“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” – Karl Marx
I was at a church conference, listening to an impassioned young pastor talk about the work he does in inner-city high schools in his neighborhood:
“Everyone should be getting in on this. It’s the greatest need in our city. Young men without fathers need attentive, compassionate, strong men to pour into their lives and mentor them.”
I listened to him with a mixture of admiration and annoyance. I admired how he’d discerned local mission in his neighborhood and galvanized his community to action. Men putting their lives on the line for young men stirred my heart and excited my mind.
But I was also annoyed (and feeling more than a bit guilty about being annoyed). What if my neighborhood doesn’t have the same problems as your inner city neighborhood?
Does mission in the suburbs count, too?
THE BEST PLACE TO LIVE?
The city where I am living and planting a church (Fishers, Indiana) was recently named the BEST place to live (in all of America!) by Money Magazine (based on factors that a magazine named MONEY would base it on: healthy economy, affordable homes, and a “high quality of life”).
This is a very different environment from inner-city realities described by the young pastor above. So what does mission look like in the affluent suburbs? Should we drive 30 minutes to mentor high school teens in a more impoverished area?
What does mission look like here in the suburbs?
THE HIDDEN PAIN OF THE SUBURBS
My friend and co-pastor Ben says that mission in the suburbs is more difficult to discern because the needs we see most quickly are those that contrast with the American Dream (poverty, homelessness, crime, etc.). But the American Dream isn’t the same thing as the Kingdom of God.
The needs in the suburbs are just as pressing, but it takes some discernment to see them because they’re hidden under the veneer of the apparent fulfillment of the American Dream.
Our church has been inhabiting and praying for our suburban city for three years now. And we’ve noticed a glaring issue largely left untouched and ignored by the affluent, active culture of our city: there seems to be a deep well of unprocessed sadness, unfinished grief, sorrow, and relational pain that people carry with them on a day to day basis.
One recent study suggests that loneliness is rampant, and it’s just as dangerous to our health as obesity. And unlike poverty, homelessness, and hunger, most people who are chronically sad don’t know it. They can’t identify what’s actually haunting them.
AFFLUENCE AND ACTIVITY NUMB US
Part of the reason we don’t know we’re sad is that the affluence and relentless activity of the suburbs insulate us from having to feel our pain. We’ve generally got enough money and power to find a way to numb the pain if we ever start feeling it.
- Lonely? Watch another Netflix show, refresh your Facebook pic of your family to see how many likes you’ve received, kill off that box of cookies.
- Ugly? Get free botox from your neighbor, start a gym membership and lose that weight, buy more expensive (and flattering) clothing.
- Hurting from a relationship? Eat, drink and be merry; change churches; just begin to ignore that awkward relationship.
- Insignificant at work? Find your significance in your kids’ performance, or your meticulously cared for lawn, or your car.
- Stressed out and unable to cope? Pop open another bottle of wine, plan a guys’ weekend, play another round of golf, download another mobile phone game.
CHURCH DOESN’T HELP (MOST OF THE TIME)
And our suburban churches aren’t helping.
Worship services are often called “celebrations.” Preachers regularly tell people that the answer to their unhappiness is to “just praise God!” Our liturgies are full of thanksgiving, praise, and exhortation, but often bereft of lament, mourning, and weeping. Our Christian radio stations are full of “positive and encouraging” programming, implying that to be a Christian is to be happy, positive, smiling, and put together.
If Karl Marx thought the religion of his day was the “opium of the people,” there’s a case to be made that the kind of Pop Christianity described above is the opium of the American suburbs.
Drop the kids off at childcare, get emotionally moved by awesome music, listen to an inspirational message about God that tells you to try harder and do more, and God is good all the time and all the time God is good . . . and come back next week for your next spiritual hit!
But none of this frenetic spiritual activity really heals us. It just keeps us sedated and unaware of our immense sadness and pain. Church just becomes another activity to distract me from my pain.
RECKONING WITH REALITY
Instead of this kind of happy-clappy faith, the suburbs desperately need a faithful Christian witness of how to lament pain and evil in our world.
One of our foundational assumptions about life (because we see Jesus make this assumption over and over in his dealings with people) is that God is so real he most fully meets us where we really are.
We need a reckoning with reality, a dealing with “what is,” a rhythm that makes way for healing, and a robust community with which to journey.
We need the emotional safety to name what’s actually going on, a pruning of distractions to become aware of how we are really doing, language to describe “I think that feeling of loneliness and anxiety is really just sadness that I haven’t dealt with yet.”
LEARNING A LITURGY OF LAMENT
Mission in the suburbs can begin with learning to lament. And thankfully, even though most of us aren’t practiced in it, the Bible is filled with lament, especially the Psalms. Lots of Psalms are mainly lament!
Our church gatherings must make room for lament because this is the only thing that can heal our sadness.
We can start with sadness for our own life tragedies: relational ruin, personal trauma, individual sin. And we can enter into solidarity with the suffering of the world as well: victims of natural disasters, systemic oppression, the principalities and powers of racial and economic injustice, broken families, physical and emotional abuse.
Healing and restoration happen when we move beyond merely “standing up for” or “speaking out against” things. Underneath speaking and standing, we find the aching need to suffer in solidarity with actual people.
GROWING ROBUST CHURCH COMMUNITIES
Loneliness and isolation are the privileges of affluence. In the suburbs, we live in large castles of independent self-sufficiency, closing ourselves off to connection and dependence on others.
Much of our pain in the suburbs is due to past and present relationships that are not healthy. If relationships have caused us pain, it will be relationships that play a role in our healing.
Our discipleship must be built on creating relationships of emotional and spiritual safety. At a minimum, this means cultivating a culture where:
- Shame is dethroned through regular confession and proclamation of good news.
- The worst thing about me can be brought into light in community because the grace and truth of Jesus Christ are trusted and celebrated.
- People can share pain without others dismissing, denying, ghosting, fixing, or gas lighting.
- We learn how to be present to others pain; suffering solidarity with each other.
- Hope and healing are held together with despair and pain.
This isn’t easy, of course. Most people have to pay professionals $125 an hour to receive this kind of relationship and care. And of course, professional counseling is important and good and necessary. It’s just sad that it’s often the only place people experience this kind of care.
What if we can create a fabric of community that is able to bear more and more suffering as we learn to name our own in community?
In the suburbs, creating spaces where it’s safe for people to learn to lament is mission, because it addresses one of the hidden ways the kingdom of God needs to come to the suburbs.
Matt Tebbe has been a coach, communicator, and consultant for over 4 years with churches in North America. He holds a Masters of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has worked as an adjunct professor at Trinity College. Matt co-founded Gravity Leadership and is planting a church (The Table) in the northeast suburbs of Indianapolis, where he and his wife Sharon live with their children Deacon and Celeste. You can follow him on Twitter or check out Gravity Leadership for more of his work.