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 1-4 are available below.
At a very basic level, it can be said that the worldwide economy is built on the interplay of supply and demand. Products and services are provided to meet the demand of the marketplace. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Advertisers and marketers make billions of dollars using a combination of creativity and psychology to develop a sense of “need” in people’s minds. So, after a series of ads, celebrity endorsements, funny commercials and catchy songs, people feel they really “need” a certain product – whether an air freshener, an MP-3 player, some brand of tortilla chips or a new car. Even more diluted is the distinction between “needs” and “wants”.
So, especially in the United States and Europe, people are accustomed to thinking of themselves as consumers. They are immersed in the world of needs and wants, of products and services. They are used to considering a product, deciding if it matches their needs or desires, and having the final say if their resources will be spent to get it. Consumers make or break products and companies.
The suburban church is not immune from the consumer culture. The people around us are immersed in it. The people in our churches are immersed in it. Many of the suburban values we mentioned earlier (comfort, security, materialism, etc.) are evidenced by acquiring certain products or services.
Here’s the challenge: Apart from some very careful, intentional thoughtfulness, the evangelical church and the gospel message may become just another item on the buffet of products and services spread for suburban people. In the pile of mail on the kitchen table, there is an announcement of openings in a new Pilates class, a discount on teeth whitening from the dentist, the community college adult education schedule for the fall-and an invitation to the church down the street. And inevitably, the church ad uses much of the same language as the others — “New! Exciting! For the whole family! Quality!– and my favorite – “relevant!”.
This is the natural end result of the church growth movement. Everything was focused on supply and demand. Only it was reversed to mean “demand and supply”. In other words, churches were encouraged to do market research and find out what people in their communities wanted in a church. The Willow Creek and Saddleback questionnaires became the marketing strategy of choice for so many. (Never mind that both were done for a suburban church planting, not church retooling, process.) One of the key questions to unchurched people was, “If you were to attend a church, what sort of church would you attend?” Those answers then became the strategy for designing everything from public services to music to preaching to children’s programming to the color of the walls and the design of the facility (not too churchy, more like the mall). We give them what they say they need.
I think it is significant that those movements were born out of the Boomer generation, perhaps the most consumeristic of all. And though Willow has made significant shifts in their approach in the past three years, the allure of a church “tapping the market” remains. And it must be said that in most instances, it is motivated by a genuine desire to reach and make connections with far-from-God people. Many consumer-driven churches will quote Paul, “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor.9:22) as a reminder to do whatever it takes to enter the world of the secular person. But when the church shapes itself by the stated needs and desires of the people in the suburbs, it may be merely pandering to the exact same values that are already rampant in the suburbs. And those values are relentlessly secular-not concerned with God at all, but with polishing life in the here and now. Why? “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” (Rom. 8:5,7) It is the natural flow of their life.
But here’s the thing: if values are avenues to the heart, and what the church says merely confirms the values that are already present in people…why should they listen to a message of life change like the gospel? If everything we say is simply about making life better in the same direction a suburban person is already headed – better family, stronger finances, upward career path, comfortable and safe living, great opportunities for children, etc. – then they are not tuned to hear anything about a life oriented around something or Someone else. It leans hard into what Scripture predicts about ” a time coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Tim. 4:3-4) Adopting a consumer approach to suburban ministry makes it very difficult to talk about the things that evangelicals say are the most important things of all.
So, is there an alternative for evangelical churches that long to impact suburban hearts? Yes-and it has been right in front of us all the time. The alternative is to lead with the gospel of Jesus rather than the needs of people. That sounds backwards, I know, but hang with me.
Suburban values often become the central and defining reality in the lives of people in suburbia. So, they are really nothing less than idols of the heart, taking the place that rightly belongs to God alone. In the last post of this series I noted, “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.” Fear, unpredictability, control, search for meaning, desperate clinging to now-are all soul-level issues that will never be dealt with by more of the same. They must be challenged-with truth, love and the power of a superior reality.
The truth, love and power of the gospel is the only hope for the precious people of the suburbs. The gospel is that superior reality– more beautiful, true, lasting than anything else. It gives us not what we think we want, but what we actually need. When Paul said he was committed to be all things for all people, his conclusion was ‘I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Cor.9:23) Evangelical churches must, simply must, rediscover the extensive, practical, life-shaping wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When that gospel is applied to the hearts of suburban people, fear is cast out (1 John 4:18), security is gained (John 10:28), death is replaced with life (John 5:24), materialism’s hold is broken (Matt.13:44-46)-and so much more.
Through the gospel of Jesus, people in the suburbs will discover what it means to live, really live. It’s what they are looking for–underneath the mini-castles, SUV’s, dance lessons, overstuffed garages and the hunger for accomplishment. The evangelical church just needs to remember how wonderful Jesus’ gospel really is. And then find the courage to make sure the people we love around us hear that above everything else we say and in everything we do.