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Why You Should Drive Hours to Church Each Sunday

News Division

One of the goals of polemics ministry is to get people settled into local congregations so they can help gift the church with Biblical discernment. Pulpit & Pen regularly receives emails from people with a dilemma; do they go to a church with troublesome doctrine that is in their community or drive a further distance to attend a quality fellowship? The answer is easy.

The Stats

The latest data (according to the Baylor Religious Survey) indicates that 68% of Americans who attend church have less than a 15-minute commute. Many people, it seems, make the distance from their home the greatest factor when determining which church to attend. Compare this to the average work commute (from the 2015 American Community Survey), which is more than 26 minutes, almost double the distance. Surely, if Christians are willing to commute further for work they would be extra-willing to make a further commute for something that is arguably even more important – their spiritual development – but this does not appear to be the case.

The distance Americans are traveling to work is growing exponentially, with the fastest distance category being up to 90 miles, meaning that people are traveling further than ever on a daily basis to make a living. It is not uncommon for people to consider their automobile as an extension of their home or office, they snuggle into their climate-controlled vehicles and cue up their favorite songs or podcast while they sip on their drive-through gourmet coffee as they drive on the Interstate. Americans, ever fans of the automobile, don’t seem to despise their time in their cars but consider it valuable time to prepare for or wind-down from their work.

So then, why do Americans so highly value a short commute to worship on the Lord’s Day? The answer is probably that Americans are far more nominal in their faith than they are in their work ethic.

Two in 10 church-goers have a commute that is five minutes or less. Almost 50% have a 15-minute commute or less, and 23% commute 16 to 30 minutes. And only 9% say it takes them longer than 30 minutes to drive to church. However, the breakdown as to who is traveling the greater distances demonstrates that those who take their faith more seriously are more likely to travel great distances to church.

Interestingly, where someone lives makes no statistical difference on how far they travel to church. Rural dwellers travel no further to church, on average than urban dwellers. The sole difference seems to be their commitment to the faith.

Roman Catholics, who statistically have the most ‘nominal’ commitment to their faith (gauged by the frequency of attendance and religious commitment polling data) travel the least distance to church, with 77% spending less than 15 minutes in the car. Mainline Protestants of liberal denominations lower that figure to 66%, meaning that they are willing to travel further than their Romanist counterparts, but not by much. Evangelicals, who on average have a more personal commitment to their church, attend more frequently, and have a stronger allegiance to their church’s teaching, come in at 59% who travel less than 15 minutes.

The most loyal church members with the highest regular attendance, Black evangelicals, travel the furthest, with 59% traveling more than 15 minutes and more than 20% traveling greater than 30 minutes.

Imagine that…statistically, the distance traveled to church has no bearing on the frequency one attends church. In fact, statistics demonstrate that the closer one lives to their church, the less frequently they attend. This seems to give credence to the notion that committed Christians are willing to travel further to find a church that suits their doctrine.

Historical Perspective

A modern day American Christian may feel put-out to drive three hours to church on the Lord’s Day, especially when so many buildings with white steeples are passed along the way.

However, for the vast sum of Christian history, a long commute – often taking many hours – was not out of the ordinary for believers. Before the age of the automobile, and even before the availability of horse or carriage travel, followers of Jesus walked to church 52 weeks a year, regardless of inclement weather, to attend the Lord’s Day services and receive the Means of Grace. While they might have traveled fewer miles, they did not travel less time.

The Williams, Maynards and Sears families used a wagon to commute between Irvine and Tustin for Sunday services at the First Advent Christian Church. Photo courtesy of Tustin Area Museum

These believers would commute for hours, often before sun-up, to make it to church and would spend the entire day, until evening, in worship. The two-service tradition in American evangelicalism started as an all-day affair, with a short break during the middle of the day to allow people to eat ‘dinner on the grounds.’ As the automobile supplanted horse and buggy, people took their cars back home to eat in their own kitchen and gradually the “lunch hour” became five or six hours with a single hour-long service in the evening. Now, it is rare to find a local church that has an evening service at all, let alone find one that is well attended.

