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Distance not factor for some

2002-04-27
By Bobby Ross Jr.
The Oklahoman

When Stan Diffendaffer found a church he liked, he didn't care how far he had to drive.

A plumber by trade, Diffendaffer has lived his entire 43 years in Rocky, a Washita County farming community about two hours west of Oklahoma City.

But every weekend, Diffendaffer, his wife, Beth, and their children, Derek, 18, and Sammy Jo, 12, make a 240-mile round-trip. The reason: to attend worship services at a metro-area megachurch.

Diffendaffer first visited Life Church -- where 6,000 worshippers flock to seven Saturday night and Sunday morning services -- after seeing a television report about it.

"I told my wife, 'They've got to be a place that has good music and good teaching,'" he said. "The first time we walked in there, it was just like coming home."

And the family kept returning, week after week.

"We've got one guy who comes in two or three times a month from Kansas City," Life Church pastor Craig Groeschel said. "It's just crazy to me."

But he added, "I think when people connect with God for the first time or in a special way, then distance just really doesn't matter much."

Spiritual hunger

To be sure, most people worship not far from home.

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey, funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, polled more than 300,000 worshippers in 2,000 congregations. Half said the trip takes less than 10 minutes. Eighty-eight percent can travel from home to their house of worship in less than 20 minutes, according to the findings released this month.

Still, researchers say the age of commuting has made people more willing to drive farther to church.

Throughout the 1990s, an increasing proportion of regular worship participants commuted more than 15 minutes to services, the Hartford Institute for Religious Research found.

"Religious community is increasingly less equal to residential community," the institute reported.

In his 2001 book, "What Have We Learned?," nationally known church consultant Lyle Schaller echoed that view: "The longer the journey to work, the easier it is for people to accept a journey of five to 10 to 15 miles to church."

Groeschel agreed.

"People are willing to drive farther to go to a lot of things, to take their kids to a school they want, to go to a movie theater that has better seats," he said.

So why not to find a worship setting that feeds their personal spiritual hunger?

Meeting needs

A few years ago, Cheryl Payne started driving each Saturday from Stillwater to Oklahoma City to take Hebrew classes at the Kehilat Rosh Pinah Cornerstone Congregation, a Messianic Jewish synagogue. It's a two-hour round-trip.

"About a year after I started that, they stopped having the Hebrew classes," said Payne, who was raised in the Church of Christ. "I realized that I was not coming just for the Hebrew class. I was coming for the fellowship with the people and what they stood for."

A lifelong Southern Baptist, Cheryl Jones said she became disillusioned with her denomination's conservative stances on women's roles.

So, she was pleased when she discovered the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City -- a moderate congregation that last year severed ties with the Southern Baptist Convention.

But to understand what it took for Jones to make it to Sunday school by 9:30 a.m., consider her starting point: her home in Miami in northeastern Oklahoma.

That's a three-hour drive -- each way.

"I'd leave Miami by 6 o'clock ... and go to Sunday school and worship service," she said.

"As soon as it was over, I'd get in my car and, on my way out of town, go through the McDonald's drive-through."

After falling in love with the church, the college English professor began asking God to help her find a job in the metro area. This past summer, she was hired as associate dean of the humanities division at Rose State College in nearby Midwest City.

As a result, her church commute is much shorter.

Similarly, Al and Ruby Thalman have put their home on the market as they look to move closer to their church.

The semi-retired couple moved to Newcastle after 10 years in Colorado. At 30 miles each way, their three or four trips a week to Putnam City Baptist Church can become a holy gas guzzler.

"We visited about four churches, but we didn't find one as Bible-centered as this one," Ruby Thalman said. "We just didn't feel like the teaching was as good."

But the distance makes it difficult for them to help with ministries such as the church food pantry.

"If we lived five miles from the church, we could," Ruby Thalman said.

The Diffendaffers, on the other hand, have no plan to leave Rocky -- except to praise God.

Life Church's contemporary praise songs, laid-back atmosphere and straight-out- of-everyday-life sermons make the weekly pilgrimages worthwhile, Stan Diffendaffer said.

"One thing, whenever you go away from there, you always leave feeling like you could have used a little more, rather than going away thinking it went too long," he said.

"I feel like they have real answers for real problems. I think it should be called Real Life Church, actually."

Groeschel said he'd make two arguments.

"One, if you're growing closer to God and a church is helping you do that, then it's worth any distance you drive," he said. "The second argument is that if there is a local church that does help you, I'd recommend a local church, simply because it's easier to develop relationships and be involved."

Religion Editor Bobby Ross Jr. can be reached by e-mail at rross@oklahoman.com or by calling 475-3480.

Copyright 2002, The Oklahoman


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