This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Mission to Suburbia.

            The church has to stop thinking of suburbia as prime real estate for church growth.  After over a century of mission, suburbia has become a very difficult context in which to follow, and encourage others to follow, Jesus Christ.           
            The expansion of the church into suburbia in the first half of the 20th century turns out to have sprawled townships wide… and only about a millimeter deep.  It really exploded for just one generation, that of the men returning from World War II.  But their church-going habit did not get passed to their kids, the Boomers.  Successive generations continued this drift away from the church.  Now in the second decade of the 21st century, the church must realize that suburbia is a very challenging mission field.
            Church officials still look at new developments of condos, tract-housing, or large “McMansions,” and imagine that any conventional church nearby will automatically thrive by the usual quantitative measurements.  That may have been the case fifty or sixty years ago, when these kinds of places were filled with young families looking for churches.  But the few people who fit that mold today have mostly already found their church homes.  Everyone else, that is, everyone who isn’t in a family-with-young-children and seeking a church, which is to say most of the people by far, are not going to be interested in, much less attracted to, the church down the road.  Suburbia is littered with failed and declining churches.
            One way to make a church in this environment thrive according to the standard measurements is to play to the market and give people what they want.  Hence, many churches are not shy about their embrace of causes, practices, worship styles, and attitudes they assume will be popular with most suburbanites.  Even this once famously effective mega-church strategy now shows signs of losing steam.
            An increasing number of people living in suburbia now see churches in a negative light.  There was a time when having a house of worship in the neighborhood was considered a plus.  But judging from the resistance churches now attract when they try to build or expand, many suburban residents view churches as a nuisance.  We have to get through our heads and into our actions that much of suburbia is now indifferent, or actually hostile, to Jesus, his message, and his church.
            The mission of the church in suburbia, as in any other place, is to witness to the love of God by following Jesus.  But discipleship in suburbia looks particularly subversive and eccentric.  Therefore, it will take significantly more discipline, intentionality, and courage to undertake mission in suburbia than we have ever imagined.
            Jesus’ life and message stand in stark contrast to the values and practices that often define the suburban context.
            - Where suburbia values individualism and independence, Jesus comes to establish a new community of mutual dependence, accountable to him. 
            - If suburbia is often about affluence, Jesus exemplifies simplicity and selfless generosity. 
            - Jesus’ would have his followers not be anxious about acquiring and keeping material things.  But gaining and protecting a “treasure on earth” is important for many in suburbia (Matthew 6:19-21, 24-34). 
            - Jesus’ call to work in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the alien challenges the suburban economic homogeneity.
            - In suburbia, forests and farms are wiped away for the sake of houses, highways, and malls.  Jesus, on the other hand, would have us walk lightly on the earth, generate less waste, and appreciate untamed environments.
            - If suburbia thinks of itself as a meritocracy, Jesus preaches the boundless, unmeritable grace of God. 
            The church in suburbia is called to be an alternative community.  It will witness to and express a lifestyle that is often contrary to what prevails.  It will necessarily undertake practices profoundly different from, and indeed perceived as critical of, what is considered normal.

