Suburbs

What Does Mission Look Like in the Suburbs?

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“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.

Missional Living in the Suburbs

When my husband and I moved our family from Richmond, Virginia to Tacoma, Washington, we had every intention of landing in a downtown area. We love the grit of urban living, not to mention the local shops and the walkability. The whole reason for relocating was to train and eventually church plant with Soma Communities, so it made sense to go where the action was. But as we listened to the elders (and tried in vain to find a good housing fit in the city), it became clear that we were needed in the suburbs. As any good Keller-disciple would, we balked. But the Holy Spirit was clear, and peace only came when we turned our attention to a large apartment complex in Northeast Tacoma. From the City to Our Suburbs To give you the lay of the land: Our back yard is a golf course, and the surrounding hills hold large homes with views of the Puget Sound. Our neighborhood is Tacoma’s wealthiest; it’s also its most isolated, and we rarely walk anywhere. And despite the abundant local resources, our immediate neighbors are not the wealthiest. In fact, they’re just the opposite.

My neighbors and I live in three-story buildings, six units per stairway, twelve units per building; there are about 545 total units in our complex. From day one, my husband has called forth the vision for our neighborhood: We need to reach all 545 of these units with the Gospel. I am all about strategy, logistics and intimacy, so I put up my hand and told him I couldn’t even think about that. I’d rather just concentrate on being faithful with the few I’ve already been given (even though this is often just a convenient excuse to doubt God).

Faith in Jesus & Love for our Neighbors The day we moved in we met our downstairs neighbor—we’ll call her Alicia—and her daughter, Tina. Tina was entering first grade, as was our oldest daughter, so we were thrilled for an easy and immediate friendship. Tina began playing at our house regularly, and it didn’t take long before we had her at our dinner table. We eventually met her teenage brother, Michael, who pretty much keeps to himself.

Within two weeks of moving in, my husband invited Tina to attend Soma’s Sunday Gathering with us. I jumped on him, stage whispering something like, “You can’t ask a child to go to church with you; you need to ask her mother before you make that offer!” In hindsight, I was being ridiculous. Tina has no boundaries, and she’ll ask for anything. "Can I play in your house?" "Can I have an apple?" "Can I stay for dinner?" "Can I go to the beach with you?" So it really didn’t matter whether we asked her or she asked us, it was only a matter of time before she ended up attending Sunday School with our kids.

And amazingly, when Tina bounced down to her apartment to ask Alicia (whom we rarely saw) if she could go with us on Sunday, she said yes. Not only that, she told Tina that she planned to start going with us. And she did! As a result, we started seeing more of Alicia. She began to eat dinner with our missional community, and she started asking questions about God. Suprisingly, she took notes during the teachings, and then sat on our couch and pelted us with questions.

It’s important to note that Alicia, Michael and Tina have some disturbing though sadly common pieces to their story. Alicia has recently divorced her drug-addicted, abusive husband (also Tina’s dad). He’s been in jail most of the time we’ve known her. Michael was also abused, and Tina saw things no child should. As a result, our girls now know that drugs can make people violent; I certainly never expected to broach that topic at ages four and six.

Now Alicia is permanently disabled, and survives on state and federal aid, and a little bit of money that her dad left her.  She spends the bulk of her time in bed, feeling too bad to get up, feed the kids…do anything. She doesn’t drink or do drugs, but she takes enough prescription medication to fill her entire bathroom drawer (she showed me). And despite repeated efforts to quit, she still smokes. When I met Alicia, she had a sign on her door that let the UPS guy know what to do with any boxes if she didn’t answer the door; the last sentence on it said, “I’m disabled.” And that’s how Alicia saw herself. That’s who she thought she was.

About the third Sunday Alicia attended the Gathering with us, one of our elders taught on the power of the Gospel. He talked about God creating us to love and enjoy him, and about how we rebelled against that plan. He told us about Jesus coming to purchase our lives from death and give us back our original identities as daughters and sons of God. He talked to us about faith and repentance and lies and truth. I watched Alicia cry when she heard that truth. When the teaching was finished, I turned to Alicia and asked her if she believed everything she’d just heard. She said yes, and I was overjoyed!

