On Getting to Church

My sister has lived her entire adult life sequentially in two houses in Utah, and in each location the church building she attended was an easy walk away. That’s not universal, of course; when my mother was alive and living in Ogden she had to drive to church, but in the Jello belt it’s not uncommon. In major metropolitan areas and certain foreign countries there may be suitable public transit options. But most of us get to and from church via car. I live in a suburb of Chicago, and owning or having access to a car is pretty much a necessity to orchestrate daily life. There is a rental house that is across the street and down a ways from my church building, and several LDS families have lived there over the years, so they can walk to church, but other than that if you want to go to church you drive there. Our building features an ample parking lot, which is only overwhelmed on Stake Conference Sundays; on those days we have overflow parking at the high school lot just two blocks away.

My ward has long been in hybrid mode; some people attend in person, while others tune in to a zoom feed. I’m in the latter group; I haven’t physically attended church in over two years. I actually like zoom church; it’s convenient and it works for me. I always make a point to listen carefully when the hymn numbers are announced so I can go to my hymns app and sing along. I have always said that at least half the reason I even go to church is to have an opportunity to sing, and that hasn’t changed. I’ve even given a couple of (prerecorded) talks, one a year ago February and the other last September (I’m probably about due for another assignment). Early in the pandemic I attended Ardis’ remote Gospel Doctrine class, which was great. At some point my ward tried to broadcast our local Gospel Doctrine class, but it didn’t work very well, there were all sorts of technical difficulties, so they pulled the plug on it and now it’s in person only.

Two circumstances have caused me to ponder the topic of how to get to church. First, due to my glaucoma I decided not to drive anymore. That was a hard decision; I loved my 2015 Mazda 3. When you grow up as an American boy having your own car represents adventure, freedom, independence. But it was the right decision for me. (If any of you have a car sitting unused in your garage, now would be a great time to sell it. Dealers are desperate for inventory.)

The second circumstance is that I’m confident at some point they are going to pull the plug  on zoom church. A couple of months ago the SP sent a mass email saying they would continue the broadcast “for now,” but followed by an impassioned plea for people to return to physical church. So it hasn’t happened yet, but it surely will at some point.

When they pull the plug on zoom church, it’s not a given that I’ll go back immediately. I’ll make my own decision. My wife Sandy visits her 89-uear old mother at least weekly, so we are being conservative about the virus. But I assume eventually I would return to physical church. But how would I get there?

Sometime during the year before the pandemic we had a big conversation in Ward Council about this very topic, and I want to use my memory of that conversation as a way to think through the various possibilities. The sister missionaries had met an 18-year old young man. He worked full-time wrangling carts for a grocery store. He had no family and lived in a group home. They wanted him to come to church, which led to our discussion of transportation options.

In the abstract the easiest solution would be for the sisters, who had a car, to bring him. But the Church has very strict rules prohibiting non-missionaries from riding in mission vehicles, which is related to the Church’s insurance policies on those vehicles. That was a strict rule even when I was a missionary back in the late 70s, and as violations could cost the Church $$$, they took that rule very, very seriously. I don’t quite remember, but I wouldn’t be surprised if violators were sent home. So that easy fix was a non-starter.

Their opening salvo was to try to arrange for a member family to commit to picking him up, bringing him to church, and taking him home after on a continuing basis. I’m sure they were thinking we’re not a church of volunteers but a church of assignment, so the Bishop would just assign this task to someone and that would be that. No doubt they were disappointed to learn it’s just not that easy. There were no volunteers, and families have all kinds of reasons why that would be a really tough ask. I personally would not ask anyone to drive me to church on a regular basis, because I grasp how big an ask that is. It doesn’t help that most of our members live west of the building, and I’m one of the few who lives east of the building. I’m the only active member in my entire subdivision.

The next suggestion was for the young man to take a bus. But that was a non-starter also. We do have a suburban bus service, but it’s geared to getting people to the commuter rail line, to Woodfield Mall, to large employers like Motorola, not getting people to church. The buses don’t even run on Sundays.

So then someone mentioned Uber. I don’t know where he lived, but for me I would guess it would be $15, $30 round trip. So if he came every Sunday for a year minus two Conference Sundays he would pay $1500. I could handle that, but there’s no way this young man could.

The conversation soon turned to bikes. The sisters didn’t know whether he had a bike. That might not always be ideal given the weather here, but it seemed like a plausible solution if he happened to have a bike. (It would not be a solution for me, however.)

