How I would plant a church in the suburbs…

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : April 25, 2007

Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with folks at Life on the Vine about new monasticism, being missional, and all sorts of other interesting ecclesial topics. They were interested in the sorts of things we do at Missio Dei.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to apply our lessons to Life on the Vine, because they are suburban while we are urban. It is harder, in my mind, to do “*incarnational” or “missional” ministry in the burbs.
Why? Because the suburbs don’t have central meeting places like city neighborhoods. Because suburban church goers don’t live in proximity the way urban dwellers often do. Because injustice and poverty and pain and brokenness are hard to find in the burbs. There are all sorts of reasons why it is hard to live missionally in Generica.

Suburbs tend to be inherently fractured places. In other words, people live separately from one another…disconnected. These days the only common suburban connecting points are malls and school districts. And since most people don’t go to malls to foster community and parents are decreasingly involved in the lives of their kids, these don’t serve as connecting points for the larger suburban community.

And suburbs are designed to hide problems. Suburban homes are usually vinyl sided, but have fake brick fronts so that the houses look better than they actually are. Often, the unsavory parts of the area (like trailer parks) are not easily accessible from major roads or are blocked from street view by hedges or fences. Suburban design has tended towards sheltering homeowners…to give the appearance of tranquility.
My time with Life on the Vine got me to thinking…How would I plant a church in the burbs? To be honest, I’m not really invested in this question. My thoughts aren’t particularly thought through–nor are they particularly realistic. But here’s my best guess about how I would personally go about it. Below are 7 things I would do, each followed by a brief rationale:

  1. Amy and I (and hopefully some of our friends) would move into a trailer park, or perhaps some large apartment complex. Most suburban churches seem to assume that affluence is the suburban norm. This is increasingly NOT the case. When suburban churches begin to realize this reality–that there are marginalized or poor people around them–they begin to experience guilt. At this point they either dismiss their guilt by saying something like : “if those folks want to come to our church, they are welcome…but we’re not going to go out of our way to reach out to them” or they grapple with their guilt by honestly reflecting: “we’ve built our church upon upward mobility…how can we struggle to reach out to those that aren’t like us?” The way to bypass all of that guilt is to go to the most marginal places in the suburbs and start church there. It seems like the approach Jesus would take. And it makes issues like proximity less of an issue.
  2. Before starting a church service or small groups or house churches of any sort, we’d practice hospitality with our neighbors. This is a challenge, but one that isn’t insurmountable. If you live in a trailer community or in an apartment, it is easy to pass out fliers for events like a BBQ (if you are in a trailer community) or a floor party (if you live in an apartment complex). If you make it a monthly routine to have a sort of party or potluck, hand out fliers, and make it a point to go to the dozen or so neighbors that live closest to you, folks will come. Maybe not a lot, but at least EVERYONE will know who you are. From there, you can begin to invite the individuals, couples, or families you’ve met over for a more intimate dinner.
  3. Meanwhile, as we are making new friends, the “core” would be thinking about what sorts of shared practices and gatherings make sense. And if we’ve been able to make some honest new friendships, we should definitely get input on that from our neighbors.
  4. From there, we’d invite some of our new friends to do a study with us, or to start a small group gathering of some sort. Depending upon the size of the core and the size of the apartment or trailer home, it may be necessary to have multiple groups.
  5. All the while we’d try to have an open community meal every week where people can receive hospitality. By this point, many needs will have surfaced…opportunities to serve should abound.
  6. At this point, I might consider having a larger weekly gathering. This all depends entirely upon the size of the group, the strength of our community’s identity, the regularity of our shared spiritual practices, and the availability and price of potential meeting places. If, for example, there is a community center (or school or library meeting room) nearby that is available for a relatively low fee, we might start meeting there. Some apartment buildings and trailer communities have larger gathering areas available (which would be even better). The shape and nature of the gathering would be up to the discernment of the group.
  7. At this point, assuming for sake of argument that there are 25 to 30 people that are regular participants in ministry, we’d begin to think of ways of making our church more “public.” At this point, we’d figure out ways to invite or connect to the larger suburban community. Perhaps we’d plant another group at another apartment complex or trailer community and then gather together as a big group once a week. Maybe we’d do a mailer inviting all the residents of our suburb to join us for worship at the trailer park pavilion.

