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Geographical proximity is considered an essential factor in crucial decision-making for various aspects of peoples’ lives—parents send their kids to a school close to their home and employees prefer living not too far off from their workplace. Some others prioritise living close to their family members or friends. While these are justified reasons, Christians today are indifferent or ignorant about the need to be geographically proximate to their local church.
An uninformed church-goer today may be nonchalant about it and ask, “What’s the big deal?”. And I believe it is critical we respond with clarity and Biblical authority. Why choose a local church that is geographically proximate? Here are three reasons.
1. Biblical Example
We all have heard about the universal church and the local church. The universal church consists of all believers in Christ across the world. The local church is an assembly of believers from a particular locality, meeting together regularly to fulfil scriptural mandates, such as is found in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
It is essential to observe that a local church is for local believers in Christ. A local church is not for non-locals. A local church is not a pilgrimage with believers undertaking long journeys for religious purposes. Add to that, a sinister mix of individualism and the saturation of digital communication in this age has caused an explosion of online “church services”. Many local churches today have clearly wandered off from the Biblical pattern ordained by God.
In his book What Is A Healthy Church?, Mark Dever offered quick tips on how to find a good church. Here is one of his instructions: “Consider geography. Would the church’s physical proximity to your home encourage or discourage frequent involvement and service? If you’re moving to a new area, try to locate a good church before you buy a house.” (pg. 79)
Many practical challenges exist for a local church to function biblically if believers are geographically distant. The following factors describe these challenges.
The early church believers were devoted to fellowship (Acts 2:42). Fellowship for them was not merely attending a formal service once a week for a couple of hours. They were committed to deeper relationships that were beautifully intertwined with their everyday life. We see this to be true in Acts 2:46 where they met almost every day in each other’s homes. The author of Hebrews exhorted believers to meet together physically as often as possible for mutual and constant edification (Heb. 10:24-25). Additionally, Peter even instructed believers to use their God-given gifts to serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10).
As a shepherd of God’s flock for some years, I have witnessed that it is practically challenging to have meaningful fellowship when believers are geographically distant from one another. Except for seeing each other’s faces on Sundays, they are impaired from building healthy relationships with fellow believers. Practising hospitality becomes difficult, and so does being available to serve one another in times of need.
In contrast, believers are able to meet often during the week and build healthy relationships in Christ when they are geographically proximate. I have seen this being joyfully practised by many members of our church. Of course, there may always be some within the body who refrain from doing so despite being geographically close. It would do a world of good for these unhealthy and cold-hearted members if they understand the significance of biblical fellowship and ministry. To be part of a local church and not make efforts to grow in fellowship with members is functionally not being a part of the body of Christ.
The modern-day perception of what pastoring entails is a far cry from the apostolic example. Pastoring is not merely leading Sunday services; it is also being available to shepherd God’s flock through the week. It isn’t healthy for either pastors or believers to live far off from each other. This makes biblical shepherding almost unworkable. A good shepherd must prioritise being geographically close and make his dwelling among local believers. Believers aren’t exempt from such prioritisation, for they too ought to stay near their pastors so that they are holistically shepherded.
I meet some believers when I go for a walk. Other times I meet them over breakfast or lunch at a nearby restaurant. On some occasions, I meet them at their homes. There are times when I have to meet members spontaneously to be able to spend time with them. Effective ministry is majorly driven by geographical proximity. On the contrary, I have noticed that I am unable to effectively shepherd and have meaningful fellowship with some believers due to geographical distance. This difficulty is vastly amplified when I have to counsel believers who live far away; even more so, after counselling, when following up with them on a weekly basis is required.
Therefore, pastors and believers staying nearby opens up various avenues for biblical shepherding and building healthy relationships.
Although there are some Exceptions:
I remember reading a quote by Paul Washer, “Don’t look for the nearest church to your house. Find the church closest to the Bible”. The context of this quote points to an exception in the Biblical pattern of geographical proximity to the local church. What does one do when there are no Biblical churches in their locality? Believers may have to travel to a distant local church. After weighing the cons of unavoidable dysfunctionalities due to geographical distance, it is far better to go to a biblical church than spiritually suffer by attending an unbiblical church nearby.
As a response to such challenging realities, local churches ought to be proactive and work towards planting churches in the far-flung localities where some believers reside. We as a church are currently going through such a process. We’ve encouraged some believers from a distant section of Hyderabad to travel a long distance for the purpose of gathering with us as a church. They were clearly desperate to attend a Biblical church. Simultaneously, we trained a brother as a church planter and sent him out to plant a church in their locality. These believers are now very delighted to have a local church nearby where they can biblically function as a local church.
It is my earnest and sincere prayer that God would bless all believers in Christ with healthy, biblical churches that are geographically proximate; that believers too would make efforts to stay close to a local church that fulfils biblical mandates of a healthy church; that local churches keep planting churches for the growth and convenience of believers.
P.S. If you are struggling to find a biblical church in your locality, feel free to reach out to Equip Indian Churches for biblical guidance.