Eric on geography and Christian life

Where then shall we live?

Introduction

This document grew out of an earlier one I wrote on the distribution of the Church in Adelaide. Having investigated where Christians are living, it seems worthwhile to consider where it would be good to live. I suggested that I would like to see more Christians moving to less reached and/or poorer areas. This turned out to be a bigger topic than I expected, warranting a page of its own. While the earlier document was in my area of expertise (statistics and geography), the present document is not. I started writing this as a separate page in March 2008 and I may update it further in the future.

Ten years ago a leader said “Too many people choose where they live based on where they work, and choose their church based on where they live. It should be the other way around – choose the right church, find a home near there, and find work near your home”. Even then I was inclined to disagree: Different people have different constraints. Many people have limited options as to where they work, while homes and schools can be found anywhere. There are churches within reach of almost any residential area (and if not, they ought to be planted). Nonetheless, the location of one’s work, church and home are worth considering carefully.

Rationale

Here are some of the things that guide a lot of my decisions in a lot of matters. Some might be obvious, some you might not have thought of, or you may disagree or not feel that they are important. For me, these points are more important than the question of where, and writing this gives me the opportunity to express them. My point of view is one of someone who would be an active participant (not just attender) in a church. I also made the assumption that one is considering options within a metropolis, but one could use all the principles here when considering even which country to live in.

1. Minimise expenditure of money

I believe that the way we Christians in the western world use our money is one of the areas with the biggest room for improvement. This is such a big part of my thinking that I’ve written separately on money-related matters. My main point is that we should minimise spending on ourselves so there is more money available to share with others and to spread the Gospel.

2. Minimise any consumption which is bad for the world

In this generation, more than in any other, we’ve realised that our planet cannot sustain the way of life that our generation is living. This is happening on many fronts. We’re using up oil faster than we can extract it, with big shortages threatening. But even that may be a blessing, because our use of it and other carbon-based fuels is polluting the atmosphere and we’re learning now what possible consequences are in store. Australian cities have had strict water restrictions for the first time. For a long time we in the developed world have enjoyed electricity, travel by road and by air and the results of industry. Now that other parts of the world are joining us, we realise that we were using more than our share of the earth’s resources.

This is a complex area and many have written at length about it. I don’t know what strategies are more important or effective when it comes to conserving energy, fuel, water, or anything else. But if we can live on less, we again state to the world that we are not living for ourselves.

Others may be more optimistic than I about ecological matters. Perhaps God will bring to a close history as-we-know-it before we reap too many consequences of how we’ve treated the planet. Perhaps we will learn to depollute the atmosphere, or a non-polluting form of electricity generation will become viable on a large scale soon. There are plenty of people working on ways to provide power, travel, water, etc without the environmental consequences they used to have. But at this point in history it seems best to me to reduce consumption of energy and fuel where we can.

2a. Minimise travel

One of the big areas touched on by ecological issues is that of travel, because two of the largest uses of oil are air travel and road (car) travel. Not only does fuel cost monetarily and environmentally, but this decade has seen demand for oil steadily increase while supply is unlikely to increase, with the likely result of higher prices in the future. Travel also takes time. Also, the amount you rely on a car can make the difference in whether you need a car or not, or whether a family has one or two.

3. The Kingdom

I want to serve God, show God’s love to people and make Him known. I want to be part of a community that does these things and builds each other up. As a full-time worker, my primary way of advancing the Kingdom comes by the medium of money, but I still want to take some share in the hands-on work. In almost any locality, there is more harvest than there are workers for it, but some places may have particular opportunities.

I don’t see myself as one who will be a star player, nor a leader (as many of my likely readers are), just a well-placed pawn. If my name appears in any church history records it will be as a historian.

4. I want my life to be something that can work widely – trailblazing, solutions & better net outcomes

This is a difficult thing to explain, and maybe it’s a few separate propositions, but I’ll try to explain them and hopefully you get the vibe of some of it.

It is one thing to find a solution of a problem for me; it is another thing to find a solution of that problem for everyone.

It may be hard for me to blaze a trail and easier to travel the established one, but if the result is a superior trail for others, then my effort is worth it. An example of this is developers of free software and those who make it accessible: It would have been much easier for them to pay for a better ready-made product, but by doing the hard work, many people reap their benefits and are spared the costlier route. And sometimes trailblazing is fun.

If it is not a solution for many people, it is not a solution for me. This typically reinforces my aim of doing things cheaply. If the cheap option is not good enough for me, why is it good enough for someone else who cannot afford the better one?

I don’t like following the crowd, tradition or standard procedures if I can’t see good reason to do so.

I want to do things that have a net result of everyone being better off. Often I’ve detoured out of congested traffic, opting for a longer route but supposing that my absence will on average let everyone get to their destination marginally quicker.

Continuing

Those are four things that effect a lot of my decisions. So how do they translate to where we ought to live?

