Psalm 144:4 Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.

Church (part 2) – Commuter or Community

“There are common, shared, foundational human experiences that underpin all cultures and unite rather than divide us. There is a central human story. Childbirth and ambition; love and jealousy; sickness, fear and death all belong to this core story. They may find expression in many different forms, but their presence is universal: they are the basis of what it means to be human.”
(Gerard Kelly)

What is your church like? Perhaps more poignantly, what are you like in respect to your church?

How much is your church a commuter church or a community church?

Let me explain what I mean, based not only on my own church experience, but also on discussions I’ve had with my local community members. Perhaps it would also be relevant to let you know (if you don’t already) that we live within 30 seconds walk the local community school where our children attend and about 40 seconds walk from The Bethel – our church in Old Trafford and have done for the last almost 10 years.

Commuter Church:
Someone who commutes to church is anyone who does not live within walking distance of their church.

In a predominantly commuter church, the majority of members are generally not people that live in the local community of the church but tend to drive to the church from somewhere else. They may know some of the local people but not usually at any depth. Members are perceived as ‘outsiders’ by the community which can feel like the church is an unwelcome, unwelcoming building.

Most churches in the community which I am part of are much more likely (due to the structure and way the community is set up) to be ‘commuter’ churches as opposed to be community churches. Regardless of how committed and how many things they turn up to do, the impression from within the local community can be that of “it’s all very well you saying that you care about our community, but you clearly don’t care enough to live in our community”. Whether this is a reasonable accusation or not, whatever the myriad of good reasons people have to live where they live and drive to church, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to change the way local community people perceive the people who commute in to church.

Community Church:
Someone who lives within walking distance (I guess that depends how far you are prepared or able to walk!) of the church lives within the community of the church.

In a predominantly community church, members primarily live within the local vicinity of the church and are integral parts of the local community. Their children attend the local school and they know people and are known by people of the community. Members are seen as ‘stakeholders’ in both the church and the community. The church is known as a community resource and as the people, not the building.

The ‘local church’ – i.e. Catholic / Anglican etc. churches tend to fall, again probably mainly to do with the inherant open fellowship with paid ministry structure of the church into the ‘community’ churches model and excel in this type of role. The majority of the congregation live locally and walk to church, which is seen as a community hub. Plenty of activities extra to Sunday services go on in the building, not all of which are necessarily primarily focussed on overt Gospel preaching. The Building can be hired out for events that are not church activities or spiritually related, increasing its use and arguably its usefulness to the local community.

I would argue that all churches should be aiming at being more community focussed. Church is not an exclusive club, it is not a clique or group, church is a movement of God, working by using His spirit, through His people. Church should be Strong at the centre, Open at the edges. Diverse and yet still united, unity is not the same as uniformity. I couldn’t put it better than Gerard Kelly in a recent post of his so I’ve included it here:

The great thing about the people God has made is this: we are all different enough to be interesting, but similar enough to connect. At heart, we are all made of the same stuff. Human experiences unite us, human concerns are common to us. And yet we are each unique. Knowing another person, when knowledge runs deeper than ‘hello’ on the station platform or ‘is this seat taken?’ adds to my total understanding of the world. Discovering the lives of others; hearing their perspectives; exploring my own assumptions through the lens of theirs: all these are enriching, empowering experiences. Which is why diversity is so important to God’s idea of church.
Saint paul, especially, draws attention to the nature of the church as unity-in-diversity. Emphasising classes and categories rather than individuals – male and female; slave and free; Jew and Gentile; Greek and Barbarian – Paul presents the church as an environment in which tribes in tension find the power to co-exist.
In this redeemed community historic enemies become fellow-travellers. But this is a salad bowl, not a melting pot. The tribes are not homogenised into a bland mush, like play-dough colours mixed once to often. Rather, they are woven together into a beautiful picture – the image of God rediscovered in the colours of the human family. In this unity identity is retained: it is the unity of the collage, not the crowd.
And Paul attributes this picture not only to his virtual notion of the universal church, but also to his actual vision of the local church: real people in real places displaying the wonder of unity-in-diversity.
All cultures.
All ages.
All classes.
All types.
Genders and generations together.
Each individual finding identity and thriving in community: this is Paul’s description of the localised ecclesia – a deposit, in each town and city, of God’s new and wondrous family. What changes might your local church need to journey from bland monochrome to glorious colour?
(Gerard Kelly)

It’s easy to say it and easy to agree with it but for me, the proof of the “pudding is in the eating”, how easy is it to live it?

