*This post is one of several entitled “Launching” which present the American world that I think the United Methodist Church, and the church in general, lives in and must respond to.*
There’s a lot of cars in America.
Why? Based on some simple research I can’t say that the car has ever gotten more affordable in relation to income. I’m led to believe that the rise of the car comes from post-WW2 realities that led to a more stable job market enabling families to feel more comfortable assuming some debt to purchase one – which led to easy financing for more sales, which led to an expanded used car market. Plus, the Interstate system enabled the rise of white-flight suburbs and our now sprawling roadway infrastructure.
Yet, in Levar Burton’s words, you don’t have to take my word for it. This is mostly based on some simple web search perusing.
Even still, the car and our road network has changed the way people live.
Being a suburban youth (ex-urban even: the suburbs beyond the suburbs) I am very familiar with this changed reality, the car and sprawl. It’s the world I grew up in. People drive from my hometown or where I live now into the city for work. It’s about 45 minutes/40 miles from either place.
Just as the car and roads changed commutes from the suburbs and exurbs, they’ve changed the way people commute to church. I know more than enough people who drive past churches of the same denomination, much less others, for another. I have relatives who drive from their community to a completely different one for a church that is community in name, but regional in nature.
These church commutes are shorter than the 45 minute/40 mile work commutes mind you, but are still vastly different than the world the UMC grew up in. The UMC grew up with dirt roads and horse & buggy/walking, so originally served localized communities. This is why almost everyone in the church I now serve lives within a 2.5 mile radius of it. It is also the reason that there are 12 churches within a 10 mile radius of the it and why there are 9 UMC churches within a 5 mile radius of my home church.
Yet, the ministry of churches can be and has been extended simply because of the car. It’s why people can drive from my rural community to larger churches closer to the city and why those churches can engage 2,000+ on a Sunday. Even my relatives’ church reaches 40,000+!! I’d be surprised if the 21 churches I mentioned engaged 2,500 people on any given Sunday. Take away 2 or 3 churches and the number drops below 1000, averages out between 55-65.
Now in case you think I’m lauding big churches over small ones here, that debate is a moot point in my opinion. Both have their place so long as they’re vital.
The reason I mention the small average of 55-65 is because of another number: 57, the median age of the UMC (p. 126). Half of our denomination is older than 57 years old. That is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for the denomination, nor for our smaller churches (who probably trend older than the denomination). A church where half of it’s 55 to 65 regular attenders are over 57, will in 5 years be older and smaller, simply because of aging and death. That risks further strain on finances and burnout for our congregants, weakening their discipleship and outreach if it isn’t already occurring.
I think we are missing an opportunity when it comes to the car. Many UMC congregations are within a manageable driving distance of one another of another (9 in a 5 mile radius!). And if they aren’t struggling yet, they will be. We have an opportunity that the car has afforded us and that is the ability for the congregations of these small churches to work together. Many already do, most notably in missions. But that still means that they often go it alone when it comes to their institutions and members.
They don’t have to. Call me crazy, but the idea I’m essentially proposing is moving many of our local churches toward a new reality.
The car affords churches like mine the opportunity to change from localized to something more regional and a bit bigger. In fact, this is already seen in multi-site churches and many small churches already pull in some congregants from across their region, mergers and partnerships would only express this reality and mobilize the church toward it.
If all went well… that’s a big if… I can see several benefits. One is more robust worship. More people in service will do that, you don’t need hundreds, just enough to fill the space. Another is more resources. Financially, they’ll have less structures to keep up and fewer salaries and benefits to pay for. More importantly, more human resources. There will be more volunteers to support the ministry leading to less burnout and more energy and thus more effective outreach and discipleship.
There are obstacles as well. Aside from the fact that any sort of change, much less this drastic, is an obstacle. The church I serve now has been a church since 1888 and a community of sorts since 1807. Most UMC churches are similar. There is much to be lauded in the history and stories. Any moving forward must faithfully remember and carry the histories and unique identities with them, integrating them into whatever may come.
Carrying that idea a step further, we can’t leave the localized communities that our churches have been a part of. I’m not sure what exactly that might look like. But the fact that we have usable structures in so many locations is to our benefit. Plus, the many cemeteries in those locations offers us a fantastic ministry opportunity.
I would say that the general vision that I’m casting here is a worship in one location, but serve in many. I think that’s incredibly doable, so long as we’re willing to take our lumps and be fully behind it from the Bishop on down to the pastors.
Like I said… call me crazy. Would it work…..