There’s an interesting article over at First Things: The Death of the Parish. David T. Koyzis is fundamentally right about the importance of not being free to pick-and-choose your congregation. The alternative–which most of us are living today–means that we cannot avoid a consumerist approach to our worship as we pick-and-chose a congregation that fits what we’re looking for. That meets our needs.
Of course, as a Mormon, I’m coming at this from the opposite side of the coin. Mormons–who do drive cars just as much as anybody else–do not pick and choose their congregation. With almost no exceptions, we go to the ward (congregation) we are assigned to based on our address. In fact, back when I was growing up in Richmond, I went to three or four different wards in two different physical buildings (sometimes multiple congregations share meetinghouses) based on how the church redrew the geographical boundaries of the congregations. It was always jarring and often unpopular to split and recombine congregations, but we all went where we were told to go to.
Only in later years did I come to realize how important this was. Not being able to choose who you rub shoulders with every Sunday is a big and important part of why Mormon congregations feel like family: you’re stuck with people. So you sort of have to learn to love them, or at least live with them, just to make life bearable.
All of this makes me rather dubious of Koyzis’ argument (based on Adam Graber’s piece “How Cars Created the Megachurch and put churchgoers in the driver’s seat”) that cars are to blame:
Now it is not quite right to blame the automobile as such for this defective ecclesiology. After all, it is our use of the automobile that lies ultimately at its origin. Yet no technology is neutral. The automobile has exacerbated the individualistic tendencies already at work in our culture, empowering individuals to treat even so central a community as the church as a mere extension of their personal tastes.
But there’s a flipside to this. If I didn’t have a car–if I was very limited in where I could go to Church–I would possibly not be able to visit a Mormon congregation. Not that I have anything against worshiping with other denominations from time to time (I have done so, and always enjoyed it), but for me and for most Mormons living in suburban America, the car is an enabler of our commitment to a particular faith tradition rather than some kind of individualistic corrosive. So, perhaps, it’s not the car that is really the problem here.
This is especially apparent when you consider Koyzis’ proposed solutions:
However, what if every new church building were to forgo the ubiquitous parking lot in the interest of restoring a normative ecclesiology? Might it force the churches to reach out to their own neighborhoods? Might it compel people to re-embrace the parish model, attending the church to which they can most easily walk?
Not only is the proposed solution untenable–many churches are only accessible by car for all practical purposes–but I just can’t imagine it even beginning to work. The totally unworkable nature of the cure highlights the fact that the ailment itself has been misdiagnosed.
Christian denominations in America are weakening, and it is a problem. But cars are not the issue.