Missional in the Suburbs, part 3: Deciphering 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  in Lexington, KY. Parts 1 & 2 are available below.  

          I have a number of missionary friends serving in diverse places around the world.  But in every case, the beginning of their service was the same.  In Fargo, North Dakota, they had to get acclimated to the winter, grasp the Lutheran background to every moment, and the role of pubs in the culture.  In Papua New Guinea, they had to adjust to tropical heat and learn the unique rhythms of tribal life.  In the French Alps near Albertville, they had to learn the language and the art of relating to the skeptical French mind. In Kamloops, BC, they had to learn the international flavor of a Canadian university town where people build their lives around the outdoors. In short, every one of my missionary friends had to learn the language, culture, customs and lifestyle of their new home. As missionaries, they discipline themselves to maintain an external focus, and make the necessary adjustments to engage the people they want to reach.  .

       For some reason, that perspective is often resisted-consciously and unconsciously – in local church ministries in Lexington and other places.  Making personal and practical adjustments in order to reach far-from-God people is what missionaries do “over there”. But many times in our local settings here, we completely reverse that approach — and expect the adjustments and understanding to flow from the non-Christian to the Christian. Here’s the unspoken attitude: “We Christians are really the natives here; it’s all those sorry pagans who need to adjust, connect with us, come to our hang-outs (churches), and learn our language.”  That sort of heart is the death of the missionary impulse.  It is the poisonous root shriveling thousands of plateaued and declining evangelical churches.

       The missional church seeks to recover the palpable heartbeat of the missionary at the core of the local church. To refocus the vision of the church externally and look at our context with a missionary’s eyes. 

       So, if I look at the ministry context in which Victory Baptist Church ministers, what do I see? Certainly, a lot of the things that mark Lexington in general mark us as well. We are in a university town & college town, with a relatively high education level in the population.  We enjoy a healthy economy and a mix of white-and-blue-collar jobs, including a lot in the health care and financial areas. There’s an intriguing arts scene and varied sports opportunities-even when it’s not basketball season!   Our city was just named one of the top five places in the nation for young singles to live.  Then there’s the breathtaking beauty and tradition of the horse farms. There are a lot of interesting aspects to our community.

       But Lexington is also increasingly a suburban city.  We do have an interesting city center, with businesses, arts venues and a growing number of loft condominiums.  However, my guess is that the majority of our people live on the suburban edge-which in many ways is indistinguishable from Denver, Baltimore, Albequerque or Montgomery. Of course, that’s where our church building is located. It’s also where our church is-the people, that is. As I’ve already noted, most of our people live, go to school, and shop in the suburbs.

           So, what values mark the suburban context?  When you look around, what are the dominant and defining factors of the lifestyle in which most of us are submerged every day? As I look around the suburbs of Lexington where I live, I see values of….

                 + cleanliness & order – The suburbs are all about clean. Clean cars (wax on, wax off), clean yards (mow, edge, plant), clean streets (sweepers), and more.  Trash containers are expected to be back behind your house by the end of the day. The Container Store reminds us that there is a place for everything-and everything needs a place.

                + newness – The suburbs love the feel of “new”. New houses and subdivisions.  New stores. A new Pizza Hut.  And if it’s not new, it needs to be refurbished, remodeled, given a paint job, or something.

            + safety & control- Suburbs are built on the reputation of safety and distance from the crime and perceived threats of the inner city.  ADT security signs are tucked into the plant beds in front yards. ( Does that really deter a thief?) Streets are well-lit.  Even cars have alarms.  Orkin will put a pest barrier around the house.  But even more, there is a sense that given enough money, devices and subscription services, I can control my environment, I can develop a sort of personal filter system that prevents me from having to deal with anything remotely messy or threatening.

           + uniformity  -Drive through some areas of our suburbs, rise to the top of a ridge and look around.  You will see houses spreading out in all directions-and they all look identical. Check out the parking lot at the mall-and you’ll get lost in rows of blue SUV’s. Listen to the pleas of young students as they shop for back to school clothes or the backpack just like all the other kids have. At least from the outside, creativity and originality is suppressed and sameness is celebrated.

