Rising Gas Prices vs. Worship: How Worship Can Still Win
National Public Radio broadcast a story (June 9, 2008) that may be an indicator of things to come. Meals on Wheels programs across the country were scaling back substantially because of the high and continually increasing costs of fuel and food. Not only were they unable to afford the kinds of food they once did, but they also were not able to obtain volunteers to deliver food as often because those volunteers were having difficulty affording the fuel to deliver the food. The result: fewer deliveries per week, and what was delivered was often frozen.
The cost of fuel in the United States is likely to make a mark on congregations, once again, and maybe even more profoundly this time as prices appear likely to go higher than 2008 levels. People who need to drive a considerable distance to attend worship, meetings, or other events may be especially affected. Some people are already beginning to wonder whether they can continue to afford the cost of such travel at all. Others may soon start making trade-offs, such as continuing to travel but reducing financial contributions. Still others might choose to attend less often, but continue their current rate of contributions.
This is not good news for many of the ways we organize our lives and ministries as congregations and worshiping communities. It is a serious challenge, and one we must begin seriously to engage.
Theological Realities As we consider the challenge of these situations in the United States, there are at least two theological realities about who we are as church that we need to affirm.
- We are the body of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God made flesh. We are living fully into our vocation as Christ's body best when we are in one another's actual presence from time to time for fellowship, worship, common work, and accountability. This means that gathering in real time and at the same places, including for worship, is non-negotiable. We can be together in other ways as well-- via email, blogs, chat, video calling, and the like. And in times like these, we definitely need to explore more ways to use those communication tools to keep in touch. But we can't be together only in those ways and be fully the body of Christ we are called and made by God to be.
- We are the body of Christ wherever we are, wherever we go, wherever God sends us. That means the mission field into which we are sent as disciples of Jesus Christ is literally wherever we go and wherever we gather. We are not the body of Christ ONLY when we gather a large percentage of our particular congregations for worship and other programming on Sunday morning. We are the body of Christ individually, in one-on-one conversations, in small groups, in larger groups, and in worshiping communities that gather as many of us at the same time at the same place as possible. But for the majority of most of our time during most weeks, we are most likely to be functioning as Christ's body as individuals, one-on-one with others, or in small groups. We need to take that seriously when we're talking about time and travel to church facilities.
What may be some implications of the current and foreseeable economic realities and these theological realities taken together? Let me suggest four here. You may think of others.
- People who are already stretched financially or whose connections to your congregation are less strong may be likely to attend less often, especially if they have to travel a good distance to get there. If worship and other programs meeting at your current buildings are the primary connections in your community of faith, you are likely to lose community members unless you are proactive about creating ways to strengthen their connections. Even if the personal connections are stronger, the expectation that as many people will attend worship weekly at your current facilities or other meetings or programs requiring significant travel may be unrealistic.
- Discretionary financial giving to all non-profits is likely to decline or become more targeted. We saw this happen in 2008 even before the economic collapse later that year. You may be able to do little about the decline in giving that is likely to come, especially from those who now have relatively less to give. It may be important, however, to find ways to do two other things:
- Reduce expenses in areas that are not mission-critical and that people are not as passionate about and
- Invite increased targeted investments in areas that are mission-critical and that people do care about in your congregation and community.
- Congregations that depend financially on people traveling to attend worship services regularly may be seriously challenged. Instituting some form of electronic withdrawal or other means to receive financial resources from members and friends of the congregation may help offset this challenge somewhat. But do not underestimate the effect of emptier offering plates on the morale of the congregation, even if other means of receiving financial support are doing relatively well. Consider the possibility of returning to the ancient Christian and earlier Methodist model of collecting an offering in worship specifically for the poor each week, rather than or -- in addition to -- a weekly offering for the local and missional expenses of the congregation.
- Congregations whose institutional life depends on significant travel by participants may find the capacity to function toward institutional aims seriously challenged. This includes choir practice! Consider how to schedule choir rehearsals at times and places where participants are already likely to be. (See Dean McIntyre's 2008 article, "Choosing Between Gas and Choir," for more specific reflections and suggestions for choirs.) Think about moving as many meetings for internal committee work into electronic communication channels as you can. You will not be able to do this for every issue or committee, nor should you. The face-to-face community life of such institutional committees is vital to their functioning as Christian communities, so planning needs to allow for that to happen regularly, if not as frequently.
