The Suburban Church in an Age of Fuel Scarcity

I think it’s every day now that I read or listen to some report or comment on the high cost of gasoline: what drives it, how we got to this point, how individuals and corporations and governments are struggling with it. A question I’ve not heard addressed is how gasoline above $4.20 a gallon will impact congregations.

As others have noted,* the suburbs came into existence because of the automobile. No longer did residence depend on proximity to employment, or to arteries of mass transit. More recently, the explosive growth of the suburbs (bringing with it not only residential opportunity but also sprawl) was further fueled (sorry) by cheap gas in the 1990s.

I’ve not found it elsewhere noted, but I believe it is quite clear that closely tied to this phenomenon was the rise of the megachurch. The megachurch is as much a creation of ’90s cheap oil (and the suburban culture created by such oil) as it is the result of the intersection of cultural and religious movements and motivations. The megachurch would not have been possible if suburbanites (primarily) did not own cars and have ready access to fuel that allowed them inexpensively to roam at some distance in search of religious sustenance.

But it’s not just the megachurch that was given such help by ’90s cheap oil. So too were many (if not most) suburban congregations. Just as the suburbs were created by cars and the gasoline that feeds them, so too were the suburban churches, whether mega or mini. It’s likely that all suburban congregations were bolstered by a significant number of members who were able to travel some distance to participate in the congregations of their choice. And these congregations continue to have a sizable percentage of members who live some distance from their church, at least a distance too far to walk. In short, many of our congregations would look drastically different if it weren’t for automobiles that were inexpensive to feed.

In my own congregation, which has 85 family units (counting members and adherents, some of whom may be single, but not counting shut-ins), the median distance to church is 6.5 miles. Among those 85 families, 72% live more than 3 miles away, which is to say, too far to walk. Most of them (45 families) live between 3 and 10 miles away. I have a few families, 9 of them, who must drive between 10 and 15 miles to get here, and 7 of them drive more than 15 miles.

That hasn’t been a problem when gasoline would flow out of the pump at $2.50 a gallon, or less. But now that gasoline is at $4.20 (or whatever it is today), trips to church begin to entail a greater financial commitment. Among those likely to come to worship at my congregation on a typical Sunday morning and drive there, the average cost for that round trip (at the new federal rate of 58.5 cents per mile) is $8.67. Over the course of a year (guessing a perhaps wildly optimistic 30 Sundays in attendance), that’s $260.10. Even if we compute actual fuel cost (using 23 mpg as an average), the cost per Sunday is $2.71, and the cost per year is $81.19.

From all I read and hear, it is nearly impossible that gasoline prices will go back to their levels of 5 years ago and stay there. Oil supply is finite, and demand is accelerating. Alternatives are in early development but certainly not market ready. We are in a new era of fuel costs, one in which the thought of $4.20 per gallon may become a cause of nostalgia rather than of rage. We won’t be able to drill our way out of this problem.

All of this poses significant challenges for the suburban congregation, and not just the megachurches. Some congregants will attend worship less often. Some may choose to look for a place of worship closer to home, or (more likely) just drop out. Pastors and ministry coordinators will find it even harder to recruit officers, volunteers, committee members, and participants in choirs and courses. These eventualities all will be propelled by the economics of automobile travel in this new era.

These economic circumstances should also be considered by those who plan to start new congregations. In my own denomination, significant time, attention, enthusiasm, and money have been directed toward the dream of starting a large number of new churches. Those who share that dream would be wise to probe their plans for artifacts from a bygone era, which is to say, evidence of assumptions born of an age of cheap oil. For example, they should ask whether the plan defines the “success” of a church start in such a way that a significant number of active participants must drive more than 5 miles (one way) to get to church. For such an assumption may soon prove to be unrealistic.

