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.