1. Play it where it lies

In the normal case, the best place to live is the place you are living now. In the normal case, the best place to work is where you are working now. And in the normal case, the best church to be part of is the one you currently attend. There is a time for change, but change is extra work. Often when I talk about the issue of where we ought to live, people say “So you’re saying I should pack up and move west?”. Not really – I’m saying that when circumstances are such that your home, church or work is going to change, these are are some things to consider. The “where you are now” factor is a big one, so I list it first.

2. Live life local

Arranging your life so you don’t have to travel much is a good idea. Travel usually costs fuel, money and time. The amount you travel can make the difference in the number of cars you need.

Minimise the home-work distance: A full-time worker typically travels the home-work distance ten times a week, so having a small distance here will obviously be desirable. If your hours of work are the same as most jobs, you will be travelling at the time most other people are travelling.

Minimise the home-church distance: Living close to where your church is also desirable. You may not be travelling there are as often as to work, but unlike work which is compulsory, things happening in a church are things you choose to go to, and being nearby means you’re more likely to go in the marginal cases. There are great advantages when most of the members of a church live nearby: It’s not far to go to anyone’s place, the church will be planted more firmly in the community and have a concern for the local schools and other places, it is easier to invite neighbours or others you know locally to things at church. Obviously a home-based Christian community will usually do better than a conventional one on these points.

Minimise distances to other places you go. Firstly, family members. Particularly the oldest ones, who are less mobile and sometimes get left out of things. And any other place you go to on a regular basis.

3. Live where it’s cheap/poor

Housing is the biggest area of expenditure for many households, so whoever wants to minimise their expenditure will do well to find a home (whether renting or buying) which doesn’t cost that much, and the location is one (no the only) thing that determines the cost. Note that the the savings of buying a cheaper house get magnified when interest over a long loan is considered, but also diminished when you consider that a major factor in the price of the house is how much it will sell for (often by the next generation).

In poor areas there are greater needs and many opportunities to make a difference. Having visited many churches in both rich and poor parts of Adelaide, the latter are typically under-resourced in staff, finance and all kind of helpers, with a large share of people with significant needs. Note that in geographical terms “cheap” and “poor” do not mean quite the same thing, but the correlation is strong.

While I’m on this point I am reminded that there are many poorer places in the world than can be found in Adelaide. There are many opportunities for people with Australian education/skills and resources to make a big difference overseas. It will only be a small minority of Australian Christians who work overseas, and the rest of us need to stand with them.

4. Less-reached

The previous document described how some areas have more Christians than others. While the harvest outnumber the workers in most places, it may be a good idea to being involved in an area where the Church is weak. This applies not so much to geographical areas as to the different people-groups or subcultures that make up society – there may be a group somewhere that hasn’t heard much of the Gospel.

There are issues to consider here. Just as the best people to represent Christ in Iceland are Icelandic Christians, the Christians best equipped to reach any people group are often those who are most similar. The groups within Australian society with less Christians are culturally different from those with more, so there is a good chance that any less-reached people-group will be different from you. On the other hand, if you are part of a group which does not have many Christians (eg a football club), then that may be a good group to spend lots of your time with.

5. Economy of household

There is an economy of scale with the number of people in a household, in particular having a single-person household is inefficient. There are lots of things you need in a house, and a fair amount of it does not increase much when the number of people increases. When God said “It is not good for the man to be alone”, I think he was talking about more than just marriage. People need each other, and although one may enjoy the extra space that living by one’s self allows, it is a lot less work if people live together.

Demand for housing in Australian cities has greatly increased property prices, putting many families in a difficult position (while those who already had houses have seen their values rocket upward). Any group of people who decide to be one household instead of two make one extra house available to someone else.

Many people bemoan the current trend of young adults to live longer with their parents. I think it’s a good thing. While it is not good if young adults are not learning the skills necessary for independence (I confess this describes me well), staying in the nest is wise. Moving out alone is a costly exercise. 24% of Australian households have only one person. 9% have one person in a 3-bedroom house. If just those people lived two to a house, there would be 300,000 more homes available and the any “housing affordability crisis” might suddenly subside.

6. Putting it together

There are other considerations, and typically these are the ones you already know about. Often a particular home, job, church or school is the best place to be. God may call us somewhere that we wouldn’t normally choose. It’s not usually possible to tick all the boxes. Most of the cheap & poor areas of Adelaide are in the outer suburbs, while the inner areas are the least-reached and tend to be best for minimising travel.

My propositions remain: It would be good to see more Christian families or individuals, when circumstances lead them to move house, choose to live in church-poor and/or money-poor areas, and I hope the next ten years sees such a shift. We admire people who decide to move overseas and spend much of their life advancing the Kingdom in a poor and/or less-reached country. That is a big sacrifice. It’s not so big a sacrifice to live in Elizabeth instead of Tea Tree Gully.

Shifting people and resources around won’t automatically lead the Church to recovery (though dying congregations have been made viable again). Moreover, I think many of the churches God will use in Adelaide in this century will look and feel different from the ones we had before.

I have spoken of home, work, church, but typically it’s home, work, work, school, church, etc. And the more places in your family’s life, the more chance there will be more conflicting constraints. But I will say this much: There are schools and churches everywhere within a metropolitan area. Anywhere in Adelaide where there is a large workforce, there is a poor or less-Christian area. In fact, some of the places where the church is strongest are the places with less jobs (ie mostly residential).

