Ah, yes, the suburbs. The ideal in American living. The place where life is good, where there’s no pain, no trauma, and no difficulty. Suburban life is what so many people strive for and hope to achieve. It is, in many ways, the ultimate sign of success. Oh, really?
What’s God up to in the suburbs? How is the biblical mandate of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned manifested when there don’t appear to be any hungry, naked, or imprisoned people? Are churches in the suburbs resigned to helping and serving those in the inner city? In foreign countries? Is there any place for the suburban church within the realm of God’s mission beyond simply getting bigger? Is there any relevance to a congregation in America’s suburbs outside of becoming a mega-church with an elaborate building, an enormous attendance, and an incredible budget?
I’ve served a rural church, a small town church, and have now been serving with a suburban church for thirteen years. I’m here to tell you, suburban ministry is the by far the most exhausting ministry I’ve experienced. How do you proclaim forgiveness, compassion, and service among people who cannot acknowledge they need any of those things?
And there’s the rub. I’ve come to believe the real definition of suburban life is, “the place where everyone’s life is perfect . . . except mine.” Brokenness is very real in the suburbs, it’s often just one level below the surface.
The pain that people in other walks of life experience is equally real to suburbanites. Rather than obvious homelessness, the suburbs are full of people one paycheck away from losing their homes. Rather than obvious violence, suburbanites live with revenge just slightly camouflaged–concealed just enough to avoid discussion. Not overtly racist, the suburbs often have a subdued, hidden, and unspoken racism that is just as evil, just as deadly. Divorce, sickness, death, addiction, loss, persecution, hardship are all present in the suburbs. The difference is that no one feels they can talk about these painful issues. Suburbanites deal with many of the same heartbreaks as people in other cultures of America, but do it alone. Brokenness is hidden in the suburbs. Hopelessness is dealt with in private. Loss is handled on an individual’s strength alone. And often less than successfully. Suicide, depression, despair, and loneliness are the secret curse of suburban life.
Enter the church. God has compassion for those living in pain in suburbia. Jesus died for suburbanites. The wind of the Spirit blows in the suburbs just as it does in the poorest inner city neighborhood and the most remote rural community. The suburban congregation is called to provide the very real kingdom of God compassion, care, forgiveness, and redemptive hope.
The question is, how? Suburban churches, in their attempts to reveal the kingdom of God in their neighborhoods, are often the target of ridicule for trying new ways to be part of what God is doing there. I’m the first to admit, this ridicule is far too often deserved. And yet, I have a growing concern that the body of Christ is less than forgiving of congregations that are willing to try something outside the traditional box. A recent article in my local newspaper highlighted an new, emerging inner city congregation. One member, in enthusiastically describing this congregation, said, “this is a liturgical and sacramental ministry. It’s no happy-clappy suburban church.” The implication of this and other comments was that what his congregation is doing is real ministry, as opposed to the suburbs, where the only concern is how many instruments can fit on the professionally lit stage during performance-style worship?
Granted, performance cannot be at the heart of Spirit-filled worship (and I’ll admit too often is). But implying that the quality of music and programs that exist in some suburban churches is somehow in opposition to God’s mission is narrow-minded, exclusionary, self-righteous, and just plain ignorant.
I applaud suburban ministries that dare to try revealing the reign of God in their contexts, that are brave enough to attempt to find a way to strengthen the relationships within suburban neighborhoods. Like any other congregation in any other context, we goof it up–and badly. We get full of ourselves and end up with boneheaded priorities that make for easy stereotyping. We really do need to quit that.
The struggle isn’t about form or instrumentation or lighting or size or program or budget or building. The struggle in the suburban setting is about authentic relationships. How can you proclaim good news to people for whom the expression of any need is cardinal rule-breaking? How can you establish real relationships with people who are ostracized for having their pain exposed? How do you help, walk with, and befriend those whose context prohibits them from being helped, walked with, or befriended? The struggle is exhausting.
We in the suburbs have our work cut out for us. We aren’t always able to set up a food pantry and become successful in our neighborhoods. Our ministry usually involves feeding a much deeper hunger–a hunger whose very admission is anathema. Though we get sidetracked for the sake of a successful appearance (who doesn’t?), we are part of the body of Christ. We are Word and sacrament ministries. We take very seriously the leading of the Holy Spirit in our contexts, and, though often stumbling and imperfect, manage to be used by God for real, live, authentic, missional, reign of God ministry. The kingdom of God is revealed in the suburbs, thanks be to God.