Monday, August 25, 2014

The Geography of Church

I grew up in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Churches were expanding in the western suburbs of New Orleans, and we’re began attending our church when I was 4. The church as brand new; it didn’t have a kindergarten so I attended an older Lutheran church closer to the city. In fact, my going to kindergarten was the reason my mother learned to drive.

There were no Lutheran churches within walking distance of our house. In fact, there were no churches at all within walking distance. The closet church was a Catholic one about three miles away.

I grew up associating church with automobiles.

When my wife and I were first married and living in Houston, our first church was six miles away, right in downtown. When we moved to the northwest part of town, we attended a different church, but it was still six or eight miles from our home. In St. Louis, it has been much the same: we’ve attended churches six miles, 21 miles, and five miles from where we lived. Our current church is about six miles, situated in one of the wealthiest communities in the state of Missouri. One family in the immediate neighborhood actually attends our church.

Our experience is not atypical. As a country, we are church-nomadic people. It is not unusual for people to attend churches miles and miles from where they live. “Neighborhood” and “church” are not necessarily connected. For most of us, they aren’t connected at all.

The question is, should they be?

Christopher Smith, John Pattison, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, say this: “God is redeeming creation place by place by gathering communities of people who, like the ancient apple tree, mature, flourish and livingly engage their neighbors. But in order for the good, joyous and freeing reign of God to leaven creation, there must be a commitment to rootedness, a virtue the Benedictines have long called stability.”

Stability. It’s a word I would not necessarily ascribe to my own church experience. We’ve tried. We’ve been members of four churches here in St. Louis over the past 35 years. At one the politics became overwhelming. One was some 21 miles from our house – one-way. We loved the church, but Sunday and Wednesday programs and children’s activities became problematic. And we were plugged into a community church that had connection to where we lived.

Another church was closer. We were members for 15 years. By any definition it was a flourishing church, and for the right reasons. That is, it was flourishing until a small group quietly decided that our church should be the next Willow Creek. The church almost wrecked itself.

We’ve been members of our current church for 10 years. It’s a long-established church, with a history stretching to the 1840s. It took a while for us to get plugged in, but we did. We found a good Sunday School class. We got involved. I became a deacon. And then the signs of change, eerily similar to our previous experience, began to blow. They’ve ceased blowing, but it’s been a very, very difficult time, for us and for the church.

The closest churches to our home – one a mile to the north and the other a mile to the south – are Lutheran and Episcopal. The denominational theology of the Lutheran church isn’t so different from our church; that of the Episcopal church is quite a bit different. Perhaps that’s the issue – denominations. The early church didn’t have them, although it certainly experienced any number of theological differences and issues.

I wonder if, in the context of community, how much do theological differences actually matter? I believe they do matter, but should I find out? Neither of the close-by churches may draw from the community, either.

But are we missing something important by commuting to church, driving past our neighbors each Sunday, just as they drive past us? And is rootedeness important? 

I suspect the answer to both questions is yes.

I’ve been reading Slow Church, and I’ve been devoting Monday posts to some of the things the book has to say. It’s well worth reading.

Photograph by Bobby Mikul via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Terra said...

I will look for The Slow Church, it sounds like a book I would like. When I looked for a church to join I decided to drive no more than 15 minutes to it, about 7 miles, and then I could easily go each Sunday and become involved. And sure enough I found my ideal church 15 minutes away.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my husband has often commented that one cool thing about observant Jews not being able to use a car on the Sabbath (and therefore, they choose a synagogue that's walking distance) is that they are automatically close to the people they worship with.

Anonymous said...

i don't know about roots. i thought it was about the branch being attached to the vine.