My story

When I started writing this in March 2008, I was 27, living with my lovely sister and our two parents in Payneham, and enjoying that arrangement. I was an active member of the GO Christian Network (inc Glen Osmond Baptist Church), working full-time as a software developer in Albert Park. Going back to September 2007, I had noted the relative weakness of the church in the western suburbs (perhaps exaggerated as much of my data came from the baptist churches, the denomination in which the West-East divide is the worst). For a few years I had been and helping coordinate Big Week Out (both at the city-wide level and in the eastern suburbs) and at that time BWO in the western region needed some help.

I put my hand up for BWO in the west and started touring the churches. At one place a youth worker told me how much harder the work was than the previous well-off church she had worked in. In another, they had numerous children and youth attending their programmes, but no young adult leaders, and they could hardly afford to pay their minister, who was sharing her house with a large refugee family. In another small church which I visited a few times, they didn’t always have a musician, and I got to play the piano. The opportunities to get involved (or the gaps, we might say) seemed more significant than those I saw around the GO Network or any eastern churches.

I would often mention that I was considering moving to the north-west, though not keen on any move which would increase the total number of households. At one place, the pastor mentioned that one of the members had previously had boarders. He followed up that possibility and within a fortnight I had moved there. So when I finished the original of this article in April 08 I was 28, living with a retired lady in Cheltenham only 1km from work, finishing up my time with the GO Network and getting variously involved a few churches in the NW.

Update & conclusion

One year after moving, things have been very good. Partly because I found an arrangement that satisfied a lot of the things I’ve written here and partly because of God’s various blessings over the year. I can recommend any arrangement that minimises travel. In the first four months, I only bought petrol twice! (I don’t usually have a car).

As an educated and mostly well-off person, being part of church in a higher-need area is a good thing. I feel that there’s a lot of ministry capacity lying partly dormant in some churches that would come to life elsewhere. I feel that God’s giving me things to do that I wouldn’t have done in the east. Being the only 20s-aged person at Cheltenham BC has been interesting – before I came, the youth activities were run by over 40s. Now I know a lot of people around the NW churches, so if you want to know anything about the scene here, I’m one to ask.

My landlady and I strongly recommend the combination of employed young adult and retired person/couple as an arrangement that can work. There are countless retirees in larger houses than they need, and the saving compared to living by one’s self must be many thousands of dollars a year and perhaps hundreds of hours.

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts or questions about any of this, by comment here or by email. I’ve talked about things I don’t know much about, so I will benefit from hearing from others.

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5 Comments »

  1. Interesting – I have carefully read all that you have written.
    I like the idea of an employed young adult – retired person/couple arrangement……where you can walk to work and Church…The savings and benifits are fanatastic – as you rightly have shown.
    ALSO………….

    For me….. Proverbs ch20 v29

    Comment by Bruce Beck — 21 May 2009 @ 11:05 am

  2. Dear Eric, I was thrilled to read your exploration of the Christian spread in Adelaide and appreciated your advice on avoiding long travel distances. I am seeking a place in live in Adelaide, want to buy a house. Because I do voluntary work at the women’s prison but currently live at coromandel valley Im thinking through the possibilities and wondering if God is calling me somewhere in particular. AFter reading your words, I think maybe he is. Thankyou for your effort in putting together this thoughtprovoking, relevant and helpful piece.so practical. I would like to talk to you about living in intentional community as I’m seeking to meet others interested in contemplative ecumenical intentional community. Or just anyone really who is interested in talking about living in intentional community.

    From Abi

    Comment by Abi Thonemann — 15 June 2009 @ 3:07 am

  3. Thanks Abi. Good to hear people I’ve never heard of are reading this! I know people in a Christian community in the Parks area and maybe one in Walkley Heights. I’ll email you today, and maybe I can help you look at where God’s taking you.

    Comment by Eric — 15 June 2009 @ 11:08 am

  4. […] friend Eric has explored the distribution of churches in Adelaide.  His conclusion: if you want to be a Christian witness in Adelaide, move house to a church-poor and/or money-poor […]

    Pingback by Adelaide Christian Scene « Cyberpunk + Blue Twin go back to uni — 24 January 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  5. Great work Eric. It’s so encouraging to read about someone who is using their gifts and interests in such a kingdom way, and to do what you can to live it out. It’s great to hear some thoughts about where we ought to live, work, gather in our context of Adelaide, this is a really valuable contribution and I imagine that as you keep digging all sorts of further questions will be raised. Perhaps one of the elephants in room (so to speak) is the reality that in our own homes and in our own churches we often live quite private lives – we’re not all that interested in reaching out into the community (despite what we might say) or simply don’t know how (though it might not be as difficult as we fear). I think what you have presented combined with some leadership in terms of reaching in to our communities – wherever we’re living – could quite conceivably shape both our churches and communities. Really encouraging Eric, keep digging.

    Comment by Jesse Size — 29 March 2010 @ 11:24 am


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