That was where the conversation stopped, and I don’t know whether the young man ever made it to our building. I’m kind of guessing not.

At this point you might be wondering why I wouldn’t just go with my wife Sandy. Well, she recently informed me she was “done” with Church. That’s not my story to tell, but for starters she’s very introverted and this church is a hellscape for introverts. But anyway, when I mentioned this issue to her she looked at me like I had roaches crawling out of my ears and said of course she’d drop me off and pick me up, she’s just not going to go inside herself.

So after all that I now have a plan.  Since I’m having to re-engineer church anyway I’m thinking I might just go the first and third Sundays of the month. The first Sunday because it being Fast Sunday I’ll see more people at the pulpit, and first and third because that would make it possible for me to attend GD class, which I enjoy. Who knows, I’ll play it by ear I guess.

Have any of you had to think through the logistics of returning to physical church?

Comments

  1. It’s a shame more wardhouses aren’t on bus lines. One of my mission areas had a fantastic streetcar system throughout the city, connected with a bus system. One of the major streetcar lines stopped at the church (not because the church was there, but because the church was conveniently located next to a major concert venue and a large park). Thinking back, most of our investigators did not have their own cars. That ward saw a lot of converts, and I believe a lot of that was due to the fact that anyone with access to public transportation could easily make it to church.

  2. Great post–the urban planning of ward buildings seems to be mostly ignored (at least in the sense of making them accessible through mass and active transportation). I currently live in northern Virginia and bike to church–my ward building is conveniently located around a mile from a rail-to-trail path that begins close to where I live. I’ll begin a graduate program in Charlottesville, Virginia this fall and I’m already concerned about getting to church, as I won’t have a car (for environmental and economic reasons). This seems to be especially involved as there are two ward buildings in the Charlottesville area but apparently the one that pertains to central Charlottesville is located nearly 10 miles from the city center (the one closer to the city center apparently corresponding to the outer suburbs). It would be great if the Church focused on making ward buildings accessible to a wide variety of transportation options and preferences.

  3. I expect we’ll move when driving ourselves is no longer viable. At that point I’ll look for medical care, groceries, a library, and a church all within walking distance. Viable options for all four are limited and I doubt church will top the list of requirements. In the last two years I’ve spent more time on church-related matters, on Sunday and weekdays, than I averaged in the previous ten years. I’m not sure I’m ever going back to regular in person Sunday morning meetings, and I’ve been an advocate for Zoom meetings forever from the start. I think it’s a tactical error for the church to try to force old patterns back.

  4. michinita says:

    We’re a one car family and my husband has both early and late meetings. So he bikes. I biked with our 4 children also until we started 9:00 church, and my two reluctant bikers realized that the slower they bike the later we are (and started using that to their advantage) I’ve been driving. I hate driving, and I’m not good at it. I really miss working through Sunday morning stresses with sun, wind, and cycling to arrive at church ready to worship. I won’t deny that I also appreciate that nobody asks me to pick up members on the other end of our long skinny ward boundaries as long as I’m biking to church.

  5. michinita says:

    Also, I’m 100% with you on going to church to sing.

  6. Mennoguy says:

    I am an elderly man from Canada. My ward is a half-hour drive away. I am no longer able to drive, and there are no members of the church who live nearby. I have heard that the end of zoom meetings is coming, so that will be the end of church for me. So sad.

  7. The General Handbook says bishops are allowed to approved continued broadcasts to individual members on a case by case basis.

  8. 29.7
    Streaming Meetings and Holding Virtual Meetings

    When possible, Church members should strive to attend meetings in person. However, sometimes this is not possible. Streaming and holding virtual meetings make it possible to reach those who otherwise would not be able to attend. These people may include (but are not limited to) those who:
    Live in remote locations or have limited ability to travel.

    Have physical, mental, or emotional health challenges.

    Are immunocompromised or in a care facility or hospital.

    Are essential workers or otherwise are required to work on the Sabbath.

    Care for someone who is homebound and cannot be left alone.

    Need sign-language interpretation.

    Have allergies that put their health at risk in a meeting.

    For the benefit of these members and others, the bishop may, as an exception, authorize a livestream of sacrament meetings and of funerals and weddings held in the meetinghouse. Streams allow others to see and hear a meeting remotely but not participate directly.

