How are Christians to maintain a meaningful church community when they are scattered all over the country?
Americans today live in perhaps the most mobile society in history. Thanks to technological change, an average American can travel to almost any spot on the globe in a day or two. Moving to another state, even over thousands of miles, takes a small fraction of a typical household’s income. Thanks to instantaneous communication, discovering work opportunities in distant parts of the world is only a little harder than finding those same jobs in one’s hometown. The job market has expanded, with increased benefits to employees, employers, and customers.
Relocating over long distances does not require severing connections with family and friends, as it did only three or four generations ago. While reading the classic children’s book Little House on the Prairie to my daughter recently, I marveled at the isolation in which the Ingalls family lived in the late 1800s. When the family moved from Wisconsin to Oklahoma, they could only communicate with their Wisconsin relatives by mail — and given the absence of a nearby post office, letters would be infrequent. In some ways, an astronaut standing on the moon with a radio would enjoy better communication with his family. Likewise, the modern missionary to a foreign field can quickly and inexpensively correspond with family and supporters at home.
Even on a “micro” level, the ease of travel affects our patterns of life. On an average day, the members of my household can be more than twenty miles apart. Those friends and family whom we see face-to-face at least once a week are scattered over an area of 2,000 square miles. We communicate with friends and relatives in other states almost daily. But we hardly know our next-door neighbors.
Given that these little-known neighbors are the people most likely to be in church with us on Sunday, what kind of spiritual communion can we have with them?
Certainly we can celebrate the ease of mobility and communication today. But as with any technological advance, we must weigh the increased opportunities to do what is right against an increased ability to reject the good. As we see geography as less of a constraint in our vocations or relationships, we might be tempted to forget the benefits of living next door to one another.
Once upon a time, the people we went to church with on Sunday were the same people with whom we socialized and did business the rest of the week. Today this is much less common than it was.
What does this change mean for the church?
Geography and Accountability
The geographical dispersion of the Christian community makes it harder to shepherd children and maintain accountability for adults. With the car, teenagers travel farther to meet their friends, meaning that they can enjoy more anonymity, and less accountability. Their parents and their parents' friends might know nothing about the teens' acquaintances and relationships. The same is true of adults, who might find that marital infidelity is easier when surrounded by strangers. It is for a good reason that sailors have had a centuries-old reputation for rowdy and immoral behavior — they spend much of their time separated from those who might report back to their families and friends at home.
For the Christian community, then, good accountability among believers requires them to live in the same neighborhood. The risk of being observed can check immoral behavior—communication is much more effective “face-to-face.” Facial expressions, shifting posture, and gestures are part of communicating. Sometimes they communicate more than the speaker intends, which is why lying to someone over the phone might be easier than lying “to his or her face.” Likewise, encouraging fellow Christians — praying with, weeping with, and rejoicing with each other — is best done in person. Not all communication is reducible to words.
The local church has to be an institution that is geographically connected. Christians must not forsake the gathering together of believers (Hebrews 10:25) but are required to meet together weekly for worship. Sharing the Lord’s Supper cannot be done by e-mail or videoconferencing (though doubtless some church will try it in the near future). The anonymity that would follow any attempt to carry out the functions of a church at a distance would make high-quality fellowship, accountability, and pastoral oversight virtually (pun intended) impossible.
Since local congregations are tied, then, to physical locations, the frequent turnover in church membership and leadership that comes with easy mobility can present problems. As church members come and go, it makes it more difficult for church leaders to appreciate the long-term issues in a believer’s life.
Community in a Fragmented Society
Recently I was personally involved in sorting out the consequences of a Reformed pastor’s adultery and removal from ministry. He moved to another state and soon afterwards appeared at a church of his denomination, saying simply that he had “just come out of a difficult marriage.” For church discipline to function, information about this man’s behavior has to follow him to any new community of believers that has contact with him.
I have not heard that this former pastor is pursuing membership in the church he attended. Probably he is not. But to maintain accountability, local churches might want to inquire about the relationships prospective new members have had with Christians elsewhere. It might be wise for sessions (or equivalent leadership) to pass along, together with any letter transferring membership, information that would bring the person’s new session up to speed on his particular struggles, evident gifts, and family background. This is the sort of thing Paul does in 2 Timothy 4:14–15, where he warns a distant believer about the harmful behavior of a certain professed Christian.
Restoring a covenantal Christian community is vital to the survival of Christian civilization. Clearly Christians want to restore community among believers — one has only to observe the many “community church” signs springing up in this country. Yet many of these churches are ardently nondenominational and are functionally separated from other bodies of believers.
Whether there is community or not depends largely on what happens among believers outside the church building, seven days a week. Perhaps their members have truly sacrificed to build community outside the church walls — by living close together, getting to know each other's children, patronizing their fellow church members' businesses, keeping one another accountable, and bearing one another’s burdens. But I am not optimistic that a “community church” would have any more of these qualities than a church of another name, and in fact, the lack of formal cooperation with other churches means that they are less capable of handling the realities of a transient membership.
To recover community, Christians must begin to take seriously their covenantal responsibilities to one another, and stay in touch Monday through Saturday. Technology makes possible a closer relationship with those who are more distant, but Christians should not forget the people sitting beside them in their own churches.