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 1-3 are available below.
On vacation this past week, I’ve spent some time exploring St. Louis. It is a classic old river town, with deep history, old neighborhoods, old architecture, flourishing arts, vibrant universities-and an astonishing grasp of public space. Of course, there are the areas around the Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals, my childhood team, play. Then there’s Forest Park– larger than New York’s Central Park, with thousands of acres of green space with ponds and fountains, plus forest land, bike trails, a golf course, tennis courts, an art gallery, science center and planetarium, history museum, and the MUNY-the nation’s largest outdoor theatre.
But there are many more parks in St.Louis-small ones, large ones, mini ones. It also seems that in every available space, there a flower garden with a group of benches and tables, a fountain surrounded by cobblestones, or one of a whole bunch of sidewalk cafes not named Starbucks. Even more fascinating, there are many neighborhoods-some established, others revitalizing–each with its unique vibe and noticeable style. There’s University City, the Delmar Loop, the downtown Arts area and Benton Park, where my good friends Laura & Warren live.
It occurs to me that much of the urban mission context is defined by external factors. The physical space defines the community around it-and shapes its values. That’s why fast-food franchises find it difficult to gain a foothold in revitalized St. Louis neighborhoods; the values favor a locally-owned café in a restored storefront run by someone with roots in the community.
Now, as we saw in the last post in this series, physical space also shapes suburban mission context, but in a very different way. There, fast-food franchises do find fertile ground there precisely because they reflect prevailing suburban values. .
The same suburban values we named earlier (cleanliness & order, newness, safety & control, uniformity, activity and materialism) are reflected in the suburban architecture, style and the lifestyles of many who live there. As others in this Ponder Anew conversation have pointed out, there are other suburban values like privacy, excellence, immediate gratification, competition and comfort. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to connect those values (control with privacy, gratification with materialism, etc.) There really does seem to be a kind of web that spins these values across suburbia. So, values flow outward into lifestyle.
Now, the question comes-what do these values say about the soul of the people who live there? Because in the same way that external, public space defines a community or even a diverse group of people (witness the current uproar from 9/11 families over moving the memorial service a few blocks away from Ground Zero), the internal, private space of a soul defines a community, group of people-or a church desperate to reach them.
Suburban values display suburban souls. So, a suburban person firmly committed to newness may be giving outward evidence of a soul that is fearful of the decline of life-and death. Cleanliness and order show a soul warding off the unpredictability of life. The value of safety and control reveals a soul bent on self-preservation, as well as a commitment to the sovereignty of me. Uniformity shows a soul that wants to please others and find some acceptance. Activity equates doing with being. And materialism shows a soul consumed with now-rarely placing life in context of eternity.
This-and more-is the internal space shaping the lives of suburbanites. It is rife with fear and unnamed desperation. As if something is just out of reach. People in the suburbs have a longing for something- anything-else. Or to use Donald Miller’s poignant phrase, they are “searching for God knows what”. And that is of course, precisely the point. God knows what, but they don’t, and we Christians are set in the middle of them, on mission to love, befriend, listen and engage them with the gospel of Jesus.
So…why is that so hard for us? There are a number of challenges on the “receiver” end of the process; how the far-from-God suburbanite encounters Christians and the gospel. We’ll get to that. But first, there are significant issues to address on the “sender” end of the process.
This may be the toughest challenge for missional ministry in the suburbs: to recognize that evangelical Christians who live there are just as prone to be shaped and defined by suburban values as our far-from-God neighbors. Our internal, eternal soul-space may not be dramatically different. Thus our values may not be dramatically different. So, our actions, behaviors, choices may not be dramatically different. Why?
In David Goetz’ fascinating book Death By Suburb, he asserts that suburban living can kill your soul. He says that life there is “thin”, missing the thickness of eternal, God-centered awareness-for those who already claim to know Him. “The suburbs tend to produce inverse spiritual cripples. Suburbia is a flat world, in which the edges are clearly defined and the mysterious ocean is rarely explored.” He notes the many spiritual growth opportunities provided by his suburban church, but says, “I can’t shake the image of the inverse cripple with a bloated, tiny soul. Perhaps that’s one of the effects of comfortable suburban living. Too much of the good life ends up being toxic, deforming us spiritually….should it be any surprise that the true life in Christ never germinates?”
Let’s pursue this one step further. Goetz changes the image and notes that “we use…very little of the bandwidth for our God-consciousness…For those of suburban Christian faith, developing the capacity for spiritual consciousness tends to be the forgotten frontier.” When churches take on the same values as the culture that surround them ( order, newness, activity, etc.) it is difficult to grow spiritually “thicker”. It takes intentional and intensive spiritual work to regain that sort of spiritual awareness. Goetz joins a long line of writers (Willard, Foster, Whitney, Ortberg, Peterson) who suggest that the best way to regain that sort of thick, eternal perspective is through the ancient spiritual disciplines. Those habits, when pursued faithfully, train the soul towards Christ-centered values. Or, to use the language we have been using, they design the landscape of our inner space to foster our relationship with God.
Creating such inner space, pursuing spiritual formation, is not the norm for suburban evangelical churches. To move that direction is in fact, counter-cultural. It is counter to the surrounding suburban culture. But it is the first step to having a misisonal impact on our friends.
Cities plan parks & fountains, plant flowers and set benches to create a sense of public space that fosters community. It’s a place for friends to meet. Perhaps it would do well for suburban churches to help our people intentionally develop an inner space that is saturated with eternity. Then, we could invite our friends to join us there.