  9. There are several in my ward (in rural OH) that can’t get to church anymore on their own. The one in particular had to move to an assisted living outside our county. so she is in the opposite direction of basically everyone. She had been in our ward her whole life. What we did was give some volunteers an assigned week to pick her up, if they couldn’t that week they would find someone to fill in or she just wouldn’t go that week. But she was there more than not. She hasn’t been back since things have started opening up due to health reasons, but we are ready to get her when things improve. I believe they have things set up that same way for the few others that have no way to get to church also.
    there also has been a time where I wasn’t allowed to drive this past yr. (up until a few weeks ago) due to problems with my eyes. I had several members who took turns and took me to church until I was able to start driving again.
    I don’t know if this is something just in my area? I am fairly new to the church (about 3.5 yrs) and just assumed this was a normal thing.

  10. Hedgehog says:

    I don’t drive due to visual processing difficulties, and my husband hates driving. Because of that we have always considered access on foot for grocery shopping, medical centre and library, and good bus service to the city centre, when buying a home. Our first home was also just a fifteen minute walk to the chapel, and a thirty minute walk to my husband’s employment. We didn’t need a car at all for the most part, hiring one for holidays or to visit family. (I was raised in the church walking three miles to church and back twice on a Sunday before the consolidated schedule).

    When we moved to our current city, with a change to my husband’s employment, we found a home further from my husband’s employment (though within cycling distance on for the most part dedicated cycle paths), and further from church. We do now have a car, and it’s a ten minute drive to get to church.

    Our stake really doesn’t seem to like the zoom option for meetings, and started to push really very early on (last summer) for a return to normal. Our ward lagged behind most of the stake in doing that, but are finally at the point where participation via Zoom is allowed only at the discretion of the bishop. This battle between allowing people to participate in a way that works for them and insisting folks go back to how it was because they (the extroverts?) want everyone there in person, just highlights for me the degree of control freakery currently found in the church. Something I deplore.

  11. I agree it is a shame that most people have to drive to church.

    So much for bearing one another’s burdens. Many times in my life I had the privilege and honor to give people a ride to church. I love the opportunity to serve and get to know these people a little bit more than just a hi from passing in the hallway. Please consider allowing others the opportunity to serve you.

    And count me in as someone who loves to sing in church with others.

  12. My wife served her mission in south Jersey–largely rural (unlike Newark or Camden), with only basic public transit–and has an almost identical story to yours. They had an investigator without a car, but no ward volunteers willing to pick him up. In her case, the conversation in ward council never progressed beyond “Just tell him to just use the bus,” something no one in local leadership had ever used.

    So the following Sunday, to make a point, she and her companion left the car at their apartment and navigated the local bus system to church, arriving at least a half-hour late. When a Bishopric member tried to needle her with “You’re late,” she deadpanned back, “We took the bus,” which apparently shut him up. They still couldn’t get a member to give the investigator a lift, but at least no one brought up the bus system in ward council anymore.

  13. I work in data and analytics for a large corporation that uses Zoom. My team created Zoom reporting to monitor which employees used Zoom and how they were using it. (For us, we were particularly monitoring screen sharing with external participants by a few regulated employees.) I assume the church has a corporate Zoom account. If so, they could easily create monitoring to count virtual attendees. They wouldn’t know whether the virtual attendee(s) sang the hymns or fell asleep during the High Councilor’s talk, but who cares; they don’t know that for those who attend in person and they still count them as attending

  14. Bro. Jones says:

    I went to college in New England. At most our college would have 5-6 students who were members. The ward was a 30 minute drive, nowhere near a bus line, and most younger students were not allowed to have cars by the college. An older student who had a car and a kind soul personally undertook driving the rest of us to church, and harangued the ward to provide transportation for a substantial population of young Cambodian members.

    After that kind man graduated, the ward completely fumbled the transportation issue and virtually the entire student and young Cambodian groups went inactive. By the time one of the few active college students got old enough to have a car, nobody really wanted to go.

    Counterpoint: the church held institute classes at my campus, which—surprise—I could walk to. So I attended institute instead of church for 3 years.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Another point in favor of continuing the availability of zoom church is that the local unit gets to count the people watching as in attendance for budget purposes. Our in person plus zoom attendance is actually larger than our physical attendance pre-pandemic.

    (And thanks all for the great comments!)

