The Problem of Professionalism and the local church

I blogged last week about a few trends that affect us as a church in the UK; consumerism, individualism, entertainment and the peculiarly Christian Conference-ism.  But there’s another one I think is worth us thinking though because it has a huge impact on us as churches across the UK.

Professionalism.  Professionalism has led many of us to divide life up.  It creates a secular sacred divide.  A sense that I am one thing – professional – in my workplace and another in the rest of life.  There are clear and obvious problems there for us as Christians who are called to be transformed in our thinking, to view the whole of life as under Christ with no areas exempt from his call and service.  It also creates a ready excuse not to evangelise, or if you are the boss to preclude anyone from evangelising in the workplace.  Professionalism becomes a mode of living.

But I wonder if there is a slightly more nefarious impact of professionalism.  It leads us to divorce our work life geographically from our home life.  So we tend to commute to work.  According to the last national census the average commute time is 54 minutes, and there is evidence that this has continued to rise with the average commute now being over an hour.  I think much of that is to do with professionalism, we no longer want to live and work in the same community.

And there are obvious negative impacts of this.  For a start, an hour commute there and back every day equates to 10 hours commuting a week,  that’s over 40 hours a month (Or a whole week at work).  That’s over 450 hours a year once you take off holidays.  That is a huge chunk of time.  Time which is lost.

But it also means we are isolating ourselves when it comes to church.  If my work is an hour away how will I invite my colleagues to come to church with me or join me at an event?  And that time and distance becomes an obvious barrier to cultivating gospel capable friendships.  It leads too many communities to essentially be commuter communities.  Communities in geography only where people are present only in an evening, exhausted, and at weekends when they are busily fraught doing all the things they haven’t had time to do all the rest of the week, or commuting to events or to visit family.

As a pastor my contract stipulates that I live within a relatively small radius of the church building.  I am expected to live and work within the community that I serve.  But I wonder if pastors are the only ones we expect this of?  How would it transform your church if everyone lived within the community in which you serve?  And what does it say about your church if no one lives within the geographical location in which you meet on Sunday?

Professionalism has subtly influenced church as it has created commuter culture.  I wonder how much the commuter mindset has influenced our thinking in terms of journey times to work.  How much more easily we’re prepared to commute to a bigger church because we’re used to commuting and think nothing of it?  But I also wonder how much this keeps church at an emotional and spiritual distance due to geographical distance.  Providing a ready made reason to do ‘community’ on our terms, to opt into events rather than really do life together.  It feeds into our comfort and consumerism.

Try a thought experiment with me.  Imagine that everyone in your church lived within walking distance of your church.  You saw each other locally at the shops, at the school gate.  Everyone worked locally, or within half an hour’s commute.  Christian teachers all taught in the local schools.  Christian GP’s and nurses all worked in the local surgeries.  Christian bin men, coffee shop employees and shop workers took the local rounds.  Whatever job people did they did it locally.  What opportunities would this open up to do life more deeply together?  To gather and influence rather than be scattered and our influence diluted?  How would being in and out of each others lives day by day change the way you approached Sunday?  How would it change the way your community saw you and thought about church?

How would it change church?  What greater opportunities would it bring to pray together?  Work together?  Encourage one another?  Be salt and light together?  To evangelise mutual friends together?  To open our homes?  For our children to support one another at school?

Yes it would bring challenges, especially to our idea of professional distance.  But wouldn’t it be an amazing witness to the world, we’d be saying this is the community I am called to serve in, to love, to speak and be grace in.  And so I will move, I will commit, I will rethink how I do that because I am committed to it’s wellbeing and the gospel being proclaimed here, incarnate in us.

Professionalism and the advent of easy travel has robbed us of what was the norm a hundred years ago, the local church serving the local community.

6 thoughts on “The Problem of Professionalism and the local church

  1. Commuting to church isn’t always about professionalism but about the lack of gospel churches in the UK. If every Christian lived within walking distance of their church, we’d be even less distributed “saltily” throughout society.

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  2. I think this is relatively small-minded… how can those who work in business parks or commercial city centres live close by? What about social workers who work with complex individuals, thus putting their family at risk by living close by?
    Also, if people wish to broaden their horizons by slowly moving away from their communities, then great! You understood and agreed with the living arrangements of your role before you applied, just like many others understand the terms of their roles before applying. And what does it matter where Christian GPs or binmen work, as long as they continue to love people and share the gospel.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Some of our communities, especially those in deprived and working class areas are very neighbourhood based and less network connected. In these communities relational capital is key to build gospel relationships. You can’t be a commuter into such communities just for a Sunday and expect to influence it.

      I wonder if you’ve slightly missed my point. Christians gathered together living life gives a better witness to the gospel, than us all scattered as individuals in isolation. Yes we are to witness there too. But I wonder if the temptation is to let professionalism determine choices when it should be the gospel driving every action.

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  3. Good stuff here, Al. (Hi by the way, it’s been a while!)

    The one thing I’d want to challenge here is that if someone is on a long commute, the time need not be dead. I worked in IT for 8 years, commuting for around two hours a day, and basically did all my theological training in the car. I must have listen to many thousands of sermons and lectures, some sermons and lectures I listened to dozens of times over.

    That said, I think that your main point is spot on. If we truly believe that church is THE home of God on earth, THE front line of mission, THE place of blessing, THE apologetic of God, THE pillar and buttress of truth, THE one place that God in Christ promises to build and bless… I guess we ought to orientate our whole lives around our church. Perhaps a low view of church is the problem.

    Love you bro,

    Rich Owen

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