I’ve spent the last 10 years serving a church in the big, bad, beautiful city of Johannesburg, South Africa. That’s not an entirely true statement, because our church is in the leafy suburbs to the north of the city, beyond the city limits. But that doesn’t sound exciting, or missionally hip, and it doesn’t fit the mold of urban church planting we’ve all been espousing for the last decade or so.
The suburbs are a bit embarrassing, it seems, yet statistically most of us live and minister in a suburban context. More than 53 percent of the U.S. population lives in the suburbs, and it’s the fastest-growing population migration in the West. I know lots of people are moving back into the city, with their ironic moustaches and alarmingly tight trousers, but re-inhabiting urban spaces is a complex and costly exercise that doesn’t appeal to people just trying to get to the suburbs for some peace and quiet.
We have a biblical justification for that desire in 1 Thessalonians 4:11: “Make it your ambition to live a quiet life, minding your own business, and scooping up after your dog” (that last bit has translators perplexed, because it actually tells us to work with our hands, but we have no idea how to translate that into a suburban context). But while we have a verse that seems to justify suburban retreat, suburban living can feel structurally anti-gospel. Here’s how Jared Wilson strikingly puts it:
I think the spirit at work in the suburbs tends to smother the Christian spirit. The message of the suburbs, in a nutshell, is self-empowerment. Self-enhancement. Self-fulfillment. Self is at the center, and all things serve the self. The primary values of suburbia are convenience, abundance, and comfort. In suburbia you can have it all—and you can get it made to order in a super-sized cup with an insulated sleeve.
For a long time I resented having to minister in a suburban context. I was longing for something a little more missionally credible, a little more street.
But God opened my eyes. Behind the barriers of immaculate lawns and white picket fences—or in our context, high walls and electric fence perimeters—hide real people. People full of fear, anxiety, stress, idolatry, sin, and almost endless potential for gospel advance if we would engage them well.
Sometimes I reflect on Jesus’s response to the rich young ruler. I know not everyone in the suburbs is rich, but I think most wrestle, like that young man, with having a split-priority heart. Mark’s Gospel tells us that as the young ruler spits out self-justification, Jesus looks at him and loves him. We’re called to do the same—to love and serve split-priority people.
Here are seven essentials I’ve learned in growing to love our suburban setting.
1. You must fight for genuine community in places that revolve around the cult of the nuclear family.
This is one of the biggest struggles in suburban environments. They’re expensive, which means people tend to work crazy hours. They’re filled with crazy schedules for kids, so time after work is full to the brim. They’re designed—even spatially—around suspicion of others, so developing genuine community is difficult.
Sociologists have noted that the design of houses in suburban America has changed. Houses used to be near the front of the lots, with the front porch as the focal point. Now they’re built with the living areas all facing the back of the lot, with the private deck as the focal point.
It’s tough work getting suburban people into biblical community. It can feel like pushing camels through eyes of needles. But if we believe the gospel creates real community, then let’s stop pushing the camels.
In addition, we should model this lifestyle, and not ask others to live in levels of community we ourselves don’t see as necessary or good for our families and lives.
2. You must model and teach the value of diversity in spaces built around homogeneity.
Homogeneity in South Africa is amplified, since segregated city planning was official government policy as recently as 23 years ago. But even as a South African, I find suburban spaces in other parts of the world hugely homogenous.
Churches have to break the mold. We can be trendsetters. It will take boldness, humility, repentance, and a willingness to fail, but we must strive. The price of suburban churches simply accepting their own geographical homogeneity is high. It can say the opposite of all we believe. It can value comfort over compassion, and create safe spaces for ongoing prejudice, bigotry, and racism to hide and fester.
3. You must continually highlight God’s desire for justice in spaces designed to remove people from experiencing injustice.
The suburbs are wonderful. I really like living in them. The schools are good, the parks are good, the areas are safe. Thus they can have a numbing effect. When suburbanites see other people suffering injustice, they can let their inexperience with injustice negate the injustice experienced by others.
Brothers and sisters, I know we’re wary of a liberal social gospel. But we’re Reformed believers who have a big view of a sovereign God, and we’re told again and again that God hates injustice. We hold to a high view of Scripture, and Scripture tells us again and again that God’s people are called to be just and merciful within an unjust and unmerciful world.
Suburban churches should be regularly disquieted by prophetic teachers, who draw attention to the world’s ills—especially the ones our suburban existences create and exacerbate.
Our schools are good, in part due to inequitable spending on schools in other areas. Our products are cheap and varied, because people down the supply chain have been squeezed to below livable wages to get them to us.
Much of our comfortable suburban life comes at a great cost to others.
4. You must remind people of God’s great mission and their place in it amid routines, commutes, and survival.
Suburban life can seem like an endless routine of school runs, latte stops, long commutes, soccer matches, and short weekends. Radiohead summarized it well, albeit somewhat fatalistically, when they sang, “I’ll take the quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide, with no alarms and no surprises.”
But the grand narrative of Scripture doesn’t exclude anyone from participation in God’s mission to bring all things under his rule and reign. Suburban people can and must play their part.
Remind others that their homes are mission stations—outposts of hospitality, kindness, and grace in an increasingly hostile context. They’re orchards where the fruit of the Spirit can be grown and shared.
Remind them that their jobs are missionary assignments. Their cubicle or corner office or school are places full-time church workers can’t get to. So send them as missionaries, with purpose, into those spaces.
Remind them that their money is mission ammunition. Money feels like something you don’t want to give away, especially with the high cost of living in the suburbs. But if you show others how their money can blow big holes in the gates of hell, they will be compelled.
5. You must make big calls for sacrifice in surroundings designed around comfort.
We tend to think the best way to engage suburban people is to make following Jesus as easy and non-sacrificial as possible.
There are two problems with that view. One is the Bible. And the second is that it doesn’t work.
Call people to sacrifice, serve, risk, resist, and be foreigners and aliens who embody inexplicable holiness and humility.
6. You must promote and celebrate advance in spaces designed for retreat.
The world of the suburbs is small. Local schools, local stores, local everything. It’s great.
But the world of the gospel is large, and while people worry about its retreat at the local high school, they need to know how it’s advancing in Nairobi and Lilongwe and Lagos and Seoul and Sydney and Singapore.
7. You must preach and believe the scandalous gospel of grace in environments designed around performance and self-help.
Like the rich young ruler, many of our people will be tempted to justify themselves through achievement. That’s how pastors will want to measure their success in ministry, too. Pastors, we must continually disarm others and ourselves through the marvelous message of grace.
The suburbs are in many ways an attempt to create an alternate kingdom, a place of peace and security here on earth. It’s a noble goal, but suburban areas generally try to achieve it through exclusion, rather than through the power of God’s grace and truth.
Suburban people can change their world, but they will need to expand their worldview to do so. That’s why God sends teachers to breathe kingdom grace and power into the suburbs.
Editors’ note: This is an adapted transcript of a talk given at the recent Acts 29 Global Gathering in Nashville. The original transcript appeared at rosslester.com.