As we've been talking about, the era of affordable automobile use and all its amenities is about to end – including the Commuter Church and Ringtone Christianity. The era of cheap oil, it seems, is rapidly coming to a close, and we're now entering an age of Less.
Everything will relocalize as our easy-motoring way of life persistently constricts after Peak Oil, including how we do church. Just as motorization fundamentally altered how we get to work, get our food, and get our entertainment, it has also changed church. As outlined in my last post, I believe this has done more bad than good. Whether my criticisms are correct is of little importance, though. The bigger question for the faithful is, how will a church thus conformed respond to Peak Oil? What will the Post-Carbon Church look like?
The transition be will nothing if not fascinating. I doubt many people, particularly families, will tolerate walking or bicycling more than two miles to church. Thus, we will have to start attending churches closer to where we live, even if those churches is pretty different from the ones we’re used to. The closest churches to me, for example, are an old Presbyterian church and a Lutheran church. Being neither Presbyterian nor Lutheran, I’m not sure what I’d do. (probably the Episcopals, as my favorite theologian is an Anglican)
But this is precisely where I’m excited for the emergent/missional church – God is raising up people who can look past differences in style and theology and dogma, and rally around Christ as the head of their faith community. To boot, living in community seems to be increasingly common in the church. Indeed, emergent Christians could do quite well in this transition.
But it’s the more hardline, conservative branches of American Christianity that I worry about. As we all know, there are a lot of people out there that in the name of God seem more interested in being right than in being Christ-like. The persistence of the health-n-wealth or “prosperity gospel,” a dangerous overuse of war metaphor, belligerent allegiance to militant political conservatism, and a general social-theological Pharisaism indicates that much of American Christianity could react very poorly to Peak Oil. It’s all the more reason to get the messages of emergent writers out of our emergent churches, and into the less progressive Christian circles. Emergents have got to be missional and apostolic to those brothers and sisters most ardently practicing the very kinds of faith that emergents are getting out of.
I anticipate that home churches will increase with the gas prices. Lay leaders will become informal pastors. As every institution downsizes and localizes, churches will break down into countless cells of believers. Your local Post-Carbon Church may rarely exceed 50 to 100 people. Adherents may organize themselves by neighborhood, apartment complex, or suburban development. The luxury of even choosing a denomination could be lost for a time. The anonymity granted in today’s bigger Commuter Congregations will evaporate as intimacy and relationship are pushed to the fore; authentic and deep community has the potential to be reinvigorated in the American church. It may be just the enema we need!
Peak Oil will have lasting impacts on missionaries. As spiraling oil prices crash the global economy, most Americans will have trouble enough affording basic necessities, and so may be unable to continue financing missionaries. These brave individuals and families may have to take up full-time jobs in their mission fields, something not at all uncommon to many missionaries (Paul made tents, right?). In addition to a lack of financial resources, the collapse of affordable global transit may leave many missionaries as permanent residents. The ever-so-common house-building-in-Mexico trips many Christian youth and adults are accustomed to will also wither with oil supplies. Indeed, short-term mission trips will likely disappear altogether. Future missionaries will, more than ever before, need a clear calling from God and divinely-secured financing.
Church campgrounds, though very niche, could be among the most interesting venues of contemporary Christianity after oil production peaks. As the convenience of easy-motoring access to these remote sylvan nooks diminishes, they may become something not unlike monasteries or abbeys. Because many of these sites have large, open sport fields, it isn’t inconceivable that a dozen pious folk would take to tilling the earth at a church camp, and steep in God’s word and presence. As the monasteries of old were means in part to escape the moral decay of the Dark Ages, so these distant Christian-owned crannies may be hidden vessels of the faith during and after petrocollapse.
There are by my estimation three broad directions for our theology to go. First, the direness of the situation may provoke some believers to bandy together around a highly “End Times”-type theology of violent fatalism and us-versus-them survivalism. Many conservative churches could conceivably move this way. Second, we may respond to said direness by rallying around a theology of hope and positive social action. Theologically and politically more liberal denominations may move this way. Lastly, we may emphasize relationships, community, and authenticity. Emergent Christianity, of course, fills this slot, and so may grow out of the first two.
I'd like to see the better elements of all three be part of the final product -- a tempered zeal and passion for prayer and spiritual intimacy from the conservatives, a sense of civic duty and justice from the mainline denominations, and the "we-get-there-together"-ness of the Emergents.
Tragically, though: Ringtone Christianity combined with our sin nature has caused all three groups to be smug about the others, and less willing to learn from one another. When we're all thrown into the same buildings, as will happen in the Post-Carbon Church, I can't wait to see what happens. It'll probably be quite messy. Just imagine a Baptist and an Episcopalian and a cranky young Emergent all having to actually deal with one another! I can't imagine a more needed situation in the church today.
Ecumenism will be forced on us, not by conscience or Scripture, but by geology. God Almighty, I can't wait!