Local church vs commuter church

26 March, 2015 — 22 Comments
Over the years I’ve been part of church communities close to home, and others that I’ve had to get into my car and drive a decent distance to participate in. I define these as “local church” and “commuter church”. For me, at the present time I’m leaning more toward the value of being part of a church community that is near where I live because it adds value and connection to a place I already spend time in and care about: my neighbourhood.
commuter-church-570
There are some good reasons behind the concept of commuter church, and others that seem more about consumer choice than anything else. In this post I’ve started a pros and cons list for both concepts of church expression, and I would love to add your input into the tables below.

In my experience I haven’t been part of a church community that has done both “local” and “commuter” well – it seems that one of these philosophies always gets prioritised, sometimes unintentionally. If you know of a good example where a faith community manages both of these expressions well, please tell us about it in the comments below.

Where do we live?

Another question this raises is where we choose to live, do we make this decision based on:
  • the location of the school we want our children to go to.
  • the location that we can afford to live in.
  • proximity to family and/or friends.
  • the location of our place of work.
  • the location we want to make a difference in.
  • the location of the church we are part of.

Local church pros and cons list

If comments come in with more suggestions of pros and cons I will add them to the tables in red font.
Local church pros
Local church cons
  1. Your faith community has a geographic connection to where you live and spend a lot of time. Home owners in particular appear to like the idea that their neighbourhood is as good as it can be. Being part of a church community in your local area means the transformation that you are working towards within your faith community (realising the Kingdom of God) is happening where you live.
  2. It’s natural to have relationships with neighbours so it’s more likely you will be aware of issues that need help/support/transformation.
  3. According to Oldenburg’s Third place philosophy humans generally have 3 places or spaces that their lives revolve around: home, workplace, and where we re-create. Church being local means it adds to one of these existing spaces rather than creating a 4th place. (This could also interpret “local” as being one of the other 2 places.)
  4. You have natural connections with others in your church community without having to make special trips to see them, e.g. when you’re walking down the street to the shops, you encounter other people you know and can stop for a chat.
  5. Local church forces us to work out first order issues, e.g. XYZ happens, which I may personally dislike, but with a commitment locally to this place and these people and one God, we will work together. That gives credence to us saying the gospel overcomes all barriers and is a good witness to the community. Of course, fights can and do start over what constitutes first and second order issues, so I’ve always gone to 1 Cor 15 and, maybe counter-culturally in 2015, really appreciate local church statements of faith as a way of celebrating gospel inclusiveness together. [Tim Hodge]
  6. In a local church there is some natural grouping of people that occurs due to the commonality of factors that influence where people live. There is something wonderful about the connections made when walking to Church rather than driving. [Andrew Reyngoud]

  7. When there are a lot of people living close to the church building, walking, talking, connecting and relating to each other, those who are not part of that faith community do notice. Care for neighbors is shared. The feel of community is intensified. [Rachel Roche]

  8. Local church can potentially avoid being monocultural (age & stage wise; socio-economically; racially, etc) if what is common among the people is their locality rather than some other demographic identifier (but see how this can also be a con). [Mark Day]
  1. There might not be any “good” churches in your local area, e.g. the music, or children’s programme, or preaching, or age-range, or pastor/priest/elders, don’t suit your taste or expectations.
  2. Your denomination of choice might not be in your local area.
  3. You might live in such a remote location that there is no local church, or “local” has a much broader definition than the suburban and urban contexts most humans live in, e.g. farming communities.
  4. When taken too literally, “local” may have too many barriers, e.g. the closest church may have services in a different language. [not a wild hera]

  5. You can’t hide – if you need a break you have to stay inside or leave the town e.g. you sneak to the letter box in your dressing gown or get absorbed in your gardening and own thoughts and suddenly you hear “Hello Mrs Roche.” :) [Rachel Roche]

  6. Local church could be just as monocultural [as commuter church – see con below]] because it may be that the locality is monocultural. It could be that a diverse community is also a segregated community, and the white people in that locale go to this church and the non-white people to that church. [Mark Day]

