On Cars, Vows and the Slow Death of the Church

A friend just brought the following article to my attention.  It is worth reading and a reminder that the cultural influence of evangelicals is waning even as the noise within evangelicalism about 'engaging the culture' (whatever the verb and the singular noun may mean -- who knows?) is increasing. 

One particular aspect of the article started my synapses firing: the idea of church shopping.  Yet this phenomenon is not simply a function of a consumerist mentality.  It requires certain material conditions as well.

The thing that is killing the church today is surely the car.   In the olden days (and no, for anybody under twenty, I am not talking about the 80s here but rather a hundred or so years ago and beyond), mobility was limited.   If you crossed the local priest or minister, you could be in trouble because there might be no way you could go to the next town or village for worship on the Lord's Day.  So church discipline could actually mean something: sooner or later you had no choice but to face up to your responsibilities to the church officers.

Yes, the pre-automobile systems of church discipline were abused (Silas Marner anyone?). Is that a surprise?  They were staffed by sinful human beings.  But at least they stood a theoretical chance of working and, indeed, proved remarkably effective in many instances.

Today, I have even had friends who left their wives, took up with someone else, fled church discipline and, guess what?, found a church that would take them in as members in good standing.  Today, unlike the olden days (teenagers: in case you've already forgotten, for definition of 'olden times' see above), they can simply jump into their car and drive and drive and keep driving until they find a church that will accept them.  And if they drive far enough, they always find such a place.  Trust me.  They always do.  There is always some place that either does not know them or simply does not care what they have done.

I believe the writer in the National Review is right: church shopping is one of the things that is weakening Christianity; but that is not simply a function of general human weakness or even consumerism; it is the result of the opportunity provided by the automobile.  The thing that allows many of us to attend church is also that which is eroding the power of our membership vows.

Of course, membership vows are as solemn and as binding as ordination vows.  The average member is no less bound by them to the church than I am as a minister.  But the car makes them seem so much more negotiable.  We have come to believe that even God can be dodged when we are behind the wheel.

I have said to students at Westminster more times than I can remember: the church has never really come to terms with the invention of the internal combustion engine.