I’m up at Luther Seminary this week for an intensive course on Singleness, Marriage, and Family. As tends to happen, I am viewing much of this course content through the lens of ecclesiology and thinking of the implications of our discussions upon the life of the church.
On Monday (I think it was Monday–things run together when you’re in class 8 hours a day) I had a discussion with some people in class about some implications of “relationality,” vocation, and the idolization of the “traditional” nuclear family. In discussing Luther’s theology of vocation we eventually landed on an ecclesiological reality that I had been thinking about for some time but had trouble articulating: Local churches should be local. Or as some have said, “Wherever you’re at, there you are.”
Luther’s understanding of vocation is, “The call to follow Christ leads not to any religious vocation removed from daily life, but instead it transforms the attitude and understanding one has of the situation in which one already is” (See Marc Kohlden’s “Luther on Vocation” in the 1983 Word and World, page 386). My focus is on the part of the statement that says “the situation in which one already is,” and taking that not to mean the occupational, marital, and social situations that currently exist but also one’s current geographical situation. The call of Christ is a call that says, look around you and live your faith in this situation, this marriage, this job, and this location.
I gather that most churches have moved beyond understanding vocation as only the call to church ministry. It also seems that many churches have moved beyond speaking about vocation as something other than honoring God in your occupation and career, but in all areas of life. I wonder how many have taught, and more importantly lived, vocation as living out your faith literally where you are located.
One of the problems with speaking of vocation in such a way is that our churches are anything but local. I drive about 25 minutes to the church where I work. There are nine ELCA churches closer to my house than the one to which we belong, one of them only a mile and a half away. I know the vast majority of parishioners drive past dozens of churches before arriving at worship on Sunday. To become a local church again, there would have to be major changes to existing churches or church plants that intentionally work out of a value of locality and close proximity.
Since I’m talking about churches being radically local, what might it look like if churches were within walking distance?
- Churches would be smaller. This is the most obvious observation. If churches are within walking distance, people aren’t going to want to go far, so churches would have to be pretty small. Maybe they wouldn’t even need a building in some cases.
- No need for parking lots, or just very small ones. Think of the money spent to buy land and then pave over that land so people don’t have to drive their cars and walk through the mud. No need for that when people walk to church.
- Denominationalism would die… faster. Postmodernity seems to be bringing about the death of denominations already, but valuing close proximity would speed that process. If churches’ allegiance was to a particular locale they would be less able to cater to their own denominational supporters. In Texas there are likely only a handful of Lutherans within walking distance of existing churches. Baptists are another story. Churches would be defined by shared mission, not shared denominational subscription (or tradition).
- The church would embody a counter-cultural practice that highlighted holistic living. Most of us live in a culture that lives, works, worships, and shops in different geographic locales. As such, our lives become disjointed and fragmented. To do all these things in the same basic geographic area would help us to integrate ourselves into the lives of people rather than just their functions because we would see the same people over and over again in different life situations. We would become aware of local issues of crime, taxes, education, and politics that affected the whole congregation, not just certain segments. If people were trained to gather and worship in places close to their homes, I suspect they would begin to look for ways to live out other aspects of their lives in a similar manner.
- The church would embody a counter-church-culture practice of environmental stewardship. Think about how much gas is spent by people driving to churches multiple times a week. Especially when gas prices were skyrocketing, this was beginning to become an issue because of the financial implications. Regardless of cost, it is still a theological issue of stewardship. Should Christians be consuming so much driving back and forth to church?
- Community would be formed. Children would attend the same schools, parents would shop in the same grocery stores, and families would play at the same parks. Families would be available to pick up other people’s children from school, babysit on short notice, help repair a leaky faucet, and a whole host of other everyday tasks because they lived just minutes away from each other. I believe many people in our congregation are willing to help one another, but it becomes difficult when round trips to other people’s homes eat up 30 minutes or more.
- Mission would become local again. Churches could become the centerpieces of social life in communities because they would be in tune with and attentive to the needs of the local community. In areas where after school programs were lacking, churches could step in. Where there was a high concentration of elderly people, churches could provide needed services. If systemic poverty was an issue, churches could provide occupational skills training. Each church would find its mission because they were situated in a particular geographical context. The needs of the church would by definition be the needs of the local community. Churches would become known as positive change agents in communities again.
- Taxes would go down. My contention is that the government does a lot of tasks and provides a lot of services that could (or should?) be provided by churches. If churches live out their mission in their local contexts as described above, then the less government needs to fill in the gap. Okay, well, taxes might not go down, but maybe they would not go up.
- Youth and children would not be bound by their ability to find a ride to church. As someone in youth ministry, many things are significantly hindered because almost everything requires getting in a car and driving, even if activities are hosted at someone’s house and not the church building. If a church is within walking distance, kids as young as elementary age would be able to walk to church or one another’s house at almost any time.
Now, none of these things will absolutely happen just because people walked to church, but many of the above things are impossibilities because people come from such vastly different geographic locations that there is no consensus about needed action, awareness of local issues, or passion for mission because of the fragmented nature of the lives and membership of churches. A whole new world of possibilities opens up when a church is truly local.
I am often perplexed by how much churches live and function in mirror image to our wider consumer culture and how often that hinders ministry. Is becoming local again the radical first step in making a break from the culture and redefining ourselves in light of Christ’s call?
So there we have it. If churches really want to teach vocation, how better than to live it out by becoming truly local congregations.
I’m also interested if you can add to my bullet points above about the new possibilities that open up when churches are local. Can you think of more?