The Potentially Tragic End of Neighborhood Churches

Christians will drive pretty far to get to church. Will unbelievers?

The locality of your church affects more than just your Sunday morning commute. A 2017 study from Baylor University found that those who attend church in their neighborhood (defined as those within a five-minute drive of church) are more satisfied with their neighborhood compared to those who commute further distances to church. Yet for most Christians in the U.S., church is much further from home than just a few blocks. The same Baylor study found that up to 59 percent of American Protestants lived further than a 15-minute drive from their church, and nearly one in five lived at least a 30-minute drive from their church.

As church attendance falls, not yet returning to pre-pandemic numbers according to a 2023 Gallup report, congregations are becoming more spread out, with attendees driving in from the other side of town — or from another city entirely. What does this mean for America’s churches?

It Is What It Is

In many ways, Raleigh, North Carolina, is a microcosm of the explosive growth happening in sprawling Sunbelt cities nationwide. As more people move in, more churches do, too. And church-going Raleigh-ites, like many American Christians, aren’t often attending the church next door.

Three Raleigh-area pastors spoke with me about how the spread of their congregations affects their churches. Each pastors a different type of church in a different part of town: Geoff Bradford pastors Christ the King Presbyterian Church located just outside downtown Raleigh, Daniel Baker pastors Cornerstone Fellowship Church in the Raleigh suburb of Apex, and Russell McCutcheon pastors Reconciliation Church in southeast Raleigh.

Baker notices that for those living in areas that already require a lot of driving, the thought of commuting a longer distance to church may do little to phase them. He says, “So for them to drive 30 minutes to church, in some ways, is a challenge; but in some ways, it’s normal life.”

McCutcheon adds that often, Christians are moving toward places that are more comfortable to them, rather than where their church may be. “You no longer have to live in proximity to your church, because with the highways and interstates, you can get to where you want to worship more easily.”

It’s Just Not That Easy

Though living further outside Raleigh can make a longer church commute more likely, the economy is also playing a role in determining where existing church members can live and aspiring church members can settle. Rising home prices in in-demand cities have pushed people to settle further and further out, meaning that a church that started within a certain community may no longer be so positioned after decades of creeping home prices.

“When we first planted here in Apex, living near the church building was pretty feasible for almost all the church,” says Baker. “But as time has passed, living in Apex has become much more expensive. And so people tend to move further away from the church, as their families grow and they need bigger houses or things like that.”

Churches can still flourish even when their members are quite spread out, as location-based community groups can, at least partly, remedy this problem. But it can be harder for churches to help their surrounding communities flourish when very few congregants actually live in them.

But Bradford sees a more pressing issue: “Christians will drive across the world to go to church, but unbelievers won’t,” he says. “This is where this conversation should really be focused: evangelism and the witness of a church community.”

Whether partnering with nearby nonprofits, participating in local events, or serving nearby schools or at-risk communities, “doing these things regularly throughout the life of your church has a cumulative effect,” says Baker.

McCutcheon emphasizes the importance of understanding what’s happening in the communities we worship in: “Instead of just coming in to worship on Sunday, we also need to think about other‌ things that are happening in that community, to ask ‘How can we help? How can we be a blessing?’”

It appears clear that congregants can live a life of those “one-anothers” best when those lives are lived in proximity to one another. But in cities and towns where that’s increasingly unfeasible, it’s crucial to be intentional in other ways, through consistent and strategic local outreach, to ensure that a spread-out congregation does not isolate itself or forget to pay attention to its most immediate mission field: the very neighborhood in which it sits.

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