Commuter church pros and cons list

Commuter church pros
Commuter church cons
  1. You can find a specific church community that caters to a particular niche, e.g. lots of people your age, your favourite genre of music, a group with similar “stages of faith” 1 as you.
  2.  The church community might require a certain skill that you have and are able to offer that a local church might not need, e.g. video camera operator, organ player.
  3. For families with children and other people with “special needs” a commuter church can better suit than the one that happens to be local. [Tim Bulkeley]
  4. A church you travel to could by its “difference” challenge and grow your faith more! [Tim Bulkeley]

  5. When geographic change is caused by changes in things such as marital, rental, or employment situation changes, faithfulness in commuting to a ‘home’ church allows one to maintain relationships and ministry in that community. [Dale Campbell]
  1. It might take you 15, 30, 60 minutes to drive to the gathered worship service, such as something on Sunday morning. It might be a big effort to engage during the week with other things going on.
  2. Greater use of resources, e.g. a 45 minute drive there and back uses fuel, contributing negatively to climate change, etc.
  3. Your communal expression of faith may be limited to church services, leaving you on your own or isolated in your engagement with the world.
  4. The church might be full of people at the same “stage” of faith as you, meaning you might be less likely to learn and grow. [Tim Bulkeley]

  5. The possibility of being a monoculture (age & stage wise; socio-economically; racially, etc) because “birds of a feather flock [across town to get] together.” That is a problem in light of the “no Jew or Greek, slave or free” stuff. [Mark Day]
I’m wanting to create a picture that critiques why both of these expressions of church community exist, and I want your help. Please add your pros and cons into the comments section below and lets see how comprehensive these lists can become. I’ll add your pros and cons into the table in red text.

Image: “32.WMATA.WestFallsChurchStation.VA.8March2013” 8 March 2013 by Elvert Barnes from flickr.com CC.

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  • Tim Bulkeley

    Mike, I’d see having a church full of people at the same “stage” of faith as a major “con”, I’d be much less likely to learn and grow. It’s like currently being in a church that is mainly around my age is a significant “con” – the “pros” are that it was the church we’d have to drive past to get to others (of any denomination), it is my denomination, it has a lively sense of call to discipleship and mission, it’s small enough to need me, and not big enough to hide in.

    Two more possible “pros” for commuter churches:
    For families with children and other people with “special needs” a commuter church can better suit than the one that happens to be local.

    A church you travel to could by its “difference” challenge and grow your faith more!

    • Hi Tim and thanks for your input – I’ve added your pros and cons to the lists above.

  • dalecampbell

    Love this conversation Mike. Brilliant way to resource and frame the discussion.

    I am very much of the view that ‘as local as possible’ is the goal (though because of rent prices, we’ve ended up living closer to a few other churches!). So my comments will probably be pro for local and con for commuter…

    It can be tricky for those whose marital, rental, or employment situation changes often, resulting in regular geographical change (i.e. living in different suburbs in auckland across various ‘seasons’). Are they to be expected to stay at their ‘home’ church? I don’t take a hard line on that. Some things are out of our control. But one thought (a pro commuter comment from Dale!?) would be that faithfulness in commuting to a ‘home’ church allows one to maintain relationships and ministry in that community. But I’d also see it as a positive if a person/family decided to embrace local church and local community engagement with their new-found geographical/relational surroundings.

    For me the challenge is when Christians ‘move churches’ when their residential ‘local’ is unchanged. Spiritual abuse or other severe factors indeed warrant moving churches, but I suspect too often we are breaking fellowship with a church for reasons/factors that do not warrant it. (similar to how we can too easily leave a job, marriage, etc.) You could do another post with a spectrum of reasons/factors for breaking fellowship: from ‘most valid’ to ‘least valid’ where readers could add to it :)

    • Thanks Dale. I’ve just added your commuter church pro to the list above, in which you highlight things that can complicate the issue.