            + activity Have you ever tried to keep up with the schedule of the average suburban family with children? It takes calendars on the fridge, entries in Outlook, reminders from your Blackberry-and that’s just for the kids!!  The level of planned activities-year-round sports leagues, dance lessons, cheerleading, tutoring for college-entrance exams – is exhausting.  And that’s on top of school work-and maybe even something at the church. 

            + materialism: People in the suburbs love stuff. There’s one sure indicator: the average size of a suburban house (so-called mini-mansions, or suburban castles) has increased by hundreds of  square feet.  But here’s what I find most fascinating: most two car garages don’t house a car. The cars are in the driveway.  Garages are full of stuff that wouldn’t fit inside the house.  And one of the nation’s growth industries?  Self-storage garages.  

            + success: Finally, there is great emphasis placed on achievement. It can begin with getting in the best preschool. Then, there’s the pressure of athletic achievement – club soccer, all-star softball, and traveling swim teams.  Academics can be the same sort of grind. Then come the other markers.  Promotions at the office or factory. Opening your own business.  Having a vacation get-a-way. The energy and money spent on image maintenance is astonishing.

      That’s not all, but it’s a remarkable picture of a specific lifestyle that shapes many of the people we are trying to reach. This is the language of their heart, the atmosphere in which they live, the customs that shape their days.  It is their culture.

            And if we’re going to reach these precious people, we have to get there through that culture.  Remember-” become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some….all for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23)  It is the only way.

       Just two key questions: What – and how–does the gospel of God in Jesus speak to people immersed in that culture? Grace can be hard for the self-sufficient to hear-and even harder for them to believe. 

       And how does a suburban person, leaning into these values, hear these words: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.  For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits his soul?” (Luke 9:23-25)

            Delivering that message to people in Lexington’s suburban context is our church’s missional challenge.  Destinies depend on it.

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4 responses

  1. I’m thankful to Father God for giving you just the right word pictures to describe the opportunities that are “ripe for the picking” with regard to Victory’s ministry in suburbia. So many of us, for so long, have known with certainty that we are where we are (geographically and historically) because of Divine plan and Kingdom purpose. Even our individual life experiences, some of which are so painful that we desperately wonder why they were our lot, take on new meaning and value because they have equipped us to reach others who may be struggling with the same issues, yet without faith in Christ, His saving grace and sustaining power. I agree that the self-sufficient and those most successful in the world’s appraisal find it particularly hard to hear about and embrace grace; yet even they–or perhaps especially they–desperately need to recognize God’s love for them and His yearning to move and act in their lives. The scope of our task to reach them could be completely daunting, were it not for the sure knowledge that our call is for simple daily steps in obedience to power and wisdom far beyond ourselves. Here is where my “cultural education” starts–reaching beyond my introverted nature that could be content to sit on the sidelines and watch–or occasionally cheer the team on–as the action unfolds before my eyes. As we learn to follow those little promptings that come, and just simply interact with those with whom we journey along the course of a day, we see divine appointments where we would least expect them.

  2. […] David Head continues his “Missional in the Suburbs” series. I’ll be preaching at David’s church, Victory Baptist, in Lexington, on July 29th. Posted by: Michael Spencer @ 4:46 pm | Trackback | Permalink […]

  3. Love the post and blog!

    For my two cents, I’d add “privacy” to your list of values. The more affluent a society is, the more privacy — or, at least, the illustion of it — becomes valued, I think.

    I think all of these values serve as opportunities to “stick out”. Just try NOT being hurried, having enough time to care about your neighbors, *not* being private, driving older, or fewer cars, etc. — it’s positively shocking to people.

    We’ve noticed our neighbors are blown away that we’re not more stressed-out, not over-scheduled, we’re home a lot, etc. The degree of shock almost can’t be understated. We’ve only recently realized how closely we’re being watched.

  4. My wife and I were denied the opportunity to be short term foreign missionaries because we had been married for too short a time when we applied. And yet, we felt sure of God’s call to mission work. It took several years before we realized that God had planted us right in the middle of Lexington. The last 20 years has been spent as planters and we are praying for a huge harvest – may God grant a great harvest through His vision to the people at Victory. And may God use our church to reach those far from God during their times of brokenness, and their quest for something much more than “chasing after”.

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