Jesus in the Suburbs

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482423_10151619581757387_150426588_nQuick Question: Which one of the people in these photos has a greater need of the Gospel?

If you immediately thought the inner-city homeless guy image evoked a greater need, then you need to read everything else I have to say.

I grew up in small towns.

For 5 out of my first 8 years, my family lived on a 300 acre farm 13 miles from a town of about 350. The name of that town was–I’m not making this up–Bland. I was surrounded by grass, trees, pigs, horses, and cows. Before third grade we moved to a much bigger town! Salem, Missouri was home to about 4,500 folks. Salem is the town I still call my home town. I graduated from Salem High School (the only secondary school in the county) in a class of about 180. Prior to graduation, I had rarely left the state. I had never flown on a plane. I had never been to a metro area larger than St. Louis. More than one lane of traffic in each direction was mildly unnerving.

In the years following high school, all that changed in pretty short order. As it stands now, I’ve had the privilege of taking in world-class cities like New York, Chicago, and San Diego. I’ve been to the chaotic metropolis of Mexico City. I’ve walked through the slums of Santiago, Dominican Republic. I have kayaked in the Pacific Ocean. This fall, I’ll travel to India, Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise (that’s the kind of stuff they said in Salem).

I love traveling, but at my core I’m a homebody. And presently, my home is not in a small town like Salem or a big city like Chicago. I live in the suburbs–where the houses look the same, the lots are small, and our garage doors serve as protective moats around our private castles. If you want to and try, you never have to see another human being.

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There’s an interesting development in the church as of late, and I don’t expect it to slow down. The hip, the justice-minded, the blogger-approved urban churches garner quite the following. Not only do they seem to do most stuff right (according to younger believers), they are sometimes used to compare–even vilify–churches that aren’t hip, justice-minded, and blogger approved.

In fact, churches which aren’t in an urban center, are over 1000 people, include people who may or may not drive BMWs, and whose pastor doesn’t have a tattoo or write a blog are often bad-mouthed because, well…they’re so suburban. Like the cookie-cutter houses that surround them, they are kind of predictable: biggish, flashy, and filled with white people.

Scandalous!

One guy had this loving thing to say about large suburban churches:

There isn’t A SINGLE mega-church pastor who isn’t either a deceiver, false teacher, or a manipulator. Not one. And you can’t name one. Furthermore, NOT ONE Christian who attends these fraudulent pseudo-churches has the slightest inkling of biblical theology. Had they, they would flee Sodom.

I would attribute that quote, but I don’t want to give the guy the satisfaction.

So, how can we responsibly examine these churches in a light that is critical but not cruel?

First, there’s nothing wrong with reaching white middle-class people for Jesus. Did you know white people are lost, too? And did you know just because you have a 4 bedroom, 2.5 bathroom, minivan-in-the-driveway kind of lifestyle doesn’t mean you are right with Jesus? That’s why I played that picture trick on you at the beginning. Need for Jesus is not necessarily linked to how much you have or don’t have. The bum on the street might be a Christian, the lovely couple completely lost. We just can’t judge the book by its cover. One of the reasons there are so many churches in the ‘burbs is because there are so many people in the ‘burbs. If we’re about reaching the lost, there’s a large harvest field in every idyllic suburban community in the nation. Those that call for fleeing these churches (like our nameless friend above) overlook the fact that one of the reasons our nation’s cities are often so hopeless is because the church fled them. The suburbs would be more–not less–Godless if the churches reversed course. We need churches to plant in the suburbs and get to work. That’s not wrong. It’s God-honoring and good.

Second, the resources in suburban churches can be leveraged for greater Kingdom work outside the gated communities they serve. Talk to a missionary in a foreign land, or an inner-city ministry in America. Most of them, when asking for needed resources, seek partnership with these more affluent brothers and sisters. The average church of 200 in the U.S. brings in about $200,000 in offerings. After they pay a staff member or two, pay their bills, etc., they are likely to give about 10% of their overall budget to mission work. That amounts to $20,000/year. By contrast, the average megachurch in America (most of which are in the suburbs) nets on average $4.8 million annually. Sure, they’re staff is larger, their overhead is greater, and their programming offerings demand greater funding. However, if they give 10% of their income annually, it’s $480,000 each year. Is it fair to question to critique how they spend the other 4+ million? Certainly. But you can’t ignore that those resources do help the global church. This does not take into consideration the people resources that many of these churches offer by the way of short-term trips, etc.

Third, I have served in suburban churches much of my ministry. I can argue for as robust of a theological culture in those settings as in hip inner city works. Perhaps I take this criticism too personally. But I think I do possess the “slightest inkling of Biblical theology.” At least two institutions of higher education seemed to think so when they awarded me my diplomas (in Bible and theology).

Instead of the generation behind me (I’m in my early thirties) throwing their collective hands up in frustration at the institutional, caucasian, suburban church and fleeing for the inked-up, Twitter-marketed, social-justice minded urban congregations, I would call for something else:

What if we became a prophetic voice in our suburban settings? What if God put us there on purpose? What if we didn’t repeat the mistake of our brothers and sisters from a generation or two ago who fled a non-ideal situation (and I grant, they did so for an altogether different set of circumstances, but that’s another post) and flocked to the outskirts of town? What if we realized that there are lost people everywhere, and that the race and socio-economic status of an individual does not make them more or less in need of Jesus? What if we leveraged our position, where God has us, for the good of the Kingdom overall?

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If we can tolerate the row houses, the overly slick promo materials, and the programmed approach, maybe we could mobilize the richest generation of Christ-followers ever to live. Maybe we could forge strategic partnerships that were beneficial to a variety of groups in need. Maybe we could think less about trends and more about truth. Maybe we would be remembered as the generation that stopped the pendulum swing of influence from back-and-forth styles to a slow-and-steady strategy that made Jesus more famous. Not just in the suburbs, but in the country, the city, and in nations all around the world.

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