Walking to church

An expression of good news in the neighbourhood

Loving our neighbours covenantally draws us to be rooted in our local community. So what do we lose when we drive to church, or if we live and worship in different places? From Liverpool, Sam Tomlin writes about what happened when he started walking to church.

Recently my wife Jenni and I moved to a house five minutes’ walk from our Salvation Army church hall. For the previous three years we’d been living more than a mile away – and in making this move, we have noticed a significant difference in our rhythms of life.  We are now spending most of our time in half a square mile.

This short walk is good for the environment as we are not driving, and good for health as we are walking (or running with our toddlers!) We have found we’ve also been able to share more with our neighbours as we build a common life, resisting the temptation to buy and ‘own’ things for ourselves when we can develop relationships through sharing.

In our old house, we had limited interaction with our neighbours. Part of this was simply lack of capacity and exhaustion: we were spending all day in the community where our church hall was and developing a passion for that area. We couldn’t expect our neighbours to share that passion as they didn’t live there, and inviting them to travel to our church was unrealistic, especially if they didn’t have or couldn’t afford a car.

Since we’ve lived more locally, we have found those in our street and surrounding area are much more likely to accept an invitation to something happening at our hall or just in our house, and this has deepened our relationships.

We have a back garden, but have also begun to ‘reclaim’ our front garden by putting in a mini-allotment community garden. We’ve already had neighbours come and plant things, and struck up great conversations as people walk past.

As I walk to and from our hall, I’ve been reflecting that in the modern world, we pride ourselves on the freedom ease of travel brings us. Whether it is our car or public transport, we are able to live our lives at a fast pace and over large geographical areas. And this is, of course, no less true of Christians. I have no data to back it up, but in my experience it is a common situation for Christians to live in one area, work in another and go to church in another.

I can’t help but think this raises problems. It seems to me that we often imbibe the message in our churches that all these places should be important mission fields for us: ‘get to know your neighbours’; ‘be a witness in your workplace’; ‘make sure you’re at church on Sundays and small-group in the week.’ The inevitable consequence of this for many is burnout, frustration or a sense of guilt that you’re not doing enough, especially if you have a family as well.

Many people can’t, of course, choose where they work or live. Economic circumstances will often determine this reality. But we can choose where we go to church. On the consumer model of church, you drive to the church that suits your tastes and wants best, even if this means driving past 5, 10, 15 churches on your way. I have often wondered what the impact would be if more Christians committed to walking to their local church.

The ‘journey’ to our hall is less of a hassle and it has brought us much joy. Being able to walk through our community, we are seeing things we would otherwise miss in the car. This also helps us to notice things that maybe aren’t so good, that our neighbours have noticed too – helping us develop a sense of the common good in our area. Seeing neighbours and other people who come to our weekday programme as we walk to our hall or children’s nursery next door has given us a greater sense of belonging in our community.

This brought to mind an article I came across recently called ‘From Porch to Patio’ by Richard H. Thomas. It was written in 1975 and is a summary of the sociology of American housing architecture in the previous century. The thrust is to show that how the dominant design of houses from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century displays a shift in community cohesion and connectedness: gradually the communal ‘porch’ area at the front of the house, from which people could interact with neighbours and passers-by became replaced with a ‘patio,’ the function of which was quick and easy access from a car to the privacy of the house. The social space people desired to spend their time in gradually changed from the front of the house to the back garden. This was true for us – we had a patio and parked our car on it in our old house.

The article touches on some of the socio-economic reasons for this (some of which were good – the access to decent housing for those at the bottom of the chain, many of whom were moving from the countryside), but also examines the social implications of this change:

“While the porch was designed in an era of slow movement, the patio is part of a world which places a premium on speed and ease of access. The father of a nineteenth century might stop on the porch on his way into the house, but the suburban man [or woman] wishes to enter the house as rapidly as possible to accept the shelter the house provides… In this transition from porch to patio there is an irony. Nineteenth-century families were expected to be public and fought to achieve their privacy. Part of the sense of community that often characterized the nineteenth-century village resulted from the forms of social interaction that the porch facilitated. Twentieth century man [and woman have] achieved the sense of privacy in [their] patio, but in so doing [they have] lost part of [their] public nature which is essential to strong attachments and a deep sense of belonging or feelings of community…”

As Christians, we are of course sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2.11), and our rootedness must be conscious to avoid blood and soil patriotism that has been so tempting and disastrous throughout Christian history.

But ‘neighbour’ is a deeply biblical category, and being split between various geographical locations inevitably limits our capacity to love covenantally. We live in a country where stress and destructive mental health levels are high and 73 per cent of us don’t know our neighbours’ names. So part of the ‘good news’ we are meant to embody might be to model a slower pace of life, rooted in our local community, walking to church. As Stanley Hauerwas remarks, “Constancy of place seems to me imperative if we are to be Christians who don’t abandon one another in the name of greater goods… Familiarity is what makes place ‘a place’.”

© Sam Tomlin

Sam Tomlin, along with his wife Jenni, is a Salvation Army officer in Liverpool. They are the leaders of a local Salvation Army church and have recently moved into an intentional, new monastic community house which he blogs about here. They have three small children and would love to hear from you if you are ever visiting Liverpool.

This story was featured in the T4CG newsletter of summer 2020