When we told our donors we were leaving the campus ministry to plant a church in the Southern California suburbs—land of affluence and megachurches—we not only lost several, we also heard the repeated question: Aren’t there enough churches there already?
I wondered too. Couldn’t we be more useful in an unreached part of the country? Or overseas?
We can subtly think that when Jesus said to “go to the ends of the earth” he meant only jungles and inner cities, not the affluent suburb next door. But all places—suburbs included—need the good news and abundant life found only in Jesus. And the good life isn’t the biggest house and the latest kitchen remodel.
In helping my husband plant Resurrection OC, I’m learning how the gospel saves us from our suburban desires for comfort and self-sufficiency, and replaces them with something much greater.
As much as we might say Jesus and his church are our first priorities, our actions often illustrate otherwise. How we spend our time and money reveals what’s in our hearts. What are we craving as we rush from kids’ sports practices to tutoring to piano lessons? What are we serving when we bend our calendars to bolster their résumé? Our frantic schedules reveal our functional value system.
These daily practices show, as James K. A. Smith notes in You Are What You Love, that we are not primarily logical creatures, but desiring creatures. In the suburbs, we can often feed our desires because we have the resources to do so. Phones, cars, and wallets take us where we want to go. Yet once we arrive, we often find an emptiness that propels us on in our endless search for satisfaction. The gospel not only challenges our suburban idols of self-sufficiency and comfort; it exposes the problems with our desires themselves.
The problem isn’t that we have longings, but that our desires are off course—they are “not too strong, but too weak,” as C. S. Lewis famously wrote. We settle for cheap imitations by trying to purchase what can never be bought. In Jen Pollock Michel’s book Teach Us to Want, she writes of the Lord’s Prayer:
Its language corrals my wild horses of desire and restricts me from wandering off into dangerous woods . . . But restriction is not the only purpose of a fence: it also encloses pasture.
From our human perspective, we see any limitation on our desires as a straightjacket, but like playground fences, the confines of desire enable us to play in safety. God’s Word is our fence; it enables us to see beyond the shiny object right into our hearts. Are our desires shaped by the gospel, or are they shaped by our ideals of success and self-sufficiency?
Each place has particular idols. In the suburbs, the gospel reveals our faulty self-perception. Affluence trains our hearts to take grace for granted. We forget we are needy creatures. Our focus on self-sufficiency makes us white-knuckle our time and our souls.
There’s a reason Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions (Mark 10: 21-22). It’s not that affluence and success are bad things—many entrepreneurs like Lydia supported the work of the early church. But when we think we deserve our desires, we miss out on the kingdom of God. We, like the rich young ruler, go away sad.
Jesus isn’t one spoke in our lives; he’s the center from which all spokes originate and around which they orbit. As we provide for ourselves physically, financially, and materially, we can value our own self-sufficiency, competence, and skill above our need for God, his church, and love of neighbor. We can begin thinking that church is another product to consume, and that Jesus is another boss to mollify, pacify, or manipulate.
The Good Life
How can suburban churches offer a redeemed vision of abundant life, one that isn’t defined by a bigger house, the latest car, or the newest promotion?
It starts small. We pray for eyes to see ourselves as spiritually impoverished. We commit to a local congregation. We invest in friendships. We live lives of radical welcome. Above all, we create margin in our schedules to commune with God and his church, and to offer ordinary means of grace to our neighbors.
Loving the suburbs isn’t about flashy church programs. Instead, it’s inviting people into our homes for simple food and real conversations. It’s making space in our lives for our neighbors, both next door and around the globe. It’s being there when the “good life” ultimately fails to satisfy. It’s pointing to a better kingdom.
We have all we need in Christ. We’re abundantly loved. We have purpose and hope, grace and mercy. We’re children of God. We have so many true riches to offer—how can we not share them with others?