying together. Sharing their lives. Involving unbelievers in their shared life. In time holding Bible studies. Dynamite!

There are six or seven households represented in the gospel community to which I belong back in Sheffield. All but one of those intentionally moved to be in that area, to reach that area together, to be community. With one exception, we all live within ten minutes walk of each other. Sharing lives is easy! The weekend before I came to the States, one family send a text round saying anyone is welcome to watch our equivalent of American Idol with them. You all watch American Idol – go on admit it. So why not watch it together? It’s a lot more fun!

3. Jump in the car

Again, come back to our church in New Jersey. Some members lives one hour from each other. But of course they are all spread out across the area. So in fact most of them live within ten minutes of several other members. So why not cluster together with those who are near? Ten minutes is not far.

I live in an urban area. If you said someone lived ten minutes away then everyone would assume you meant ten minutes walk. Maine is clearly far more rural. Your state is roughly the same size as my country with the population of my city! But that shapes your pattern of life. It shapes the way people think about community and neighbourhood. In Sheffield 20 minutes feels like a long way away. But here you travel 20 minutes to get your groceries. So 20 minutes is near. You make that kind of journey several times a week. So why not jump in the car and pop over to see someone? Why not call and say, ‘We’re about to watch American Idol. Why don’t you come over and watch it with us?’

If you can drive 20 minutes to Walmart, why can’t you drive 20 minutes to share life with members of your Christian community?


19 thoughts on “Doing everyday church when your community is spread

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful and helpful post. One thing we are doing to bring a spread out church deeper community is to start new campuses or worship centres. So now we have worship centres in five cities, all of country seats. Besides deepening community, it has also greatly accelerated evangelism. I never anticipated how multisite would deepen community and improve the quality of relationships in the church.

  2. We have made an idol of family…really? I believe we worship the idol of church & pastors. If I see one more post, bumper sticker, tweet that says “I LOVE MY CHURCH!” Rarely do people talk about their savior-only able their church, & how the worship team really “killed it today!” THAT… is consumerism The church will talk about Jesus but the american church worships itself.

  3. Wow ! Tim this is some great stuff, pride it’s a hard item to see! Yes , just Love your nieghbor and listen what our Lord will have us do together as a community. These are things that if you commit to, slowly the family ( wife parents and kids) will see then start to do themselfs. Well I like this. Man Good Stuff!!! Thanks

  4. This is good! Many of our theological understandings are different, but as Wesley said ‘If your heart is as my heart; give me your hand’. I live in an incredibly connected village but I guess you could say I pastor a dead church with some living features :). We have been plugging away at the missional stuff in this village for years and I meet other live Christians who live there but commute to other churches way outside the village as they are ‘good’ churches.

    I would love to see people who gather, pray and relate and see where God is already active here as there are an incredible amount of opportunities. All I see most Sundays is their cars speeding out of the villlage.

    I can understand why- those churches can put on a better show, supply better programmes and better teaching (I do wonder though why we search for churches that will feed us; If my children still needed me to provide food for them at the age of 20 I would worry about their development!). Sometimes I have been tempted to jack it all in and go; life would be a lot easier.

    I share your feeling about radical disciples and missioniaries re: children. It seems throughout church history, the Spirit has been driving us into the cold with the promise of being with us- trouble is, we love the warmth. With our western paradigm, we interpret faith through the lenses of ‘comfort’, ‘security’, and safety’….and I am not sure that Jesus ever did.

    Thank you

  5. A great topic and some good thoughts.

    Although, I think there’s a lot of room for debate on whether it’s always ‘consumerism’ to drive a bit to a good church.

    Surely this happens, but beware of banging on wounded families that make the drive past dead churches to their ‘ home’ church in another city.

    Take kids out of the equation for simplicity:

    If my wife and I grow at the church 30 minutes away, and we don’t at the ones that are closer, then how could it be wise to sacrifice growth for ease of involvement or for fear of being a ‘consumer’?

    I think it’s more complicated than simply pulling the ‘consumer’ card.

    In fact, I would bet that there are many men whose families suffer because they insist on going to churches that lack the Gospel and lack community when they could thrive at a church a few miles down the road.

    I was that guy for several years…

  6. The Church’s job, as an institution,is to offer you God’s word, through law and Gospel, and the sacraments. It should also encourage and equip you in community, mission, and sharing the Gospel. Yet a pastor can’t force that to happen. It is consumerism when a person is given the word of God faithfully, but goes elsewhere because they want something else for themselves or their kids. Often times, the small church that doesn’t do community or mission well is the way it is because the active and dedicated people (or the people with children) have jumped ship to feed thier own desires (or those of thier kids) rather than to stay and be and encouragement, example, and change-agent where they are at. Great post, Tim.

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  9. Thank you for making some really helpful points here Tim. I think very few people in the UK (and probably elsewhere) have really worked out how to ‘do church’ in rural areas. There are probably small numbers of (perhaps mainly elderly) believers in many rural villages, with little prospect of being able to pay a salary to release a man from secular employment to pastor them full-time, but how can their needs be met, and their small communities be reached with the gospel? With so much emphasis on city ministry, I think this is an area that has been badly overlooked, and perhaps pastors of big city churches need to be challenging some of their members to move into rural areas to get involved, or need to establish links with rural communities in order to provide the ministry manpower to help and encourage the locals in their own missional living? Just some personal musings…

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  13. “Look at what Jesus has to say about biological families. It is all negative! Really, it is.” ‘Anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:37).”
    The Lord Jesus was so concerned for His own mother that He charged John with responsibility for looking after her (John 19: 26 & 27).
    Mark 7: 8 – 13 is a pretty firm instruction to look after parents and not to shuffle out of it. Jesus is also quite a fan of marriage, commending it frequently. It’s a picture of His relationship with His Church.
    The Lord Jesus kept the Fifth Commandment.
    “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16-17). Whilst these are not Jesus’ words (although they are the Holy Spirit’s), they show one of the results of the movement of the Holy Spirit – fathers’ hearts being turned to their children).
    “It’s all negative”? Really it isn’t…and that’s before we get onto the Apostle Paul, Moses and the rest of what the Holy Spirit inspired in all of the Bible. What does the Lord think about families…all of His Covenants mention children.
    The stuff on community is interesting.

  14. Do you really think that I think families are unimportant? Have you not see my book Gospel-Centred Family? You must allow me to use hyperbole (based on Matthew 10:34-38; 12:46-50; Mark 3:31-34; Luke 8:19-21; 9:59-62; 12:52-53; 14:26-27) – otherwise what will you do with the hyperbole employed by Jesus in passages like Luke 9:61-62 or Luke 14:26! I was making a rhetorical point to highlight the idolatry of family that causes some people to choose a church on the basis of the church’s programme for their children rather than taking responsibility as parents for the spiritual nurture of their children in a missional context.

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