A couple who hitched their wagon to attend Lebanon Christian Reformed Church

Followers of Jesus have always been willing to do whatever it took to worship with like-minded believers and were willing to travel great distances to be with their church family. Today, Americans seem more inclined to choose whatever fellowship is within a short jaunt of their house, the same way they might choose a fast food restaurant.

Church attendees in a covered wagon, preparing to leave from the Gilbert Memorial Congregational Church, Rosebud Reservation

Certainly these rough-and-tumble believers would consider a two-hour drive to church in a comfortable vehicle with heated or cooled seats and a stereo to be a great luxury.

We can also look not just backward, but look outward toward our brothers in the Third World. Believers in developing countries and remote jungles or mountain regions often travel for more than an entire day to make it to their Lord’s Day gathering. Because of this distance, some may not be able to attend weekly, but when they are able to gather in the assembly, they set aside a substantial amount of time to do so.

This Ethiopian Church hosts Calais refugees who travel vast distances on foot to attend services. The roof is held up by duct tape.

Any evangelical missionary can make your eyes water by recalling tales of heartfelt believers who traverse great distances in much peril to gather with the Saints.

The Command

We are told not to forsake the assembly of the saints (Hebrews 10:25). When the Saints gather for worship (that’s what a church is, it’s a called-out assembly, or ecclesia, or in Greek, ἐκκλησία) we are to gather with them. A congregation is not a congregation unless it congregates.

And while we recognize that no church is perfect, some churches are better than others. In fact, some churches have the very real threat of God removing from them the Holy Spirit altogether (Revelation 2:5). Some churches are under the rebuke of God (Revelation 2:4).

A good church has elder leadership (Acts 14:23) who fit the qualification of pastors, including that they are male and qualified spiritually (1 Timothy 3:2).

A good church doesn’t sing man-centered nonsense songs, but hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19).

A good church conducts discipline when it is necessary, loving people enough to deal with their unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:13).

A good church teaches what accords to sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), teaches the full counsel of God’s Word (even the ‘boring’ or offensive parts – Acts 20:27), and rebukes false teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).

What are the odds that a church fits that criteron is within 15 to 30 minutes of you? In most places in the United States, it is not probable that you live that closely to such a church. If you do live within such a short distance, you are incredibly blessed. The chance that you have a selection of two or three churches that fit this description within a short drive is miniscule. In rural areas, it might just not exist at all.

Although I am a Reformed Baptist pastor, when I talk to my friends who are Confessional Lutheran, Independent and Fundamental Baptist, Presbyterian, or the like, there is almost universally a common charateristic to which we hold. We all acknowledge that the more seriously a church member takes their faith, the more likely they are to drive great distances to attend church. We also agree that – as the statistics above demonstrate – rarely does geographical proximity to church have anything to do with the frequency one attends. Commitment seems to cut through excuses, even in long-distance travel.

What About the Argument that Local is Best?

What about the argument that it’s best to attend church in the community or neighborhood where you live? I don’t know for sure, but I presume that idea was started by churches who were tired of seeing people in their neighborhood travel elsewhere for church. The notion certainly is not mandated in the Scripture.

Some would suggest that it would be hard to invite someone to church with you if you live a long distance away. If someone makes that argument, they should be asked when was the last time they brought someone to church anyway. The fact is, most people don’t actively invite their friends or neighbors to church whether or not they live closely. Furthermore, at least in my own church, it appears that those who live the furthest are the most active at bringing along their friends!

Additionally, the notion presupposes the idea that evangelism can’t be done in the home. Truth be told, Christians who are committed enough to travel great distances to church are typically committed enough to know how to personally evangelize someone without having the preacher do it for them.

Finally, traveling great distances for church helps the spread of the Gospel, as believers in outlying communities may need to gather together locally during the middle of the week. These far-away Bible studies in their homes, done under the auspice or blessing of their home church, is the exact kind of outreach that eventually results in new churches. And that’s a great Gospel opportunity.

So pile into the car this Sunday, bring a thermos of coffee and crank up your spotify. Enjoy a few hours alone or with your family, spending quality time in conversation or prayer in your comfortable automobile, and make it to church a few minutes early and stay a few minutes late.

Take your time. It’s not the Lord’s hour. It’s the Lord’s Day.