“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” – Titus 1:5
Let’s first address what I’m not trying to say. Defenses of localism in the church can sound like a critique of large churches, but that is not a critique I am offering here. In fact, large churches can be local churches; large churches can with integrity practice all the marks of a faithful church; they can be meaningful, sacramental, and very personal. I was part of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City in the early 2000s, when it had achieved great size; but the church leaders in wisdom made sure that the church was broken into manageable and personal cells for the benefit of every member. Ironically, as a new Christian, I wanted virtually nothing of this “being known” by church leadership or "serving" as an instrument in the body of Christ. I stayed at Redeemer for all the consumer-minded reasons most people stay at churches: it was fulfilling my needs. I had yet to understand that as a member of the body of Christ, (that great mystical union tethering me to all true believers and to Christ himself), I was missing out on the true purpose of the church and how my own gifts could be put to use for the benefit of that church and the watching world. I should also make clear that it’s not a sin to go to a church outside your community. This is more an issue of what is best for the church universally in the place you call home, and a challenge to look beyond personal preferences and do what is best for the church as a whole. And there are reasons for traveling to church: perhaps there is not a biblically solid church near you, or perhaps a strong theological conviction would lead you to worship in a specific denomination that doesn’t exist where you are. However, my proposal is this: with few exceptions, you should go to church directly in your community.
This proposal cannot be entirely selfish, as I watch the dozens of believers leave our community on Sunday mornings to go to the more-established work in the suburbs, because it means that we will lose people too, recommending that they attend the faithful church in their own neck of the woods. It is true that in my city the strongest churches exist outside of the city, and will draw believers out of their own neighborhoods into a kind of “evangelical drainage,” leaving the city in a drought, empty of churches and its life-changing power. And this proposal is far deeper than just saying we churches should each have an even “share of the pie.” Instead, localism allows for the church to thrive in doing those things she is called to do. My defense of this idea is grounded in four areas, though there are more reasons than can be enumerated here. The four areas are: service, evangelism, local influence, and the sacraments.
When I speak of service, I mean more than just finding opportunities to get involved. If the believer is renewed by the Holy Spirit and given gifts to be employed in the church (1 Cor. 12), then each individual plays an integral part in the local church. If we are just looking to be edified ourselves, or to attend church where our children can benefit the most, we are missing out on the very purpose to which we are called as members of the body of Christ in the first place. We are always called into the church in order to be sent out into service. We are recipients of God’s grace, that we might now shower his grace within the church and onto the world. If you go to church close to you, you are most available for these gifts to be used. The ones in need are near you, and you are close enough to be available to the rest of the church regularly. We’re available for them for service, as we’re called to serve each other (Gal. 6:10), but also to be able to speak the truth in love. “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Eph. 4:25).
When we attend church further away, we are creating a barrier that makes it easy to dismiss both the needs of the church and your potential to be useful, which can be a helpful escape for one who wants to go to church for the purpose of gaining only insight and personal inspiration. If we do foster Christian community, it can then be with just those whom we enjoy, instead of carrying the burdens of neighbors in need despite their social status or likability. We too often want to leave ministry to “the professionals.” But, we share in the ministry of the church with all believers in Christ: one is a foot and another a hand, but no one is to be the observer watching the event from the stands. Be part of the dynamic, multi-gifted, organic body of Christ where you matter dramatically. It’s a hard challenge; we in our own American mindsets want to consume; we want to be fulfilled but we neglect the important call to go and be the church in our community.
The second reason to stay local is evangelistic. It would be rare that a neighbor would go with you to church 30 minutes away. They might wonder, “Why do they go to church out here, when there are churches right down the street?” Worshiping locally shows that the body of Christ extends into local communities, and showing your neighbor that there are those who love the Lord who live right here is an important part of showing them what God is doing in the world. If God is making all things new (and he is!), then he seeks renewal in my heart and yours, in that distant suburb and in the city where we live. When we can show that neighbor that God not only cares deeply about their heart and restoration but also for the hurting and oppressed in our neighborhood, then we show them their own desires for revitalization of the neighborhood are not foreign to God and to Christians, but are at the very heart of where the church aims to be. You are far more able to plug someone into the mission of God when we do that locally. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7).
Thirdly, churches gain reputations in communities, and those reputations carry influence in neighborhoods. The Catholic church in my community has by far the greatest influence, and it is not because it’s doing something extraordinary in the community – simply, all its members live in this community under the parish model. It becomes in that way a neighborly institution – because it is recognized through the abundance of local attendees, it is seen as a place where residents can find help and find answers to their questions. When the bulk of church attendees come from outside the neighborhood, that church has a hard time having any local influence. Neighbors don’t trust that church because they don’t know the people who go there. It is possible to have a bit of a “reverse drainage” where Christians from outside a community flood a church in an urban neighborhood; there are purposes for this, but these churches rightly desire to grow believers locally, and to raise up local leaders for the renewal of that community.
Lastly, the sacraments, and a sacramental understanding of Christ’s church. A sacrament is a signpost of God's grace, and we see them in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are the special, Christ-commanded ordinances by which we are to in a special way, allow the Spirit to work in our hearts, strengthening our faith and reminding us of his gracious love for us. But it’s true that when we take Christ’s presence among us in worship seriously, amongst his body, those with whom he is united, then his presence enhances every aspect of our worship. Participation in the sacraments is really step one in acknowledging this reality. While baptism is a sign of initiation, the communion meal is one of active participation. We should be taking the Lord’s Supper together as a church regularly; because, as one local pastor put it, “If it does what we say it does, why wouldn’t we do it every week?” Either this meal has sacramental power, meaning Christ ordained it to have real significance when we partake, or it does not. If it is just a reminder, then surely, you might find other ways to be reminded. In John 6, Jesus speaks vividly about himself as The Bread of Life. While his words are figurative, about his fleshly body and blood, his Spirit that is given to us truly vivifies the soul, and in the Lord’s Supper we participate in union with Christ, his Spirit in us, reminding us of his sacrifice, but illuminating the reality of our eternal connection to him. We should participate regularly and with the other members of Christ’s body, his church. It’s to be consistent and yet local, with your brothers and sisters. We don’t administer the sacraments individually, but as the corporate body, because that participation is meant to be active and not forgotten when you step out the door. Be engaged in the sacraments, know Christ’s presence is with you as you gather in worship sacramentally, and don’t let that be your Sunday fix – but carry that participation with the body into your local community.
These are just a few reasons, but I think important ones to ponder. We believe that Christ will build his church – yet we are hands and feet, thinkers, teachers, and ambassadors of compassion – in order that the city might know the risen Lord and be healed.