Implications and Ways Forward for Christian Community
All the concerns listed so far address, in essence, fundamental institutional needs of healthy congregations. But the church is far more than an institution. We are the body of Christ, an organic community in our Triune God that is loved by the Father, given life through the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We are in a communion of saints that spans time, cultures, and history. The Spirit binds us with God and with one another even when we are apart physically. But we really experience and can express our life in Christ fully when we "assemble ourselves" and "encourage one another toward love and good works" (Hebrews 10:25).
So, how can we find ways to assemble ourselves as regularly or more regularly than we now do, given our current circumstances? Here's one set of suggestions.
- Map out the current most regular travel routes ("regular beats") for participants in the life of your congregation. This could be done physically using a large map of your region and a series of pins and string marking travel routes or online using something like a Google Maps mashup (such as Communitywalk) to enable members of your congregation to make such a "beat map" online.
Many church consultants have suggested making a pin map of where people in the congregation live and finding ways to connect people who live near one another. That may be valuable as well, depending on your setting. However, the role of our homes has shifted in U.S. culture dramatically over the past thirty years. Homes are now "launching pads" and "final destinations" rather than "dwelling places" or "meeting places." Many of us spend far more time outside our homes than in them; and when we return there, it may be primarily for family time (if any) and sleep. Fewer of us really "live" where we sleep.
- Consider how frequently people are asked to travel outside of their most "regular beats" to participate in church-related activities (including worship, meetings, programs, etc.). While it is reasonable to expect that committed Christians will do their best to participate in the life of the church at your current facilities when they can, the time may well have come to find ways to reduce the demand for "extra-beat" travel wherever you legitimately can, encourage carpooling, and encourage the use of public transit or carpooling to enable more efficient use of money and fuel for travel. Don't just tell folks to do it. Show them how they can.
- Look for shared travel routes and most common intersection points of these regular beats throughout the week. Use this information to facilitate carpooling and also to suggest possible meeting places during the week that do not diverge far from existing regular beats.
- Consider whether you have the possibility for turning some of these existing "natural meeting places" of your congregation into regular meeting places for smaller group activities, including meetings, small groups for discipleship, accountability, or mission, and even, potentially, worship. The last of these may seem controversial. If we are the body of Christ, don't we all need to worship together at the same time in the same place every week? The question I would raise is whether the weekly gathering of the whole congregation in one place at the same time is actually happening now in an increasing number of our churches. Any congregation that offers more than one service on Sunday, or offers worship in multiple campuses already does not meet as a whole every Sunday at the same place at the same time. Consider what happens with your current facilities if they can become a center for a weekly gathering in the more immediate neighborhood of those facilities, while other weekly gatherings may occur elsewhere at the crossroads where folks who are part of your larger congregation may already more naturally intersect.
Of course, offering such "dispersed worship" brings other questions that also need to be addressed. Here are two:
- Would the congregation need to be dispersed for worship always? No, and depending on the regular beats of your existing congregation excluding your building facilities, maybe rarely or not at all. But it could decide to meet in its "regular" space as a whole, or in several celebration services on a given Sunday, perhaps once a month or so.
- Does the congregation have access to enough clergy to offer weekly Communion (as we are strongly encouraged to do!) if it meets more regularly in dispersion? Yes, in many places it does, or it can. United Methodist elders are appointed to serve not only the particular congregation and buildings to which they are sent, but the surrounding community as well. Several United Methodist (or other!) congregations and clergy could determine common beats and share clergy for worship leadership at various times throughout Sunday or throughout the week. Retired elders and elders in extension ministry could also serve in this way. There is little reason that the vast majority of such gathering places could not offer a full and vibrant service of Word and Table weekly.
These are just a few possible ways forward. The Spirit has brought us together as diverse and highly creative communities that are, no doubt, more than capable of finding many more.
May we not cling fearfully and defensively to all of the ways we have known in our lifetimes until now. May we instead respond as the body of our Risen Lord with creativity, courage, and joy in the face of the opportunities for witness and service the Spirit will open before us in what may be significantly changed circumstances.