      With your final point, I heard 2 years ago that with some large churches in NZ there is about a 70% annual turnover of people possibly because they are moving on to the next new/fresh expression of church service…

  • disqus_aUV4kk8nVj

    Hi Mike – (my second attempt to make this comment – don’t know where the first one ended up!) And this probably won’t add anything to your debate of “pros” and “cons”. I certainly hope my comment won’t come across as too “spiritual” but I’ve always believed people should be where they believe God wants them to be.
    I’d been worshiping at a local Anglican church since arriving here from England in 1976. I’m not “super spiritual” but in May 1985 I believe I heard God telling me it was time to leave that Anglican church where some issues had surfaced, sadly. A number of other folk left before I did. I won’t give the reasons.
    I began attending another local Anglican church and also a local Baptist church but, after a few weeks, felt I should be part of a church family and not hop between churches so I prayed, asking God to show me where He wanted me.
    I certainly didn’t expect an answer as soon as the following Sunday, where I was attending the Baptist church – three things happened during that service which I believe was God telling me this was where He wanted me to be. I was baptised at that church as a believer in December 1985 (having been warned by my previous Anglican minister that I would be “committing a grave sin” if I was “baptised again”!!
    To be honest, I didn’t fully understand in those early months at the Baptist church why God wanted me there but in February 1986, during another Sunday service I felt God confirm it was because that’s where I was baptised as a believer and follower of Jesus, which wouldn’t have happened in either of the Anglican churches I’d attended before. It was just as if a light went on in my tiny brain and the penny dropped! Just like God saying “Of course, didn’t you realise at the time!!!” He is so patient, eh!!
    I’ve been part of that Baptist church family as a committed, involved member ever since and will stay there unless I believe I hear God tell me to move out.
    Anyway, for what it’s worth, that’s my “six-pennyworth” on your topic! I’m not sure if it will be helpful or not but wanted to respond.
    Kate

    • Hi Kate, and thanks for sharing your experience into the conversation. That’s a really good ‘filter’ to use about faith-community belonging: pray and seek a sense of where you think God wants you to be.
      Mike

  • Tim Hodge

    Hi Mike

    Great blog, stimulating my own thinking here in Selwyn. I can’t really imagine never being able to walk or cycle to a local church hall, but never say never and your post is helping me see the other side of the coin.
    One of the reasons we’ve always wanted to be with a local church is that it forces us to work out first order issues. I guess that maybe another ‘pro’?
    XYZ happens, which I may personally dislike, but with a commitment locally to this place and these people and one God, we will work together. That gives credence to us saying the gospel overcomes all barriers and is a good witness to the community. Of course, fights can and do start over what constitutes first and second order issues, so I’ve always gone to 1 Cor 15 and, maybe counter-culturally in 2015, really appreciate local church statements of faith as a way of celebrating gospel inclusiveness together.

    • Hi Tim, and thanks for your ‘pro’ for Local – I’ve added it to the table above.

  • not a wild hera

    Great post, thanks, Mike, and I love the way you’ve set up the interaction.

    I generally favour going local for the reasons you outline. We’ve just moved cities for a few months, and we are, pleasingly, going to the closest church to our home, only a few hundred metres away.

    In our hometown, the closest church is a Samoan Methodist one, so the language barrier means it isn’t a sensible option for our household (the services are in Samoan, which we don’t speak).

    It seems to me there’s a long continuum between choosing your (literally) closest church, no matter what it is, and picking the very best match church, no matter how far away it is. As much as it is useful to have the two categories you’ve set up, most of us are not at either end of the spectrum. Most of us choose some kind of denominational or theological alignment ahead of geography, though we may choose to go to the closest of the aligned options – the closest Anglican church, say, even if you have to drive past a few other churches to get to it.

    The first and second order theology question Tim raises is important but of course sorting those issues into first and second is the harder job. For our family, we couldn’t go to a church with institutionalised sexism. It is very important to us not to send the message to our son and daughter that they have different things to offer the church purely based on gender.

    But I’d second Tim’s point, about the huge benefit in choosing not to mind that things are done not-how-I-prefer. That attitude breeds generosity and kindness in a community and I’m a huge fan of that.

    • Hi not a wild hera – great reflections, thanks. I’ve added a “con” to Local church, wording what you have said here as: When taken too literally, “local” may have too many barriers, e.g. the closest church may have services in a different language. [not a wild hera]

      One way I see the continuum in terms of the local end is illustrated in my post last week where I visited all the local churches in my new neighbourhood – all 5 of them. I believe I could commit to any of these church communities and have the benefits of “local”.