  16. Bob&Anna says:

    I have not been back to church in person yet either. The pandemic was the initial reason but now I have an inner ear condition that has flared up and causes unpredictable moments of imbalance and/or vertigo. My husband works from home on weekends so he can’t take our small family. I have thought about asking a ward member but their church experience could be cut short at odd times due to this disease. So Zoom has been working well for me, I could even continue listening last week when I had a minor flare up during Sacrament meeting. I believe my bishop already has us under a special exception for Zoom.

    I usually only log into Sacrament meeting but I joined a 5th Sunday lesson last week and was the only one online. I have felt some quilt about that, and I am hoping I am not the only one they are setting that up for since I don’t usually attend the second meetings. (After many years in primary and a few in Young Women’s the adult classes are hard for me to adjust back to.)

    I also agree with the difficulty for introverts. I tell myself that we are there in person to get to know one another and support each other, but I find myself in the background because it all feels to awkward and stressful. (I have a newer work from home job and group meetings, when they happen, feel the same way.)

  17. Bob&Anna says:

    Correction: I joined a 5th Sunday meeting a few weeks ago.

  18. Jessica says:

    I am reading this at home while I watch church because I am home sick and I am grateful for that ability.
    Getting to church is something that is a real issue. At one point we lived in a ward where cars were limited and whenever the missionaries were teaching someone, the first questions was, “do they have car?” At least 90% of the time they did not, and ward members, who were geographically quite spread out, would be asked to pick up—this was on top of the members who were already transporting other members. As a young married couple, we were asked on several occasions and we would go out of our way to pick someone up who, most of the time, did not come to church with us. I remember the RS president in that ward saying we needed a church bus to pick up everyone who needed rides. Now that we are a family with kids who always manage to get to sacrament meeting during the opening hymn, no one asks us to help with rides anymore.

  19. The invitation if for all to “come unto Christ”. Nothing in the gospel is easy. Sacrifice is required every step of the way.

  20. Al, that’s both wrong and a harmful attitude. Plenty in the gospel is easy. And some of the stuff that’s not easy is because of institutional choices. Like, the church could absolutely have put its Chicago temple in the city of Chicago or along a bus or train route that allowed easy access both by people with cars and people without access to them. And there’s no spiritual benefit to deliberately making church stuff harder to do. And, in fact, over the last couple decades, the church has started to realize this, at least in Chicago and NY, putting new buildings in places that allow for public transit, walking, and biking.

    And, in fact, one of our obligations as church members is to ease one another’s burdens. And one way we can do that is by making church accessible, whether that means locating buildings along easy-to-access corridors or providing an online option for people who can’t otherwise show up. Failing to do that–which is an easy and low-cost solution to what is, for many people at various times, an intractable problem–isn’t somehow increasing people’s spirituality or access to Christ. It’s removing unnecessary impediments from their path.

  21. If we really cared about people we would make it as easy as possible for them to hear the message of the Gospel, i.e. ZOOM. My dad is an 84 year old recovering cancer victim. He is never going to church again. If the Church gave a damn, he would be able to access services from his home. But he’s old, so ya know, they don’t care.

  22. There are two (maybe three) themes to this article. It meanders a bit.

    If we’re talking about the logistics of “returning” to Church – there are no new logistics to consider. People are showing up as they did two years ago.

    If we’re talking from an urban planning perspective whether the Church needs to make more considerations so that meetinghouse placement aligns with transit corridors, et al, I’m all for it. Easier said than done, though, as bus lines can easily change, and real estate along transit corridors is often more expensive than something more out of the way. And as Kevin said, plenty of buses don’t even run on Sundays.

    Our VA meetinghouse is fortunately about a three-minute drive from our house, and I could certainly walk there if the situation required it. But for fun, I chose an address farther away within our ward boundaries and looked at transit options to get to the church. It’s about 30 minutes to walk and take a bus under normal circumstances, but if I change the filters to account for our Sunday 9:00 AM start time, there’s no bus, and it just requires a 45-minute walk. It’s normally about a six-minute drive.

    The larger issue is a commitment to transit in North America, in general. That commitment is not as strong as it should be. But we won’t see more transit unless we favor denser, mixed-use development, and then we get into a whole set of issues that I’m not sure the Church is interested in engaging in, despite our fascinating history with a unique form of urban planning in the early days of the Church.

  23. HokieKate says:

    That one family that lives less than 1000 feet from the church drives. But there are no sidewalks, no paved shoulders, no infrastructure to support pedestrians.