That’s what drives us to live in our (what was once referred to by a church member as a ‘poky little’) house with its ‘poky little’ garden in ‘not-very-salubrious’ Old Trafford (about five years ago “two parts of Old Trafford were in the top 3% most deprived areas in the country.” [Government Index of Multiple Deprivation])

I happen to really love my ‘poky little’ house, I really love the area, I love the people, I love the community, Its my (and Kate’s) desire to see the face of Christ in everyone there and love them as Christ has loved us by being Christ to them. Sure, we could have, if we had wanted to keep more stuff for ourselves, spent our money on a bigger house or a bigger garden, a ‘nicer’ area or a new car every few years, but we feel that the way we love our community is by living with them, living like them, living simply and inexpensively, not having too much stuff just because we can afford it (we can’t anyway), giving plenty away to the various charities we give to is a much more powerful witness to Christ.
The Community round our church is generally not rich (with some exceptions I imagine), there are many, many people in Old Trafford who are quite poor and we felt that it is more God-honouring, more Christ-like to be an integral part of the community, not have flash, expensive, newest, fastest, best, latest things in the same way that many parts of our community might not be able to afford these things.
I imagine there are a few other people who also live here in our fantastic, friendly, culturally diverse, beautiful, honest and mainly joyful community that might be able to afford bigger houses or bigger gardens etc but exercise restraint and I also imagine they are more humble than me and don’t share those facts about themselves publicly!

Who is to say how our lives are going to look as the children grow up and require more space / whatever possibly. But for now, that’s what motivates our way of life which IS our outreach and our preaching.

If you see us living anything like Jesus you are seeing Jesus living through us.

The King who left perfection for poverty is satisfied to stay in our humble house in Lilian Street, and would rather drive our Focus than a Ferrari. The Miracle Man who fed five thousand sponsors children in Kenya. The Friend who forgave Peter’s betrayal has forgiven those who have hurt us. The Servant who washed his friends’ feet is taking out the rubbish and recycling and doing the dishes in our house and cleaning the church and giving away a morning each week to provide a service that probably a fair few of the local community couldn’t normally afford.

There is no good in me but Jesus. And because He is in me I do good.

Don’t think for one moment we have got it all right, but by the grace of God and the power He gives us by living in us, we are partnering with Him and trying to glorify him by what we do and how we do it.

We love where we live, I couldn’t imagine choosing anywhere else, I can’t imagine why anyone thinking of moving and wanting to be part of our (what I think is great) church congregation wouldn’t want to live here, with the rest of the amazing, wonderful people!

Maybe someone needs to let me know!

7 responses to “Church (part 2) – Commuter or Community

  1. Heaven in ordinarie 15/03/2011 at 11:21

    I think this is right – and it reminds me of some research (http://tinyurl.com/6a4rqw3) which my about to be ex-employer commissioned several years ago which found, amongst other things, that ‘Faith communities are strongest where social need is highest.’ This would seem to support the ‘community church’ model – where a Christian community in its response to Jesus takes itself and its mission to where there is greatest need. We talked last night about how the idea of a ‘community church’ seems to mirror a good model – that of the synagogue – which, particularly in the time of Jesus, was literally the centre of the faith community – hostel/school/place of worship etc, etc.

    Whilst I agree with you I’m also interested in exploring a flip-side to your argument though, which is that in answering for themselves the question ‘who then is my neighbour?’ the church community finds an answer wider than ‘those living in the immediate area of my church building’. Church then becomes less about the physical building or where it is located, and more about the purpose/mission of the congregation who happen to gather there. This mission may take members of that congregation far away from the physical locus of the church; they may be ‘commuter Christians’ who are travelling to this locus from further away but they’re still serving a community – just one more widely drawn. When Jesus talks about ‘church’ in the Gospels (which he does rarely) I think the language he uses places greater emphasis on the purpose than the place – something I’ve written about very briefly (shameless self-promotion follows) here: http://tinyurl.com/6fje5sl.

    • Alex Green 15/03/2011 at 12:04

      An excellent point sir.

      I have some things to add to that in the ‘What is church for’ episode of this series which will be part 5, after a short part 4 where I merge the ‘Commuter or Community’ and ‘Consumer or Contributor’ models together to take an overall look at the way a church interacts with it’s community.

      • Mark Halstead 15/03/2011 at 16:46

        To be contrarian….
        Is the church bricks and mortar or people? If bricks and mortar then the conclusions maybe correct – but if people….? If some of / majority of the members live elsewhere should the bricks and mortar be moved to be functional for the church members and the community where they have chosen to base their mission for them and their families?

  2. Alex Green 15/03/2011 at 17:34

    I did expect this to be uncomfortable and have the potential to divide opinion!

    My response Mark would be which existed first? The location of the building that the church has at it’s disposal to use or where the members choose to live?

    Is the church – the body of Christ – the people, the members existing to serve the community in which it has existed for many years? Or is it just somewhere people want to come together to enjoy time with other members before they go back to where they want to live?

    You mention a “community where {church members} have chosen to base their mission for them and their families”. Community is not generally something that springs to life overnight so why would you not choose to become part of an already existing community where there is already a convenient building to house some of the activities that the community wants to participate in?

    I agree with you it’s definitely easier to live where you want to live and move the bricks and mortar to somewhere you prefer than choose to move into an area seen as less well-off, an area were the houses and gardens aren’t as big and you don’t have a drive.

    Do we move ourselves towards something that is less comfortable for us?
    Do we move everything else into our own comfort zone?

