I love the universal church, which includes all believers everywhere. But over the years I’ve become firmly convinced that the local church is ground zero for worship, formation, witness, and service. Local churches are contextual expressions of the one body of Christ. The church is the people, not the building. To use old-fashioned Baptist language, the church building is the meetinghouse. Wherever the people are, there the church is. On the Lord’s Day, and perhaps other times, we’re the church gathered. When we leave the meetinghouse and head out into the world as individual disciples, we’re the church scattered.
For most of us, it’s easier to be a meaningful part of the church gathered—and to partner with the rest of the church scattered—when we live in the same community where our church’s building is located. I believe it’s ideal to live near your church’s gathering place for the kingdom’s sake.
Challenges of Commuting
I know how difficult it can be to stay connected to a church when you don’t live close by. From 2005 to 2015, my family lived in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where I was a doctoral student and then a seminary professor. Our church, First Baptist Church of Durham, gathered about 35 minutes from our house. When my wife and I joined First Baptist, we were in our mid-20s, childless, and looking to be part of a healthy church so we could recover from a toxic situation in a previous congregation. The drive was a challenge, but we thought we’d be there for two or three years, until I finished my PhD. We were members for a decade.
It wasn’t easy to be meaningfully involved. Sometimes traffic could make us late; we commuted more than half an hour from a completely different community. Small groups met most Sunday nights, but on Sundays when the whole body gathered in the evening, it was often a struggle to make it back, especially once we had young kids. Our family was only intermittently involved in Wednesday night activities—it could take 45 minutes to get there when traffic was heavier. When I served as an elder, biweekly meetings added an additional commitment that required significant driving time.
We were unable to be involved in many of the wonderful outreach efforts First Baptist sponsored because our “local” was different than the church’s. In 10 years, we were rarely in the homes of fellow church members who lived in Durham, unless it was on Sunday for lunch. They were hardly ever in our home, since we didn’t live in town. We almost never invited folks who lived near us to visit First Baptist; they couldn’t understand why we drove so far. Instead, we recommended good churches closer to our community. This inevitably raised awkward questions about why we weren’t a part of any of those churches.
Three Key Passages
I believe three biblical texts stand out as particularly formative in how we think about the church’s nature and mission.
1. Matthew 18:18–20: “I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.”
Jesus Christ is really spiritually present within the church gathered, authorizing the body to prayerfully act on behalf of the kingdom of heaven.
The local church is an embassy of Christ’s kingdom.
2. Hebrews 10:24–25: “And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
It’s vitally important that members not habitually neglect the gathering of the church, since the members of the body are responsible to one another for promoting love and good works.
The local church is a community of disciples.
3. Matthew 28:18–20: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus Christ, who claims all authority in the universe, has commanded us to make disciples as we go, which includes baptizing converts and teaching them all it means to follow him.
The local church is a hub of missional activity.
Kingdom Location Matters
If churches are kingdom embassies, communities of disciples, and hubs of missional activity, then it is ideal—though certainly not required—to live near where our churches gather. Sometimes this isn’t possible, of course. Some jobs require you to live close to work, regardless of your church membership. Sometimes the nearest Bible-believing congregation is located in a different community. In some heavily populated cities, you may live five miles from your church, yet it may take you 20 minutes to get there. Every situation is unique.
I’m not interested in proposing an extrabiblical rule. There is no requirement that we live close to where our churches gather. In my own case, I have no doubt it was God’s will for my family to be a part of First Baptist Church of Durham. My wife and I, and eventually our four children, were exposed to the blessings of biblical preaching and sound doctrine. We were part of thriving small groups that focused on Bible study, prayer, and accountability, through which we met some of our dearest friends in the world. We discipled a number of younger church members, most of whom were also connected to the the seminary and made the long commute too. I served as a deacon and then as an elder for most of the years we belonged there.
More than once, we thought about moving to Durham, but that would’ve removed us from the seminary community we were called to serve. We periodically considered leaving First Baptist to join a church closer to home. But we never felt the Lord was leading us to do that, either. Challenges aside, we had deep roots, a track record of spiritual growth, and significant ministry opportunities at First Baptist. It was our church home, even though it wasn’t close to home. I’m grateful God called us to be a part of that congregation.
It’s normally best to live close to where your church gathers. The longer the commute, the greater the sacrifice involved to be a meaningful part of the church’s life and witness.
You can definitely thrive as a commuting church member. Still, I think it’s normally best to live close to where your church gathers. The longer the commute, the greater the sacrifice involved to be a meaningful part of the church’s life and witness.
In 2015 our family moved to Jackson, Tennessee, where I now work at Union University. About a year ago, we joined our city’s First Baptist Church. Our city. It now takes about 10 minutes to drive from our house to the church building, depending on traffic. We bump into other church members all the time around town. Local outreach is local to us. I thank God for First Baptist Church of Durham—it was worth the drive! But I’m grateful to now be part of a different First Baptist Church. It is also worth the drive—though fortunately, the commute is much shorter and the church’s primary mission field is around me all the time.