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Where would we be without cars?

June 22, 2008

I’m sure most readers will be aware of the rise in the cost of petrol lately. I paid $1.69 per litre this week, and there’s every chance that could rise to $2.00 by the end of the year. Most people I know are thinking twice before using the car, which is a good thing. I wonder, though, what life would be like if we weren’t able to run cars any more?

Brandon Rhodes brings up an interesting scenario worth thinking about.

When the age of less oil arrived, the Jesus radicals were all together in one place. And suddenly a great wind and tongues of flame spread through the room. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak and worship in ways that cut across tradition and theology as the Spirit gave them power.

Now there were dwelling in Kentucky Christians, devout men from every denomination under heaven. And upon seeing this they all came together, bewildered, because each one was found to belong regardless of tradition. And they were amazed, astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Jesus radicals? And how is it that we find ourselves able to worship and belong here, even according to our various denominations? Baptists and Southern Baptists and Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox and Anglicans, Methodists from Missouri and Pentecostals, too. Roman Catholics and Mennonites, Lutherans, Korean and Black congregations are all here – we hear them telling in our own languages the mighty works of God.”

In this vision believers of different sorts are forced to worship together simply because they cannot afford the petrol to drive their cars to their accustomed place of worship.

It’s fairly well understood how the automobile has changed the way our societies operate. It is quite normal to work an hour away from where you live, and the structure of our cities reflects this. Governments and businesses can save a lot of money by building fewer but bigger facilities. Look at the average shopping centre and the accompanying car park. That simply couldn’t exist if customers weren’t able to drive for miles to get there.

Our churches are much the same. The last decade or two has seen a huge growth in the number of ‘megachurches’ in existence. I’ve been to a few, and they all have very big car parks. I suspect many of the people attending have driven a long way to be there. I know of at least one megachurch in Melbourne that has Bible study groups operating right across the metropolitan area, and I doubt it’s the only one.

Building bigger churches is something of a passion in the Army at the moment. The theory is fairly sweet: if your corps is growing, people must be becoming Christians. I’m happy with that. The speaker at a conference I was at a few years ago impressed on us the importance of building our churches. He told stories about churches in his denomination that have grown past ten thousand people, and he insisted that we should be aiming at the same sort of thing. I pointed out that it would be great, but there were only 16,000 people in my town and many of them already went to church. The answer was simple: we should concentrate on becoming a regional church. There were other towns around the area, and people could drive in from there. In fact, we should be aiming at everyone within a one hour’s drive of the hall.

In theory, this sounds nice. Yet what do we do when the oil runs out? If we are reduced to walking or riding our bikes, what then?

Rhodes’ answer is simple. If we can’t travel far to worship we will travel a smaller distance. That may mean worshipping with people from outside our denomination. It might even mean learning to walk with people whose beliefs are quite removed from your own.

For many, that would mean far less choice about music style, dress code, doctrinal differences and all those things that define each church as different from the others.

In some places nobody would notice the difference. In Colac there are about six churches within five minute’s walk of the Army. Folk in that area are spoilt for choice. Yet there’s only one church within reasonable walking distance of my house.

The idea of a ‘regional church’ sounds a bit silly in that scenario. An hour’s travel would mean, for many, two or three kilometres. We would end up with a situation far more like that at the turn of the twentieth century, with lots of small churches springing up everywhere.

The role of the corps officer may become much more like what it used to be: a circuit preacher. Instead of expecting the corps to come to me, I would go to them, perhaps over the space of a week. That would mean administrative duties would have to be delegated more effectively.

You know, the more I think about it, the more I realise how much of my role is shaped by the fact that I have a car. Perhaps it’s time to start facing the inevitable, dust off the bike, and start living my life without oil. I think we would all be wise to think about what we would all do in the same situation.

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