    I wonder what the scriptural model is? 😉

    • Mark Halstead 15/03/2011 at 21:21

      A couple of verses spring to mind “Daily in the temple and in every house they ceased not to teach and to preach” (Acts 5:42). “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word” (Acts 8:4). The early disciples went round eagerly, preaching with conviction and with power, and within about thirty years had covered the “world” of the Roman Empire. Some had a base, some went out and about to preach. These days what excuse have we? They covered the world on foot – and in our 21st C. life we can cover the world on our backsides in our lounge! The early disciples were going out disciples.
      Are to suggest then that the scriptural model is that the best church is the one where its members live in a 1/4 mile radius of a building? or a church where preaching occurs whereever they find themselves within a city? There is nothing to suggest in scripture that everyone move nearer the building in order to preach the gospel more effecitvely (the purpose of a church?) We do far more preaching in our home and in our work “the community of our church” i.e. church = members = we are in essence, a spiritual (and physical) church as individuals.

      I wonder whether the model you are suggesting works if you flip it on its head, say our church elders 80 years ago had bought a chapel in Bowden / Hale / Dunham. Do we all have to go and earn mega bucks in order to buy houses there to serve that community?

      Or is it that we serve the community where we the church, as individuals find ourselves?

      A quote from your reply – “Is the church – the body of Christ – the people, the members existing to serve the community in which it has existed for many years? Or is it just somewhere people want to come together to enjoy time with other members before they go back to where they want to live?”
      So Alex is the church the people or the building – you seem a little mixed up? The church has always existed in lots of communities round Manchester – and the North West / Derby / Lakes etc and served them. It also comes together to do things together in a building in Old Trafford.

      I see nothing uncomfortable in that! But appreciate we may have different opinions on this.

      • Alex Green 15/03/2011 at 21:56

        “We do far more preaching in our home and in our work “the community of our church” i.e. church = members = we are in essence, a spiritual (and physical) church as individuals.”

        Aye indeed, so surely the community that exists around the place where we tend to congregate for corporate worship is just as, if not more important? Their needs, concerns, etc. must take a high priority? Or what’s the point in travelling all that distance? May as well just do the “in our home and in our work bit”.

        I’m not mixed up Mark, I know the church is the people, but the people also, for practical reasons (most people’s houses not big enough being one) have a building that a lot of activities take place in. That Building exists within a community and I imagine for a lot of the community, they perceive the church as the building. Regardless of that particular perception, they also seem to perceive a conflict in what is said and what is done in some instances.
        That community has also had a huge amount of investment into it from the church members over the years, but the community has, in places a perception that if people really cared about the community, they would become part of it. They don’t understand why people would choose to live somewhere else and commute to a ‘local community church’. You and I might see different doctrinal or other issues but that cannot be explained quickly or easily to the community members and perhaps they would see a much better reflection of what church is all about if more members did live within the local community. I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that just because something isn’t immediately convenient or comfortable it is therefore wrong and shouldn’t be done. Also just because you can do something doesn’t make it right.
        I appreciate that we all live in certain degrees of paradox and hypocrisy, but the perception of the church and church members by the immediate local community has a big impact on how much they want to interact with the congregation.

        Two Recent comments from non-church people:

        1. “I couldn’t possibly go into that room with all those well-dressed people, I’d never fit in.”
        2. “How do you cope living so far from your church?” (to people living within 15 mins walking distance).

        I think you can see in my original post, I’ve been fairy generous in my personal reflection on commuting to church and reported only the comment / perception of the community local to the current building where we run activities from.

        p.s. My reference to the scriptural model was about comfort zones. The scriptural model of the church is much more house-church oriented and that, in current cultural circumstances, is not immediately easy to act out. Maybe it’s worth working on.

      • Alex Green 16/03/2011 at 10:52

        Just thought about this overnight

        “Are {you} to suggest then that the scriptural model is that the best church is the one where its members live in a 1/4 mile radius of a building?”

        I think in an ideal world, yes, all members of a church would live within the community of the church, I can’t see what is wrong with that, what happened in Acts was exactly that and then they went out and planted new churches everywhere they went that would accept Jesus’ message. We don’t live in an ideal world and our cities are much bigger than they were back then so the model probably requires some differences to accommodate that.

        “There is nothing to suggest in scripture that everyone move nearer the building in order to preach the gospel more effectively “

        No indeed, but I think it would be sensible to say, if you are thinking of moving anyway, then it stands to reason if you want to attend a community church and get involved in the community, it makes a lot of sense to live in that community. If you aren’t thinking of moving anyway, then I don’t have an explicit problem with commuting to a church building in the general sense, but I think the perception of and interaction with the community in which the building in which the church meets is based can be deleteriously affected.

        Unfortunately, a predominantly white, middle-class, rich, commuting church may not be so compelling and attractive to a less well-heeled, diversely ethnic, community classified by the government as ‘deprived’ (but fastest improving).

        “Three (now about five) years ago two parts of Old Trafford were in the top 3% most deprived areas in the country. Neither now features in the most deprived 5% nationally”.

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