The Peak Oil Church

I had never heard of Peak Oil Theory until I started reading Rod Dreher’s blog at Crunchy Con .   He’s a tree-hugging, granola conservative that has started to make this pro-life, green Democrat think I might be more Crunchy than I want to admit.   Mr. Dreher has a few pet interests that he very persuasively puts forward, peak oil among them.  Peak oil theory has been around since the 50’s and envisions a scenario where the production of oil has maxed out the bell curve of consumption – and we’re now on the slip-n-slide ride to hell.   Falling oil production + economic instability + rising consumption = world economic collapse.  Cheerful.

I was 11 at the start of  the Arab Oil Embargo in ’73 and clearly remember the national hysteria, long gas lines and solemn vows to end our dependence on foreign oil and switch to alternative energy sources.  Well, that lasted, oh, about as long the popularity of crocheted maxi-skirts and mood rings.  

This time seems different though.  Maybe it’s because I’m older, have children of my own, and think their future seems, at best, incredibly complex; at worst, hopelessly screwed.  And, I cannot get over the feeling that I’m living through a time that is a turning point in history.    The words “meltdown”, “total economic collapse”, “depression” sound apocalyptic to my ears.  It could easily become overwhelming to live day-to-day with the knowledge that our lives are on the brink – the brink of what?  These unknown changes will effect every corner of our lives, even the practice of our religion.  Add the current bailout crisis to this mix and you’d either have to be an incredibly perky optimist or a heavy drinker.

Picture the scenario of $300 or even $500/barrel oil.   (Impossible you say?  Read what Matt Simmons has to say about this at Fortune Magazine).   I’m still naive enough to think that Americans are so addicted to their cars they’ll find some cheap, clean energy substitute.  That isn’t going to happen overnight though.  Those of us living today are going to be the generation that played cards and sipped champagne while the Titanic sank.  We’re still trying to live our normal suburban lives, but I think we’ll be feeling the icey water of reality soon enough. 

What will be the picture of the Peak Oil church, specifically, smaller, more spread out churches that  draw their congregants from a geographic area requiring commutes of 10, 15 or even 20 miles?  In our parish, I would estimate the average commute is more than 8 miles, with many folks coming from distances close to 20 miles.  We even have one parishioner that drives from near Houston, Texas. That’s 175 miles each week! You don’t think $8 per gallon gas is going to change her church-going habits?

This is the reality that clergy, parish councils and national church organizations must reckon with even now.  I am a member of a parish  council and we’ve already heard the quandary of our parishioners who want to be in church for mid-week feast day services or special events, but just can’t afford the gas.   We’re located in an area of town that is not accesible by reasonable bus routes or anything requiring less than two transfers.   This is a commuter church, and I suspect many churches are in the same boat.  The days of the local, neighborhood church serving the needs of residents within walking distance disappeared years ago.  The suburbanization that killed the local church is now going to affect the commuter church in the same way.

Will this change the attendance and tithing levels at our churches?  Absolutely.  Will our children attend youth events regularly?  Not likely.   Will there be weekday bible study classes for stay-at-home moms and seniors?  Fat chance.  What about Sunday?   Sunday may become the only viable service and folks will make the sacrifice to attend that one weekly service.  But for Orthodox Christians and other faiths oriented around a sacred, year round cycle of services, one Sunday, however important, isn’t enough.   Orthodox Christian worship doesn’t even begin on Sunday.  It begins the night before with Vespers and confession.  What does it mean to our faith when economics dictate our participation in the life of the Church?  God help us if we ever get to the point of “attending” online worship services.  There goes the entire meaning of what it means to worship as a sacramental community.  Christ did not say “where two or three are virtually gathered in my name”.  

So what is the solution to the Peak Oil Church?  I’m sorry if read this far with the idea that I was smart enough to actually have an answer.  I think at this point we can speculate but the vision of the future cannot be completely understood while the pieces are still in play.   We know change is coming and it will probably be even worse than we can expect.   The only certainty I have is that the Church will survive.  The Gospel of Christ is unchanging, and that is a comfort when so little else seems to offer  hope.

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