I was interested to read John Benton’s article ‘Whatever happened to the local church‘ in this month’s edition of Evangelicals Now. I suspect it stuck in my mind particularly as I am also halfway through reading his book The Big Picture for Small Churches where he makes a similar argument in at least one of the sections. For what it’s worth, I think the book is generally very helpful and really encouraging for small churches. I think his five quality things every church can do are, overall, excellent and offer real value for small churches seeking to honour the Lord. But, I am not so sure about at least part of his argument in Evangelicals Now, which is also represented in his book.
The specific issue I wonder about is what John describes as ‘being part of the community’. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think being part of your community is great. I think there are various whys and wherefores and ways that might work out. But in essence, being some sort of presence in your community, seems to me, an essentially good thing. I am just not sold on the issue John presses of living within walking distance of your church in the way that he states it. Again, I can see lots of good reasons you may want to live nearby, even within walking distance, I am just not sold on it being essential.
For one thing, and this is really the crux of the matter, it just isn’t a biblical imperative. You don’t find anywhere in scripture that says, ‘live within walking distance of your church’. At best, then, whatever advantages there may or may not be for doing so, I just don’t think we can push it that hard. You may want to do that, you may even think it is best for a whole host of reasons, but if the Bible doesn’t say you must, binding consciences in a way scripture doesn’t can’t be right.
The closest John comes to some biblical arguments (and they aren’t really biblical arguments) comes in two places. First, in his book, John argues that Jesus lived among people, he didn’t commute back to Heaven each night. Second, in his article, he says ‘I have difficulty imagining that most first-century Christians drove to church in their chariots.’
The first of those, whilst certainly true, ignores the fact that Jesus specifically did go from town to town and village to village preaching all over the shop. The second, whilst potentially true, isn’t necessarily. We know Roman soldiers and even Manaen (who had grown up with Herod the tetrarch) were in the church and it is entirely possible they did travel that way to church. But even if they didn’t, what constituted ‘walking distance’ was much further back then too. As mentioned, Jesus and his apostles walked miles to preach and teach. Jonah had to walk through Nineveh, three days journey. Should a church have been planted in that city, it is perfectly plausible people would have walked quite some distance to get to it! Aside from being an argument from silence, there are some reasons to think what we consider reasonable walking distance is not the same as the NT writers (and, indeed, with the advent of cars, what we are prepared to walk shrunk further still). Ultimately though, it is worth noting that neither of these are commands from the Lord to live within walking distance of your church.
Second, the way people live now has changed. Given that many people commute to work as a matter of course, and they jump in their car to get to the cinema, the local shops, to watch their football team, to do pretty much anything, makes it difficult to see why they wouldn’t get in their car to come to church if they were so inclined. My children’s school, for example, is not much more than a few hundred yards from my house. But when I walk my children round to school, the road is jam-packed with cars from parents dropping their kids off and picking them up later. Insisting that everybody live within walking distance from their church – especially in light of any biblical imperative to do so – doesn’t seem to factor in that most people are jumping in their car these days to go almost anywhere. I struggle to see that it is a major barrier to their coming to church.
Third, I think context makes a major difference here. For one thing, we need to define who it is we are aiming to reach. In some countries, a church could be the only one for several hundred miles. Whilst, of course, it would be great to have more churches, if somebody converts further away, they are going to struggle to walk. In some areas of our own country, you might be the only church in a borough. Again, if you are aiming to be a church for the whole borough as a result, expecting everyone to live within 10 minutes walk is not feasible. Village churches, likewise, are often drawing people from a larger surrounding geographical area because each individual village doesn’t have the numbers to support individual churches. Even in urban areas, there are whole areas of cities that are unchurched which does not always make it possible to live nearby.
But the issue is more complex still. In our church, for example, we receive large numbers of asylum seekers. They simply have no choice about where they are placed. Some may be near to us, some further away. Large numbers of people live in rental properties and often have to leave at a moment’s notice. They may have to move frequently and one of the only bits of stability in their life is maintaining fellowship with their church family, even from some distance away. Then there are high-value areas of cities. It is all very well calling people to live near the church, but unless you are making (sometimes literally) millions, the chances of being able to buy a property near your church building is vanishingly small. By contrast, churches on council estates can struggle when those who come to join the church are not eligible for the social housing and so have to live outside and travel in.
Even if these things aren’t the evident barriers that they are, some places are defined differently. A council estate or village is typically a self-contained area and most people live their lives in that geographical place. But other places are less geographically bound. Some places centre around a defined town centre so that the wider geographical area might all be deemed local. That could be within a town itself or could stretch to a whole borough. What tends to define matters is less geography and more how locals themselves view the locality. In the village where I spent my teens, our nearest city was 15 miles away, but most still considered it local’. In the city I lived most recently, a number of people would consider a two or three mile journey ‘quite far’. Context is going to define what is local and that is not always determined by walking distance.
I think there can be lots of advantages to living nearby your church. But the truth is, I rarely think geographical distance is the right question to ask. John at least acknowledges (not exactly) that in his book where he does admit, ‘I do not believe every church member must live within walking distance of the church.’ But the rest of that particular chapter, and his EN article, don’t quite read that way.
Instead, I think the right question to ask is whether – living wherever they do – your members can meaningfully fulfil what the Bible does specifically demand of them. Can they meaningfully fulfil the one another commands? Can they credibly reach their neighbours with the gospel? Can they bring people to church with them? Are they able to involve themselves in the ministries of the church? Are they helping the church to be a presence in its community? If the answer to those questions is ‘yes’, it strikes me the geographical distance away they live is not really at issue. Similarly, those who live within walking distance of their churches might struggle to answer some of those things positively too. I can give you plenty of examples of people living far away who do these things and those living far away who don’t. I can do the same for those living nearby too.
All of that is to say, I recognise there can be some real advantages to living near your church. But let’s also recognise that, however beneficial they may be (and let’s also recognise those benefits will vary from one context to another), it is not biblically demanded of us. Nor is it always viable. Sometimes – in certain cases – it may be actively undesirable (in an area like mine, for example, where persecution for certain converts means they actively couldn’t join our church and remain in the local community). I am all for people living nearby the church when that is the most helpful thing for them to do in their context. But it isn’t biblically mandated and, as such, don’t think we can take what we (might) deem most helpful and bind the consciences of those who determine otherwise.
I wonder sometimes whether it is another case of our having something of an issue with Christian freedom.