Finally, after a few really hectic weeks, I have some time to think and write in this series again. I have been consumed with writing curriculum to go along with a series of messages outlining our new mission statement and disciple-making strategy. Without going into all the details of that, I want to draw the connections between those labors and the challenge of being the church in the suburbs.
Thus far, we have seen that people who live in the suburbs are immersed in a unique culture. That culture impacts thinking, attitudes, choices, spending, relationships and nearly every practical aspect of daily life. Since it is so comprehensive, it impacts the way suburban Christians live the Christian life, ways that may or may not be faithful to King Jesus. On the other hand, the suburbs are also a mission field, full of the opportunity and challenge of figuring our how to get the gospel to a largely unreached people.
We’ve looked closely at the challenges, but what is our response? I don’t want to just point out the problems; our response is crucial. The witness of the gospel in our generation depends on churches figuring out how to reach far-from-God people –in the suburbs–develop them into disciples—in the suburbs. Yes, the urban centers are vital, as Keller and Driscoll remind us. And yes, we’ll continue doing whatever it takes to plant churches and reach the spiritually lost peoples among the nations. But in the suburbs, we need to think long, hard, creatively and practically about the nature of the church and our disciple-making mission.
It’s a matter of values. What we value will show up in our church’s life and ultimately, in our people. For the past couple of decades or so, there has been an unwritten set of values for the evangelical church in the United States. Unwritten, but not unknown or unsold. These values have been the genesis of countless books, conferences, DVD’s, and curricula (not to mention T-shirts, screensavers and other stuff.) Prominent pastors and publishers have touted them as the answer or the solution for churches struggling to make an impact. But I want to assert that these values – as primary, defining values for the suburban church – must be replaced, or at least reformed. They are tired, dated, increasingly ineffective—and some are just not Biblically defensible.
Each of these fading values could be a separate post of its own, but I’m just going to give a thumnbnail of each. (Feel free to comment or add to these in the comments.) Here goes:
+ The value of relevance: The pressure for churches to be relevant to the culture has too often resulted in a mish-mash of compromise, cultural mimicry and just plain silliness. When Paul said that his heart was “to be all things to all people”, the qualifying statement was “ I do all this for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9: 23) Relevance never trumps gospel. Never.
+ The value of worship as outreach: This has, thankfully, begun to wane a bit in some places, but evangelicals still struggle here. Is worship about God’s people encountering and responding to Him, or is it essentially an evangelistic rally designed to reach those who are still far from God?? The answer to that question shapes services, churches, individual Christians and our mission.
+ The value of franchising: There has been this constant idea that successful church models / programs, etc. can be exported to any church, in any community or cultural setting, with predictably successful results. This has been the approach of the boomer-driven church growth industry over the past 30 years or so. From Baptist Sunday School’s Flake formula to Willow’s Seven Steps to the Purpose-Driven baseball diamond to Simple Church and dozens of other versions, the idea has been that there was one thing that could be the solution for any church in any place at any time. I’m tired of it. There is no one solution for our suburban missional challenge. It is far too complex for a monochromatic, Barney bullet, Fed-Ex delivered program-in-a-box.
+ The value of the classroom education model: This is probably unique to my own Southern Baptist tribe. We love to get people in a room in rows and have somebody feed them more content about the Bible or Christian living. Oh, I know that every Sunday School guru will say that a class should not be about one teacher at the front “giving the lesson”, with people listening. Can we talk? That’s the way it is most of the time. And the discipleship guys want to think that their stuff is different, but if we have Beth or Henry on DVD, we’ve just replaced the teacher with a screen. For all the hours in all the classes –is life change really happening? Are world-changing disciples being made?
+ The value of program completion as discipleship: This is closely related to the one above—but even more dangerous. We have assumed that if people participate in our programs (Sunday School, small groups, worship, serving on a team, etc.), that discipleship has occurred, ie that a person has become more like Jesus in thought, affections, character and behavior. That is illogical and not defensible from a New Testament perspective. (Incidentally, it is also one of the great weaknesses of the Simple Church model.). There are myriad people attending our programs, for years even, who never seem to progress as a disciple.
You get the idea. These are the ruts that a significant segment of the evangelical church has been riding in for years. It is comfortable – and almost seems like it must be right — because we’ve been doing it that way for so long. But it’s time—it’s necessary – to find a new path.
Most of these “values” are being challenged and rethought by a variety of groups. But we have to rethink how to address or reform them in our local church setting. That’s the joyful opportunity of living out the Great Commission in our day.
But here’s the radical reality: rethinking and reforming the local church for mission may not mean producing something new. It may be something old…really old.