I’m aware of the many difficulties with this approach (mostly financial). And the church would probably take a lot of time to foster and stay small. But the idea of a suburban missional movement that begins among trailer and apartment dwellers (which are my roots by the way) seems to have all the right sort of appeal for me.

*The way I use the word “incarnational” doesn’t simply mean “relevant.” Incarnation conjures up images not only of embrace, but of subversion.  In the incarnation we not only see the Divine embracing humanity, but also of the Divine upsetting the status quo of what it means to be Jewish and human.  And so, to do “incarnational” ministry in the burbs doesn’t mean that one should embrace affluence.  If Jesus is our example, we too must go to the poor and marginalized first…ESPECIALLY in the seemingly affluent suburbs. 

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6 Responses to “How I would plant a church in the suburbs…”

  1. Mak on April 25th, 2007 10:17 am

    I’d join you in that venture.

  2. More Fire on April 25th, 2007 2:04 pm

    Thanks for the pointers. Definitely feasible. I too was raised in trailer courts and apartment complexes. Currently I live in a brownstone in Brooklyn and your list here is very doable. Bless!
    More fire!

  3. Frank Chiapperino on April 25th, 2007 10:24 pm

    Great stuff! I love the idea of serving your neighbors before starting a church or small group. How about taking it a step further and making your neighbors your small group! Also you indicated that most suburban churches assume that affluence is the norm. I think it is a good idea not to assume anything and spend the time and the money to study the deomographics of the average household within a 10 mile radius of your location. We planted our church in October of 2000 and God is doing some really cool things.Hopefully you have inspired some to take your challenge!

  4. Richard Daley on April 25th, 2007 10:31 pm

    Hmm… it’s an interesting question. I think the connecting points for the relatively affluent suburbanite is not a physical location, but a social circle surrounding their occupation. So that’s where I’d go if I’m trying to reach them, find someone who is already a part of the professional culture and passionate for reaching that subculture as my in, (and as my version of “moving into the trailer park”) and pretty much follow the same steps in (sub-)culturally appropriate ways.

  5. Michael Toy on April 27th, 2007 12:40 pm

    I think about this a lot, since I live in the suburbs and have decided to experiment with the idea that I do not need to move out of my house in order to live missionally.

    First of all, you have to admit that there is an existing answer to this question. Isn’t this exactly the question than Saddleback and Willow Creek have answered?

    OK, I would agree that, if that is what “Church in the Burbs” is, then I am not that interested. Is there another answer?

    “Move into the apartment complex” — That is interesting, but it is more like finding the micro-urban embedded within the suburban. I think I’m still looking for yet another answer.

    We are all living in our vinyl shrouded castles. Afraid to come out, ordering the world to come in brown boxes from so we can consume it in peace inside the walls. What does “community” mean to us, we who look at everything as something to be mined for money, entertainment or self-justification. It needs to give none of those things, or it just becomes another thing to be consumed. But if it gives none of those things, then what value does it have?

    I’m still not sure how to plant a church in the suburbs, but I think it is going to have to somehow be shocking and different. I keep praying and walking and hoping that it would become clear to me, but I’ve still got no clue except what it isn’t.

  6. markvans on April 27th, 2007 12:59 pm

    Great thoughts, Michael. I think you’re right.

    It is funny that you call my approach “finding the micro-urban embedded within the suburban.” Indeed that is the case. I am, after all an urban dweller. The only places I’ve ever lived besides urban are apartment buildings in the suburbs or in small towns. I don’t know suburbia from the inside like you do. That is why this post is called “how I would plant a church in the suburbs.”

    Besides the stuff I’ve listed, the only things that make sense to me would be some sort of intentional community in a suburban house…where there are constantly parties and grilling and invitations to neighbors. There is just something about suburbs that deconstructs community. Keep thinking hard about this. I’d love to see something utterly provocative and missional emerge out of the suburban context. Most attempts I’ve seen tend to be rallying points where folks are taught and told how to be missional as individuals in their separate work environments.

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