            Of course, no people, and no region, is outside of the reach of God’s grace.  There are segments of the suburban population that could be nutrient-rich soil for the good news of God’s love in Jesus.
1.            First of all, we find many lonely, hurting people in suburbia.  The suburban lifestyle can be isolated and isolating.  This is not necessarily healthy for human beings.  There are casualties.  Therapists abound.  Many in suburbia seek healing and deeper community.  That’s why Twelve-Step groups draw such large numbers. 
            Jesus’ mission will benefit from presenting him as the healer he was, and showing how his community remains a place for real healing in his name. 
2.            We also discover, sprinkled among the population, a certain percentage who are open to spiritual practices.  Suburbia has many who would define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  Yoga, Tai Chi, and assorted martial arts are popular.  While they appeal at first as techniques for improving physical health and well-being, a spiritual element is inextricably embedded in most of them.  Suburbia is fertile ground for things like holistic medicine and organic gardening.  It is not a majority of the people, by any means, who are into this sort of thing.  But there are spiritual seekers in suburbia.  Right now they are listening to voices and learning philosophies and practices from other parts of the world.  Without disrespecting these traditions, we have to present Jesus as one of these voices and show why he, and his philosophy and practices, may be beneficially followed.  Jesus and other faiths are not mutually exclusive.
            Suburbia may therefore be receptive to exploring the “mystical” heart of Christianity: things like Taize worship, meditation, labyrinth walks, spiritual discussion groups, and “emergent” liturgies, may readily take root.   
3.            People in suburbia tend to be educated.  Many are open-minded, informed, thoughtful, humanistic, and aware of the larger world.  We should not downplay the intellectual integrity of our faith, but demonstrate how following Jesus’ teachings is essential for bringing justice and peace into our lives. 
            On the other hand, educated people are often likely to have reason for a particularly negative view of the historical church.  They see the image of Christians portrayed in the media as violent, hysterical, hypocritical, and bigoted.  This fits with what is often taught about Christianity in secular universities, where the focus is on things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and religious wars. 
            We need to acknowledge this history and honestly admit the awful atrocities that have been committed in Jesus’ name.  But at the same time we should strenuously separate ourselves from that foul part of our tradition.  The church has always had a mystical, contemplative, social-justice, inclusive, and healing side;
every age has had Christians who actually sought to follow Jesus.  This is the spirit we want to embody today.
4.            Suburbia is becoming more multi-cultural.  The percentage of suburbanites who are Asians, Latinos, Africans, and African-Americans is increasing, as is that of people who practice other religions, like Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism.  While this aggravates the xenophobia and racism of some, many in suburbia are coming to know these “different” people as friends, neighbors, coworkers, and in-laws.  We should emphasize our witness to Jesus as one who welcomed aliens by reaching out in inclusion, conversation, and celebration of different voices in our midst.  Highlighting interfaith activities and conversations would be one way to do this.
            A largely invisible and underestimated class of “support” people also exists in suburbia: like housekeepers, nannies, gas station attendants, security guards, health care providers, and landscapers.  Many of these folks are non-European in extraction.  The church is compelled by Jesus’ example to locate and befriend these people.  Some of them “live in;” many commute to work from somewhere else.  Ministry with these folks should be an essential aspect of the church’s mission. 
5.            There are some good “secular” people in suburbia.  We should partner with those who coach soccer, serve on civic committees, collect for the Cancer Society, give to disaster relief, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, go on work trips with churches, and so forth.  Anyone who follows Jesus even a little, even without explicitly acknowledging him, is the ally and friend of his people.  Jesus himself said, “Anyone who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50).
6.            Finally, we may find invisible sub-groups in suburbia which could be open to hearing and living the good news of Jesus.  Disabled people, different tribes of young people, non-traditional families, Gays, empty-nesters, etc., etc., have particular  spiritual needs and desires.  The church needs to be imaginative and open its eyes to who is really here and find ways to welcome and journey with them.
            All these people put together may not be most of the population in suburbia; but they are enough to form small, healthy, and vibrant communities of serious and active disciples of Jesus Christ.  Jesus called his disciples leaven (Matthew 13:13): a small cadre of activists who influence the whole society in a positive way.  This more subversive and subtle approach may be the way to undertake a faithful and effective mission to suburbia.


Beloved Spear said...

I think that another factor in how we view suburbia needs to be that suburbia is unsustainable. We'd be reaching out to build communities in a place that...well...just isn't going to be around in fifty years. The patterns of life that are structured around internal combustion and the automobile will not survive the end of the fossil fuel era. Which, as our mutual friend Mr. Shuck used to go on and on about, is coming to an end.

The exurbs will eventually die. The inner burbs may live, but with a higher density and a greater focus on doing things locally. Driving 50 miles roundtrip to a Jesus MegaCenter may not seem like quite the good idea when gas is $7.50 a gallon.

Paul Rack said...

Good point. Although if we continue to siphon money to rich people as we are doing they could afford it.