I’ve just been reading a few things about the importance of local churches serving their communities and the benefit of being part of a church which gathers within walking distance of your home. There’s nothing controversial there and I’m not seeing any body arguing for non-local church. I’m not about to attempt to make that case either.
However, I want to encourage us just to think a little bit more about the question of local church, particularly to help people who are thinking about church planting. Here’s the first thing.
Whilst there are huge benefits to being within walking distance of the church, we should not be legalistic about it
Here’s why. First of all because as we recognise that our country is once again a mission field, we cannot assume that there will be healthy gospel churches within reach of everyone. Nor will we immediately be able to plant into every neighbourhood. So, it may make sense to plant a church which initially has the aim of reaching a wider area before planting churches out from there. For example, a church might be aimed at the whole of the north of Birmingham (to pull an example at random). During that time, the church might see people coming in from Kingstanding, Handsorth, Aston, Erdington, Great Barr and Sutton Coldfield. A lot of those people will have to drive to the venue. Over time you will hope to be able to be planting into those communities initially through starting community groups in particular neighbourhoods.
Secondly, I know several people, including a number of older people who would struggle to find a local church that they could walk to. And indeed, in some cases, the reality is that walking ranges have to be adjusted. For me, being within walking distance of my church means pretty much anything within 40 minutes of the house. In other words, I can probably consider anything that is within 1.5 miles as local. However, there will come a point in life when I won’t be able to walk as far or as fast. At that stage we’ll probably need to get in a car, and once you are in the car, distance and locality changes. I hope we wouldn’t see people in that situation turned away.
Thirdly, this points us to another factor. What counts as local varies from one context to another. We’ve already seen how our perceptions change through age or health. However, consider also differences due to geography and culture. When I lived in London, people would think nothing of travelling 40 minutes to one hour each day for their normal commute. This also affected their attitude to local church. Indeed, central London churches will draw people who primarily see each other at work in the city but who live many miles part from each other on opposite sides of the metropolis. The local church in their neighbourhood might not be the best place for them to evangelise to friends and colleagues from.
Fourthly, we need to be aware of how urban populations move. Whether it’s the person who lands in the city to study, moves out a bit for their first job to find somewhere affordable to rent and eventually settles down in a family home or it’s the asylum seeker who is moved from home office accommodation to short term rent to short term rent, people are often transient and sometimes the one point of certainty and consistency is their local church. Should they immediately move church because they have had to move house?
Whilst we want to be local we want to be careful about defining local in an exclusive and narrow manner.
You can sometimes guarantee who will attend a church based on where it gathers. Gather your church at the centre of a tough estate and you will generally expect its members to be working class people who live on the estate. Plant your church in a suburb or a gated community and the congregation will change again. Well, that’s no bad thing if it gets the church into local communities, however, there is a danger with that. The risk is that we introduce the Homogenous Unit Principle by the back door. The church begins to reflect and mimic the cultural boundaries of the world around. People are divided inside the church on the basis of race, class, wealth, culture. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
Sometimes it is unavoidable. The area is what it is. However, sometimes we can avoid that by thinking carefully about where we plant and gather. In fact, one thing I’d encourage church planters to look for is potential meeting points where communities overlap. Instead of being at the centre of one cultural community why not actively seek to be at the centre/cross roads of a few. If you want your church to cross class and ethnicity boundaries then you will have to meet at those boundaries.
There are definitely benefits to having local churches which people can get to within walking distance. I fully support that and this means that we need to plant lots of new churches as well as seeking to replant and revitalise others.
However, there are a few good reasons why we might not want to become too obsessed with becoming the most local of local churches.