It took me about six months in our apartment before I gave God credit for his genius. Most healthyish families in the U.S. have a plan that goes something like this: We’re going to save our money/leverage ourselves so that we can move into a nice home where everyone has his or her own bedroom and we have a yard for the kids. It makes sense. Our chief goal as Americans is intellectual, emotional and financial independence. Period. And why on earth would I rent if I could own (current housing market excepted), and why would I stay in a loud apartment complex with who knows what kind of people in it when I could move my kids to a safe, quiet environment with other nice families?

As a result, I’d venture to guess that most apartment complexes are filled with single-parent families. Our complex, which is really pretty nice, has lots of single moms and very few dads. There are married couples here and there, but not a lot. My family is the anomaly. And if we choose to stay here even after saving enough to buy a house with a yard, we’ll be even more peculiar.

But we’re here to stay, and we’re praying for more people like us to move into our complex, because reaching all 545 units is still God’s goal, even when it isn’t mine. In addition to Alicia and her family, there’s a woman across the hall who just lost her home, her business and her marriage. There’s a couple nearby who have divorce papers in the filing cabinet, but just aren’t ready to pull the trigger. There’s a young mom and her fiancé living in our building who are both unemployed and have criminal records. They’re all very open when they talk to us. They’re kind of low-hanging fruit in the garden of discipleship, because they have too much need to sweep under the rug.

Even Introverts Can Disciple in the Burbs Part of the reason I’m praying for people to join us in the harvest is that I’m tired, and honestly, I really don’t love people as much as I should. I’m an introvert, so I just need down time to recharge. Too often I parley that into an excuse to withdraw from my neighbors, but I can only ignore so many knocks on my front door. For several months after we moved here, I sat in my bedroom and cursed when I heard a knock. My girls love nothing better than finding out who’s on the other side of the door, but I confess that I often want to ignore it.

Last winter was particularly difficult. I was feeling lonely; I missed my friends in Virginia, and I was bummed that I’d had to leave a job I loved. Besides, Western Washington’s notoriously gray winter was really starting to get to me. There were afternoons when I napped in bed or on the couch, and I cringed when my phone rang or a neighbor stopped by; those were days when I completely lacked motivation. Struggling with depression myself, I really didn’t feel like I had much to offer anyone else.

But the Holy Spirit contended with that. He engaged me in my hideout, and compelled me to stand up and walk to the door. Many times the result was a needy friend sitting on my sofa, engaging in honest conversation. It’s stunning to recall the hard things I’ve been led to say to Alicia; more amazing still are her responses. I’ve interrupted her in the middle of devastating fights with her teenage son, and she has received that as help rather than criticism. My husband and I have told her that she isn’t healthy enough to be involved in a romantic relationship, and she has responded by admitting addiction to men who misbehave. I’ve counseled her to apologize to her children for her own impatience—without telling them what they’ve done to deserve it—and she has done it. Not perfectly, but sincerely. I finally told her to rip that ridiculous sign off her door, and she went downstairs and did it; she just needed someone to remind her who she is in Christ. God would not introduce her as “Alicia, my disabled daughter.”

Mission from a Greater Refuge The only possible explanation for Alicia’s ready response to all of this is the radical regeneration of the Holy Spirit—not just in her, but in me as well. I am so humbled when I watch God at work in her life; she makes me praise him for his power and grace. I believe him more because of my relationship with Alicia, though it’s the hardest friendship I have. She has apologized to me a lot. I’ve had to apologize plenty too: for withdrawing from her, for speaking impatiently to Tina, for lacking the energy to follow through on a promise. And amazingly, Alicia forgives me with the same grace she’s been shown. Isn’t it just like God to raise new life from the ashes.

When we first became part of Soma Communities, we attended a weekend retreat for missional community leaders. I distinctly remember hearing one of our elders say, “Your home is not your refuge. Who is your refuge?” And we all knew the answer: Jesus is our refuge. When I am hidden in him, with his perfect strength flowing through my weakness, I can engage my neighbors. And even as I am on mission among them, he is on mission in me. As a result, our family talks a lot about the Gospel these days, and it’s bringing healing inside our home and beyond our front door. It may not be the home we thought we wanted, but we’re convinced it’s the one we need.

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Stephanie Thomas works for KidShine, substitutes for Tacoma Public Schools, and struggles to be a good neighbor and friend. She and her husband Chris love to explore the Puget Sound area with their two elementary-aged daughters, Anna and Emi. Steph’s dream job is hair styling. She can be found on twitter @imstephthomas and you can keep up with her family and their mission at thosethomasfolks.com.