Missional in the Suburbs, part 2: Awakening to the Suburban Context

  Missional in the Suburbs is a series of posts in which I explore my thoughts about doing Great Commission ministry in American suburbia-and particularly through our church I in Lexington, KY. Part 1 is available below.       

       In a recent interview, Milfred Minatrea described the missional church as “a reproducing community of authentic disciples being equipped as missionaries sent by God to live and proclaim His kingdom in their world.”   He says that churches move that direction through the convergence of three interlocking components: the content of the gospel, the context in which the church expresses mission, and the capacity of congregational members.  

      Minatrea’s simple outline articulates the challenge before us.  There is a significant challenge in our day to the content of the gospel-even among those who claim to be evangelicals.  (Specifically, the idea of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement –that he dies to take the death penalty in the place of sinners who rightly deserve God’s wrath– is under attack by many who want to replace it with an idea of atonement as a vague victory over sin as evil.) It’s also a challenge to gauge the capacity of our congregational members, because it is shaped by their grasp of the gospel, their love for people, their unique combination of gifts and influence, and their heart to be part of God’s redemptive purposes in the world.  But at the center of the challenge is the context in which a local church expresses its mission.  There has been less work on and less thinking over that component than the other two, by far. 

      But that’s precisely the “place” that is eating our lunch.  And that’s the place where I’m finding myself doing a lot of thinking about Victory’s ministry in Lexington.

      The idea of “place” is very strong in the call of God to join His mission.  The people of Israel were given a land, with the assignment to replace pagan settlements with those who would love and follow Yahweh. (Ex.23:23-33) The land became the physical base from which they would live out their calling to impact the nations for God’s glory. (Ps.96:3) Even when the people were exiled to the city of Babylon, the Lord’s command through Jeremiah was for His people to settle in, build families, do good work– and to minister out of the context of captivity in the city. (Jer. 29:4-7). In the Great Commission, it has been well-noted that Jesus’ assignment is to make disciples “as you are going” through the traffic patterns of everyday life.  In Acts 1:8, Jesus again affirms that His call is for His people to bear witness in “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth”-each a specific place with a specific culture.  Follow Paul as he goes from place to place, adjusting his approach to make the gospel come alive in a specific place-whether profligate Corinth, intellectually arrogant Athens, secular Ephesus or simply meeting by the river with some ladies for prayer.

      We could go on, but you get the idea. The church’s gospel mission is never divorced from place.  Yes, it is always about people-precious, God-loved, Jesus-hungry, gospel-desperate people. But those people live in a place — a place that can be broadly described as urban, rural, suburban or even rurban.  They live in a community with certain dynamics, priorities, relationships, needs, struggles-even architecture and style. And since people cannot really be separated from their place, that is the context for our mission.

      Now here is where things really start to get interesting.  Some powerful work has been done to outline the contours of the missional context for a church in the city, especially one near the city center.  Ray Bakke, Tim Keller, Taylor Field and Erwin McManus to an extent, have led the way here. There’s a unique vibe in the city, with the crush of people and their culture-shaping power as centers of arts, education, media and more.  That’s why the North American Mission Board designates strategic focus cities for the Southern Baptist Convention.  (Right now, it’s Cleveland, Baltimore and San Diego)

      In the same way, attention has been given to the unique challenge of rural areas and small towns-especially in the Plains states and the West.  My friend Morgan Medford serves in North Dakota, where there may be only a handful of evangelical churches spread over hundreds of square miles.  The economics, community dynamics and spiritual receptors there are distinct from people in the city-and call for a different approach. The same thing is true for churches in the far eastern and western sections of Kentucky.

      But it seems to me that there has been a remarkable lack of attention given to how the unique cultural context of the suburbs impacts our ministry to reach the people who live there.  Over the past 40 years or so, the shape of our metropolitan areas has been refashioned to reflect the remarkable growth of residential neighborhoods in the suburbs.  Usually, the development of schools follows.  So, many of the people who work in the hospitals, law offices, schools and businesses in the core of the city actually live in the suburbs. As those neighborhoods grow, a number of malls, strip malls, “big box” stores, fast-food franchises and Blockbusters spring up in their wake.   In time, increasing numbers of people stay behind an imaginary line-everything in their life happens in the ‘burbs.  And sort of like Vegas, what happens in the suburbs, stays in the suburbs.

     The suburbs have developed a certain style and lifestyle, along with unique community dynamics, economics and spiritual receptors.  All of that has a remarkable impact on how Christians who live there think about themselves and their lives as followers of Jesus. Obviously, it also affects far-from-God people and how they respond to Christians and the gospel message.

     That conglomeration of factors and values is as unconscious to suburbanites as water surrounding a fish.  It is the atmosphere of life, a worldview.   

      So, what are the cultural values that shape the suburbs-and the people who live there?  I have some ideas, but I’d be interested to know what you think.


One response

  1. David – Somehow I stumbled across this series of posts; thanks for your missional thinking about suburbia. I’m encouraged that more people are paying attention to the importance of suburban contexts. Urban ministry pioneers like Bakke and Keller have rightly said that transforming the city leads to transforming the whole culture, and that’s increasingly true of suburban ministry, now that more people live in suburbia than cities and small towns combined.

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