Cars, Vows, and the Death of the Church

If you were asked the question, “what is the most important date in church history?,” how would you respond?

On the one hand, it would be important to ask a follow up question related to what, i.e., the most important date for what? The propagation of the gospel? Technological advancement? Missionary outreach? The church? And yet on the other hand, regardless of the specific what, even in any of those areas just listed there are numerous options that would vie for the preeminent place.

Carl Trueman identifies his vote for the most Important date in church history: the invention of the automobile. The reason? It changed the way the people viewed church. They could drive by a number of good, godly Evangelical churches on the way to their personal preferred church. It changed the way the church is structured and how she operates. It also made living out the covenant within the community, especially when it comes to accountability and discipline, almost impossible, since those in that setting simply leave.

It’s always interesting to see, every now and then on a webpage or something, “the most important date in church history.” I would say the most important date in church history - I think it was 1909, when Henry Ford designed his model-T. I think the invention of the motor car is probably the most significant event in church history, because it utterly transforms how the church operates. You can have your reformations, you can have your medieval church piety, but once people can jump in a car, and drive outside of their community to a church elsewhere, everything changes. Church discipline is almost impossible in the era of the automobile, because we live anonymous lives, and we have the ability to run away when our church comes after us.

In another piece, On Cars, Vows and the Slow Death of the Church, Trueman delineates further what he means by the automobile's effect on the church.

The thing that is killing the church today is surely the car.   In the olden days (and no, for anybody under twenty, I am not talking about the 80s here but rather a hundred or so years ago and beyond), mobility was limited.   If you crossed the local priest or minister, you could be in trouble because there might be no way you could go to the next town or village for worship on the Lord's Day.  So church discipline could actually mean something: sooner or later you had no choice but to face up to your responsibilities to the church officers.

Yes, the pre-automobile systems of church discipline were abused (Silas Marner anyone?). Is that a surprise?  They were staffed by sinful human beings.  But at least they stood a theoretical chance of working and, indeed, proved remarkably effective in many instances.

Today, I have even had friends who left their wives, took up with someone else, fled church discipline and, guess what?, found a church that would take them in as members in good standing.  Today, unlike the olden days (teenagers: in case you've already forgotten, for definition of 'olden times' see above), they can simply jump into their car and drive and drive and keep driving until they find a church that will accept them.  And if they drive far enough, they always find such a place.  Trust me.  They always do.  There is always some place that either does not know them or simply does not care what they have done.

. . . church shopping is one of the things that is weakening Christianity; but that is not simply a function of general consumerism; it is the result of the opportunity provided by the automobile. The thing that allows many of us to attend church is also that which is eroding the power of our membership vows.

Of course, membership vows are as solemn and as binding as ordination vows. The average member is no less bound by them to the church than I am as a minister. But the car makes them seem so much more negotiable. We have come to believe that even God can be dodged when we are behind the wheel.

I have said to students at Westminster more times than I can remember: the church has never really come to terms with the invention of the internal combustion engine.

I confess that although I do not agree with most of the Roman Catholic Church’s view of ecclesiology, I do like their notion of a parish (and some other Protestant denominations will also refer to ministry in local churches in this way). What that means is that since this is the local church in this specific geographical area, that is considered the parish. This gives a location to the church, those who live in this geographical area are considered a part of that church, and the leaders know those in the community for whom they are responsible for pastoral care.

I reiterate – I do not agree with the RCC notion of ecclesiology. But I also confess there is something healthy to the notion of a parish, viz., those who live in a certain community, go to an Evangelical church in that community.

What often happens today is, as noted above, people will drive out of the community, drive by a number of other Evangelical churches, on their way to their preferred local church, based on the preaching, the programs, the friends, etc. I think there is something amiss as one thinks about and approaches church in this manner.

How do you think about this? What effect has the car had on the church? What are other issues that have either positive or negative effects on the church? How do we respond to them?

These and other issues will be addressed this January at our Theology Conference as we focus on The Doctrine of the Church. You can register here. Come as a leadership team/staff, since this will be an excellent Conference to learn together and then to discuss together.

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