Peak Oil and the Local Church

At last weekend’s Inhabit Conference in Seattle, I had the opportunity to co-facilitate (with Brandon Rhodes) a conversation on “peak oil and place.” It was a lively and fascinating discussion. Near the end I asked a question that I also want to pose here.

Cheap fossil fuel energy has underwritten modernity and more than a century of America’s rapid economic growth. But the world’s oil resources are going into irreversible decline, and gas prices are through the roof. For this reason and others (climate change, high food prices, high debt levels), we seem to have reached “the end of growth,” in Richard Heinberg’s memorable phrase. Thus, “growth” can no longer be the practical standard by which we make decisions and judge the health of our economy and society. We need a new standard.

In the same way, cheap oil has underwritten the growth of certain types of churches. It has given people the mobility they need to commute long distances to church, given them the freedom to switch churches on a whim, and allowed church leaders to build ever-larger campuses on the outskirts of town. Peak oil is going to change this. Dynamic growth and dramatic size can no longer be the standards by which we make decisions and judge the health of a church community. We need a new standard.

Which brings me to my question: What should the standard be?

  • Kork Moyer

    The poor being with us.


    The church should be the impetus for a new gift based economy.

  • EnglewoodReviewOfBks

    The standard should be the health and flourishing of our places — i.e., how well does the church community serve to catalyze a rich and healthy local culture in its neighborhood?


    • John Pattison

      “Health” and “flourishing” were two words I had in mind as well. What I like about those two words is that they are standards and not goals. We’re not likely to ever get to the place where we can say we’ve arrived. There needs to be constant re-evaluation, an ongoing conversation.

      • EnglewoodReviewOfBks

        Well said, John!
        “constant re-evaluation, an ongoing conversation.” //Love it!

  • Aaron Klinefelter

    Agreed, Chris. I do think the question should be asked whether or not we are driven (pun intended) there by Peak Oil. I suppose I’m oddly thankful for the push that it (and higher gas prices) brings to discussions about church life. Those standards of the “health and flourishing of our places” *should* be motivating factors regardless of the price of oil.

  • Dan Benson

    I disagree with your premise. Gas prices in America have been forced higher through government policies and taxation. Enough carbon fuels exist, I’ve read, to power us for the next 300 years. I’m not against utilizing other forms of energy generation or denying that there are consequences to fossil-based fuels, I’m just saying your opening premise is flawed. “Cheap” by the way is a value judgement. How about we use the word “inflated” gas prices?

    • EnglewoodReviewOfBks

      Dan, I do agree with you that there are a host of economic factors that play into the pricing of gasoline. But there are a host of shadow costs — social (hypermobility, destruction of rural communities, etc) and environmental (spills, climate change, etc) and otherwise — that are NOT and probably will never be factored in the pricing of gasoline. It these costs that I have in mind when I talk about “cheap” oil. These are the greater costs, not the penny- and dollar-wise inflation of oil and governmental powers.

    • Brandon Rhodes

      Dan, in a $3.79 gallon of gas, $2.88 of it is the crude itself. Taxation was about $0.45. (see attached infographic…)

      Also, what regulation do you have in mind? The oil industry gets subsidies… more popularly known as corporate welfare. If anything, government intervention is keeping prices down, not up.

      You’re spot-on that there’s a lot of fossil fuels in the ground, but over 1/3 of all oil, for example, is so thick that it would take more energy to get it out of the ground than we’d actually recover. And that’s to say nothing of the diminishing returns on investment between the 50% mark and that final “not worth it” point in each oil field. Diminishing returns on investment are what pop economic bubbles and create crises and market panic.

      If anything, the basic principles of supply and demand are responsible for high oil prices. Flat-to-declining supplies in the face of an exploding human population and consumption rate (which means we’re just as responsible as our brother and sister Christians in China on this…) make the price skyrocket.

      In other words, it’s not about when we run out. That’s a LONG way off. It’s when demand permanently exceeds supply, and what we’ll do about that in the meantime.

  • Steve Vines

    While I agree with what you are saying, I think we’ve needed a new standard for quite some time. If peak oil helps us come to that conclusion then hooray but we need a new standard nonetheless. Now to answer your question I think the standard needs to be based more on impact than anything. Would the people in your community, or circle of influence, who don’t attend miss you if you were gone?

    • John Pattison

      Great points, Steve. True story: I almost went back and changed the line “we need a new standard” at the end to “a different standard.” I didn’t change it because a couple people had already posted links to the article on Facebook and one of them had actually quoted that line.

  • Scale of Life

    Seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness
    Not being conformed to the patterns of this world, but being transformed by the renewing of our minds

  • Alex

    Buy an electric car and church hop to your hearts content LOL. I hear Mars Hill is opening another Satellite Campus on the edge of town soon :-)

  • Ken Stailey

    Do not write about Peak Oil. No one wants to hear it and nobody has a clue let alone a plan. If you find yourself writing anything about Peak Oil, tear it up and write some sugar-coated nonsense instead.