  24. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    We live in an urban area where a majority of Ward members don’t have cars. Fortunately, our building is accessible by public transportation. It’s not perfect, and Sunday bus/subway schedules still make things more difficult, but it’s possible. However, as one of the few people with a car, we are often called upon to give rides to church (elderly, investigators, those who don’t live near public transportation, …), runs to the Bishop’s Storehouse, or even lending it out to other Ward members. That often means taking our family to Church, quite early, and then turning around to go back to pick up others (and repeating this for getting home). That has even meant callings in youth programs specifically so they can be picked up and brought to weekday activities, or transportation to/from early morning seminary. We have, very seriously at times, considered selling the car. The occasional inconveniences of not having it would far outweigh avoiding the burden of having it. We would even be open to donating it to the Ward, but that doesn’t seem to be an option.

  25. I don’t attend anymore, but I live three blocks from the church building I’m assigned to. It hasn’t always been this way. We have lived all over the place and, except while in UT, church was too far to walk/bike.

    In TX our church house had a bus stop right outside the front door, but the Sunday bus schedule was such that members had to leave meetings early in order to catch the bus home. We had been asked to pick up a young investigator and bring him to church. We did every week, until he disappeared.

    In the Netherlands, public transport was readily available, but because we lived so far away from the meeting houses, it was faster/easier to drive. But there were good options for just about all members. Except parking. That was a premium.

    I think the church should invest some of it’s $200B in multi passenger vans and make it someone’s calling to shuttle those that need assistance and would like to attend in person.

  26. A1: Including the sacrifice of allowing some members to zoom

  27. I’d say this problem is going to get worse before it gets better. The average age of Church members is going to go up as the orthodox members age and the younger ones leave. I also see fewer young adults owning their own cars, at least in this midsized American city. And the ginormous Mormon families are on the wane, too, meaning fewer minivans.
    It’s a problem that could easily be solved if only we had access to billions upon billions of dollars. Oh well.

  28. John Mansfield says:

    For a taste of how things could be, my ward’s building is in the Kentlands, a development in Gaithersburg, Maryland created 30 years ago. “Kentlands was one of the first attempts to develop a community using Traditional Neighborhood Design planning techniques (also known as ‘neo-traditional new town planning’) that are now generally referred to under the rubric of the New Urbanism.” (Wikipedia)

    The developer, Joe Alfandre, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he offered the church a site to build if the Church would adhere to the community building style; if the LDS Church did not want to, then he would find some other church that would. The LDS Church took him up on placing a landmark building in a landmark neighborhood, and I suppose it is the most lovely ward meetinghouse built in the 90’s, or since then. Most drive to church meetings, but several do not. I live a couple miles away, and walk or bike now and then when everything is squared away with my children for an older son to drive the rest. That older son usually walks home. One of the nice elements of the site design is that the front of the building fronts on the street, and it is used as a front, with dozens of people milling around on the sidewalk after Sunday meetings.

    Alas, we who meet there are such ordinary Saints with the normal range of successes and shortcomings. Our lovely, well-sited building has not improved us discernably, though we sure like it, so there is not a strong case for more like it.

  29. Justagirl says:

    My option is nonsense vs. common sense. I’m a commoner.

  30. Away from the Mothership says:

    Sorry, church vans bring back memories of church branded school buses carting Bart Simpson acolytes to Sunday School for appropriate indoctrination. This can go so wrong.

    That said. I grew up in an American City where the missionaries wanted to baptize a car so they could get all the new members and investigators to church.

    I hope they keep zoom.

  31. I’ve lived a couple of places where we would start picking people up 90 minutes before church started, usually making two passes by the church. My wife, who was the YW Pres. in both, would pick up people for more than an hour before the Wednesday-night activity, have the activity, and then drive for more than an hour after the fact. To be certain, there are definitely harder things in Zion, but that got to be a serious grind after a while.

  32. Natalie says:

    A few years ago, my five-year-old child read a story in the Friend praising a family that walked ten miles or so to church because they didn’t have a car. He asked, “Why don’t the members with two cars just give them one.” I’ve never felt so proud.

  33. Kristine says:

    jimbob, I live in a ward like that now. As far as I can tell, part of the problem is that almost no one stays in the ward for more than a few years, and I suspect it’s common for young people to live in city wards like ours for grad school/residency/etc., and then move to the suburbs and never think about the problems of urban wards again. It would be a tremendous help if someone in central leadership, particularly the missionary dept., would give some thought to the kinds of strains that continuously baptizing people without transportation puts on a ward.

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