      Part of my interest in this topic is from my experience of being part of churches where this issue was like the elephant in the room – addressing it would have been difficult, and potentially transformative.

      http://mikecrudge.com/2015/03/18/5-churches-1-village-a-church-service-first-timer/

      • not a wild hera

        Yes, I had your last post in mind, too. Two of the churches you visited (Catholic and Howick Baptist) don’t allow women to be senior leaders. So I could perhaps still go local because there are three other churches in a cluster, but that isn’t always the case.

        • Agreed.
          I’m only temporarily living in Howick Village, and as I consider my eventual next and permanent move, local church is very high on the list of where and why I will choose to live in a particular place.

  • Andrew Reyngoud

    I am in favour of “as local as possible” – or at least looking at the local churches as possibilities when you move to an area. There is something wonderful about the connections made when walking to Church rather than driving. In a local church there is some natural grouping of people that occurs due to the commonality of factors that influence where people live – unfortunately no area is totally homogeneous.

    • Thanks Andrew – I’ve added your local church pro to the list.
      When you say “unfortunately no area is totally homogeneous”, are you suggesting diversity hinders the sense of “local”? In terms of faith community, isn’t striving for homogeneity a bad thing as having everyone the same is an incomplete image of the Kingdom of God?…

      • Andrew Reyngoud

        That was a mistake on my part. I wrote without checking what I had written – I meant to say heterogeneous. My apologies. I am a huge fan of diversity in all of it’s forms. One of the aspects of our Church that I love is our ethnic diversity combined with the diversity in ages and educational background.

  • Rachel Roche

    Great post Mike. I think another local church pro which most likely is implied but I will add here – when there are a lot of people living close to the church building, walking, talking, connecting and relating to each other those who are not part of that faith community do notice. Care for neighbors is shared. The feel of community is intensified.
    Local church con – you sneak to the letter box in your dressing gown or get absorbed in your gardening and own thoughts and suddenly you hear “Hello Mrs Roche.” …….If you need a break you have to stay inside or leave the town :)

    Since moving we now have to drive everywhere. We still attend our closest church and we are in the midst of figuring out how to do community here. Our choice to live here was a combination of all the factors you have listed. I’ll let you know in a few year how ‘doing community’ in a rural setting is going!

    • Thanks Rachel – I’ve added your pros and cons to the list.
      I look forward to hearing your rural update in due course.

  • SB

    Really good discussion… I am from an Anglican family; my husband is from a Baptist background. Since we have been married, we have attended a Baptist Church in NZ, a CoE (Anglican) church in the UK, and another Baptist Church since moving back to NZ. I was impressed, by your comment Mike (in response to not a wild Hera) that the Church will be a major factor in where you choose to live. We used all the other factors you listed in choosing where to live and then, once we settled, went looking for our “local” church (big fan of being local but also understand “commuter” reasons/needs). Confess that, since I was heavily pregnant at the time, it was an effort to look further afield than 10 mins walk away but, fortunately, our local church turned out to be the right place (just happens to be Baptist…) – and adds to the “pros” of us living in this area….

    • Hi SB and thanks for giving examples of how local church has and is working out for you and your family.
      While church is on the radar for my next shift, another massive one for living in Auckland is being on good public transport routes and/or being close to the place I spend a big chunk of my time (where I work) – there may need to be some compromises…

  • Mark Day

    One con of the commuter church is the possibility of being a monoculture (age & stage wise; socio-economically; racially, etc) because “birds of a feather flock [across town to get] together.” That is a problem in light of the “no Jew or Greek, slave or free” stuff.

    The local church can potentially avoid this if what is common among the people is their locality rather than some other demographic identifier.

    But equally, the local church could be just as monocultural because it may be that the locality is monocultural. It could be that a diverse community is also a segregated community, and the white people in that locale go to this church and the non-white people to that church.

    • Hi Mark and thanks for your input on this. You’ve just made me think of another potential blog post, something along the lines of looking at NZ Baptists and the church planting strategy of the 20th century:

      Looking at the landscape today with Baptist churches in just about every suburb, it seems the plan was to establish local church communities. It might be interesting to consider what the factors were in creating the commuter aspect evident in most Baptist churches today, e.g. were they ecclesiastical reasons, practical reasons, consumer reasons, etc…