Today is a good day to wish you lived near your local church, especially if you’re a Christian whose lives more than 20 minutes away from their local church in Toronto. The reason being that those of us who live along the Great Lakes are in the middle of a major snow storm: ever since late Saturday night, snow has been falling at a rate of 2-5cm per hour. By the time this storm passes through Monday morning, there would be almost 30 centimetres of snow accumulated. That’s Canada for you!
The church I go to at home in Toronto was open today for Sunday Service (9am for the English Service, 10:30am for the Chinese Service) but everybody was late, and the start of the worship service was delayed for about 15 minutes. Many who lived more than twenty minutes away, especially those who live in the suburbs like Markham, were either very late in arriving or never even bothered to come to church because of the snow. Numerous churches in the city have called it a Snow Day and canceled their Sunday activities. Today is a bad day to be driving anywhere, but the issue lies not so much on there being snow. We Torontonians are used to bad weather and traffic congestion. The problem is that the large majority of church attendees and members do not live near their church. Thus, I was moved to write this post after reading an article on this issue by Ryan Townsend (a fellow M.Div student at Southern Seminary) on the 9Marks blog — it appears to be a modern issue that many churches face today.
The Commuter Church
I may only speak for Chinese churches in the Greater Toronto Area, and I can only comment on what I have observed in my local church setting. But my local church in Toronto is a commuter church. Every Sunday morning there are numerous Acuras, BMWs, Mercedes Benz-s and a Porsche or two that make the 20 minute plus commute from their luxurious homes in the suburbs in York or Durham Region to church in the north-eastern corner of Toronto. Undoubtedly, questions arise as to why the large majority of the congregation lives so far away from their local church, and why they do not live nearer to where they fellowship and worship every week.
???If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”–Luke 14:26-27
The truth is, many who are long-time members of my local church have chosen to move out of the city and out of the local church community. Well, if we’re to be really honest, they actually may not have ever lived near the local church. Over the years, rising housing prices and land taxes have driven many out of the city to find larger and newer homes for cheaper prices in the suburbs of Toronto. Few housing options in suburban Toronto itself (Scarborough, North York) provide the luxury and space they desire, and so they flee, and over time, they flee further and further away from their local church. And since they have made so many friends at this church over the years they have been here, they stay.
The Heart of the Problem
I never wanted to write anything substantive on this issue of one’s proximity to their local church, but this issue has moved into my radar because at the heart of the problem is a Gospel issue; it is a matter of values. This issue can be very touchy, where somebody reading this may take it personally and be insensitive to the crux; I have no intention of attacking anybody personally for where they live (for there may be extenuating circumstances for where one resides, i.e. being nearer to their job). However, I do want to hit the pinata straight on its head and confront the over-arching Gospel issue.I do not see the Gospel and its related ministries as being the foremost purpose behind our decision-making and priorities for housing. I see couples, new and old, moving further and further away from the local church. I do not see missions to the local church community to be any priority at all. I see people moving to bigger, cheaper houses in far away suburbs in order to sustain their yuppie lifestyle. When I consider new married couples of my generation and I see all of them moving out to nowhere-near our church, I cannot help but wonder why? I doubt the priority they have placed in the Gospel for their decision of where to live; I become more and more convinced that they choose to live out there for the sake of their lifestyle. It does not seem that the Gospel and the Great Commission is something the church as a whole values any longer; it seems that materialism and comfort is something we value above and beyond anything our faith demands.
Benefits, Benefits, Benefits
There are obviously many practical benefits for living near your local church. As Townsend has listed: it saves time and gas money from commuting, makes the process of getting to and from church easier, facilitates ministry and service in the community, creates a more tangible corporate witness in the community, and makes the Lord’s Day more restful. Much more can be said about the serendipitous benefits of living near your church. But the fact of the matter is, given the option of living near one’s workplace or one’s church, inevitably the workplace wins out — for that is where you would commute 5 days out of 7. Logically speaking, it would be more practical and feasible on the wallet to live near your job and have a shorter commute to work. Be that as it may, people who live in the Greater Toronto Area or any large city for that matter, inevitably are forced to commute through traffic congestion every weekday because that is just the way urbanism has affected industry and employment. Therefore, living as close to work would be the logical decision to make.However, if we are truly disciples of Jesus and if we truly confess Him to be our Lord, then we would give up our material and financial luxuries for the sake of the Gospel — would we not?! For the Gospel itself is illogical, and the way of the Kingdom is foolish to those who do not believe. For what good is salt if it loses its saltiness? And what good is light if you hide it in your house and hide it in your car while you commute? The question we must ask ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ is rightly thus: “Where is a biblically healthy church that I can plant myself and my family, for the sake of our own discipleship and ministry?” After we have answered this question honestly for ourselves, then and only then are we able to obediently follow Christ in our subsequently important choices of work and play.
True Disciples Know Better
For we are not naive and ignorant baby Christians who do not know of the necessity of living near the church. Our own Pastor and a Guest Speaker has preached on the need to move into the church community, and yet many still reject the pleading of our earthly and Heavenly Shepherd. Unfortunately, hypocrisy inevitably is seen where our own Pastor and all our Elders live nowhere near the church. I know that we believers all fall short of His glory on numerous occasions, myself included. It is just very sad and unfortunate that this consequence of the fall has become the standardized norm — a bad habit which the Good News of the Christ’s Cross has given us the power to overcome. The church leaders — the Pastors, Elders and Deacons — must be an example themselves for the rest of the church to follow; otherwise there would be no substance or weight when they exhort others to do what they themselves have not done: live near the church.
“So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”–Luke 14:33
If we are to be His true disciples, God has said that it would cost us a lot, just as it had cost Him His own Son’s life. God gave us His Son, Jesus the Christ to die in our place, for our sins, that we may be counted righteous in His sight. And as those who have been brought from death to life, are we not compelled to start doing the right thing, and take up our cross? As those who have been ransomed and redeemed from the slavery of sin and idolatry, are we not compelled to give up the treasures of this world and start building His kingdom here on earth? And as those who have been saved from the wrath of God and delivered out of darkness and into His marvelous light, are we not compelled to be God’s hands and feet in in our backyard (which also should be our church’s backyard)?Maybe it’s time to reconsider where we work. Maybe it’s time to reconsider where we live. And maybe it’s time we all considered living near our local church.