For those of us who tend to the needs of existing congregations in the suburbs, these challenges must also be heeded, and our petroleum-based assumptions likewise challenged. But these challenges could lead to solutions that are faithfully creative, theologically rich, and biblically informed. Congregations might take a greater interest in their own neighborhoods, rather than pining for motoring residents of far-flung communities to rescue them from decline. They might propose alternative scheduling of the church’s program and governance so that participants aren’t burning as much gasoline to be active in the life of the church. Perhaps less should happen in the church building and more should happen in parishioners’ homes: bible studies, midweek worship, committees. This is certainly not a new idea. But expensive gas could give it new life.

* e.g. (and perhaps surprisingly), The Art of Cycling: A Guide to Bicycling in 21st-Century America by Robert Hurst.

3 thoughts on “The Suburban Church in an Age of Fuel Scarcity

  1. I live out in the country where essentially everyone must drive to attend worship with our congregation and haven’t noticed any particular change in attendance due to gas prices.

    I know they’re high, but after adjusting it for inflation, I’m not convinced they’re as high as people assume. In 1981 the average price of gas was $1.35 which, when adjusted for inflation is $3.21. There are regional differences (as there were back then) but the average cost of gas now is $4.096 – less than a dollar more than the adjusted average in 1981. 89 cents spread out over a gallon of gas… say 30 miles (some get more some less). That means that it costs people less than 89 cents more to drive to church today than it did in the 80s. Dramatically less than a cup of coffee (even at a “dive” diner, let alone Charbucks); immensely less than one of those overpriced “energy drinks.”

    There may be a few people in some congregations that can’t afford 89 cents to attend worship. But in general, it looks to me like anyone who tries to pull the “gas card” as an excuse is blowing smoke.

    Having said that. I think the future of the church is in it’s past: Parish style ministry. Driving to distant churches when there is one around the corner is, generally, (1) bad for community, (2) bad for ecuminicity, (3) bad for discipline, (4) bad for caring for needy, feeding the sick and clothing the naked (etc…) and (5) bad for just about everything a church is supposed to be doing. This is my biggest concern about the movement I see in mainline denominations (ours included): they (we) have embraced a view of “church” that isn’t parish based. Our systems are increasingly set up to expect growth/diversity/ministry/etc. that aren’t reflective of our local geography.

    There’s a problem… I’m just not convinced it’s gas…. Whether gas prices force us to deal with that problem faithfully or not remains to be seen; I rather expect (as you noted) that many people will simply “drop out.”

    Grace and peace,

  2. We are struggling with this issue as we prepare our budgets at military chapels. With a little less than half of the parishoners on fixed incomes, the cost of gas and its effects on the economy are bound to be reflected in the offering plate.

    This is both good and bad for us. The good is that we may see more people joining us from our local on-base community instead of driving 30 miles across town to the big mega church. The bad is that our retirees who live 30 miles across town will probably seek churches closer to home.

    I agree with Tim, that our current economic woes will return the church to its past. We wandered away from Parish style ministry in search of bigger and better. Although, I don’t expect people to “drop out.” What I think will happen is that people seeking community will begin to “drop in.” The key will be our ability to provide not only community and social outreach, but theologically informed worship that honors God instead of entertaining people in the pew.

    So, we are working on our worship and our sense of community. The Catholics are expecting offerings to increase. The Protestants are expecting a 20% decrees. I think we will break even.


  3. In Northern Jersey, we see the crises as more of a heating problem than a transportation problem. For the short to medium term, the costs of commuting to church can be abated by car pooling. It may make both environmental and communal sense to share a ride to church. It’s a solution many RCA ethnic churches have been employing for years–both with cars and vans.

    Heating costs are another, given that many of our churches are stuck with am 1800’s era facility that was never meant to be energy-efficient. Mid-Atlantics Synod has organized two workshops for September on this issue. Even that is late in the game for the upcoming heating season. I have been urging churches to start addressing the issue since April, including making plans for closing off sanctuaries, combining with other churches for worship over the winter, meeting in himes for most committee functions and studies and talking with their renters about making changes. I anticipate a massive shift in operational style coming, if not this winter, then in 2009, after the meter-shock settles in. We will finally be doing the right things for all the wrong reasons.

    Jim Reid

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