Anecdotal evidence suggests lengthy commutes may be killing you physically. Can we say the same thing about commuter churches and their impact on dwindling church attendance?

I remember a conversation with a lead pastor of a megachurch. We were talking about neighborhoods and how, I argued, the church needs to revalue the neighborhood. I was surprised when he disagreed. His church building sits in an industrial park, nowhere near a residential neighborhood, nor accessible by public transit, which means everyone (thousands a week) drive there for a service.

The Word was made flesh so we could touch it and fall in love with it (to use Richard Rohr’s words). The mystery of Jesus is found in the incarnation–the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood (to use Petersen). Denying this characteristic by denying your own presence in your own neighborhood denies the foundation of Christianity.

There’s something missing in churches that intentionally design around the commuter experience. Without a practice or value of presence you ignore the heart of Christianity.

Here are some reasons why commuter design is a problem and one idea moving forward.

Commuting Solidifies the Consumer Idol

THE struggle for Christianity is consumerism. Don’t like what you have now? You deserve better. Drive till you find what fits your current preaching style. Search till you find the tailored programs to meet your preferences. Shop till your wants and needs are met. Churches are guilty participants in consumerism by acting as the purveyor of polished Sunday services and programs over more difficult things like compelling people to go deeper in relationships. Leaders meet these ‘demands’ by offering the ‘Goldilocks experience‘ and wind up finding themselves in a conundrum: push a congregation to hard and people will easily commute to a different church; don’t push hard enough and you wind up with a discipleship problem (or the Pareto principle called the ’80/20’ rule).

We have the results by the way, every church suffers from 80/20, AND we have a discipleship epidemic. The solution? Embodied practices that champion Christ characteristics like relationships centered around place.

Commuting Devalues Neighborhoods

By pulling people out of their neighborhoods to worship somewhere else you are essentially posturing the church to affirm what exists in someone’s neighborhood isn’t good enough nor worthy of our attention/ Extricating people out of neighborhoods to attend or volunteer for church programming confirms an unwritten dichotomy of ‘church world’ vs. ‘profane world’. But it doesn’t have to be building centered either, small groups are organized in this way as well.

Returning back to the conversation with the megachurch pastor, he argued that when people drove 20-30 minutes for weekly small groups it was an indicator of commitment! He’s right in a way, but he’s wrong to think it’s better to drive than walk across the street. Commuting detracts from embodied presence and ignores the value of local neighborhood. The literal interpretation when Jesus admonished his listeners to, “love thy neighbour” is no longer a practice in the local church (which isn’t very local anymore).

Commuting Denies Incarnation

As I touched on, by condoning commuting leaders are both condoning consumerism, and condoning the disembodied Christian experience. Designing programs that require extrication from physical place is actually the opposite of incarnational practice. Conversely, focussing on the assets (namely the people) in your neighborhood requires time and presence. What churches practice instead is a re-orientation to church programs (in the church building), and the development of volunteers to run them (cogs in a machine). Presence only counts if you’re seen at a service, whereas Jesus suggested presence counts when you’re doing unseen ministry for your neighbor.

Commuting Detracts from Priesthood

Commuting is a disembodied practice that demeans literal presence beyond sanctioned church programs. It is the antithesis of what it means live the character of Jesus in the neighborhood. It also subtly suggests that your time is best spent in church approved ministries. Dividing your life into compartments of ‘ministry’ and ‘everything else’ neglects the mission of God, one where the Kingdom proceeds with or without a participating church. It also denies the priesthood of all believers, a belief that everyone gets to play in the unfolding mission of God to restore all of creation, not just the paid pastors.

Church leaders seem to have significant issues with affirming the unfolding Kingdom of God in the world if it’s not within the boundary of church approved ministry. Too many church leaders act as if grace only shows up when the church arrives on the scene. What we require instead is the release and ordination of all to be the hands and feet of the church beyond the physical confines of the church building. Again, we can pay lip service to this idea, but if our practices are rooted firmly within the building and approved ministries, we’re still trying to box (control) God’s mission. Release your congregation to cease being congregators, and instead, missionaries in their own place, space, and way.

Commuting is a Waste Time

If you don’t value proximity then you’ll spend considerable time driving when there may be closer options. Imagine no 30 minute commute to a service or small group. Would your quality of life increase? Imagine if you could spend commuting time doing other things, having lunch with a friend or a neighbor, for example. Don’t spend your life in a car (even if you spend it listening to a great podcast).

I live in a commuter city and it’s hard to find strong neighborhood values in the suburbs. The inner-city seems to be picking up on the lost value of parish and neighborhood, but too many are left without any roots beyond haphazard relationships scattered across the city. It’s that consumer mentality again, go and drive to find what suits your feeling du jour, but ultimately it leaves us with a lack of depth.

Moving Forward: Re-Orient to Local

I know many churches shifting focus to build into what their congregations are already doing/connected into their neighborhoods. Churches will never have effective discipleship or evangelism if they are forever confined to serving the exclusive needs of membership (save for the rare ‘outreach’ event for non-members). The good news is our profound weakness can be our profound gain. Well resourced churches with sizeable congregations can re-orient their function to leverage where the literal church (its people) live.

  • Can we organize small groups around postal codes rather than clique?
  • Can we intentionally move closer to one another, selecting neighborhoods not only for their amenities that benefit ourselves, but ones that are near those we cherish?
  • Can we organize small groups based on postal codes rather than age?
  • Can we leverage existing outreach ministries to join neighborhood initiatives even if they aren’t church lead?
  • Can the church sponsor local activities already functioning rather than creating their own exclusive membership only events (and then ‘generously’ inviting others to come to the building)?
  • Can we value lingering in one place or neighborhood over the constant barrage of moving and busyness?
  • Can we affirm and release people to notice and value their neighborhoods and neighbors from behind the pulpit?
  • Can we release people to spend more time Sunday’s with neighborhood events (which many already do but never return) even if it means skipping services?
  • Can we focus new church plants in specific geographies?
  • Can we increase the value of robust discipleship even at the expense of losing consumer Christians to the show down the road?
  • Can we focus on good practice of loving thy neighbor over right theology and teaching? Meaning will the church require less of people when it comes to Sunday school classes or bible studies, and instead spend more time rooted in place and the relationships found there?

The list can go on (please add your own ideas), but there is a posture shift required to run against the grain of consumer Christianity, and frankly it’s going to hurt in the short to medium term. However, shifting our thinking and function are necessary to re-orient the church towards a space where joining God in the neighborhood is our top priority. If not, we’ll continue fighting over the meagre remnants of existing Christians.