In defense of suburban living (part 1)

As a church planter, I am responsible for organizing a new congregation. In fact, my actual title is “organizing pastor,” and that includes more than just preaching on Sundays.

One area in which I’ve had to pursue competency and skill is that of “understanding my context,” sometimes described as “knowing my mission field.” That is, knowing and understanding the place in which I have been called to organize a new congregation is an important skill.

My place is a classic expression of the suburbs. (In fact, I’ve been told that the entire state of New Jersey can be classified as suburban, though driving through some parts of the Pine Barrens would cause even the most rigid statistician to question that designation.)

Which raises the question: what are the suburbs?

Technically, and by that, I mean what the word itself suggests, is the place outside (or under) a city center: SUB URBAN.

In my case, this suburb is outside of center city Philadelphia.

Demographers call the place where I live metro Philadelphia, which I guess was a word coined around the time that area bridges were built: the Ben Franklin, the Walt Whitman, and the Commodore Barry, in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

In that word metro are hidden all kinds of assumptions.

One of them is that we don’t live where we work; we live in one place and travel to another for employment.

Another is that we live with some space or distance between our homes. The density of my neighborhood (an area of about one square mile or so) is not as great as would be, for example, one square mile in center City Philly. There are more people who live there, in that area, than here, in an equivalent area.

Okay, so that’s what the suburbs are. But who really cares? I think it matters because many people seem to think that living in the suburbs is bad.

More and more these days, the bad-ness of the suburbs seems to fall at the feet of the automobile. Since the car is bad, and since the suburbs require cars to get around (being that we all drive somewhere else to work and to get our groceries), therefore the suburbs are bad, and the people who live in them (by foregoing logic) are also bad.

Bad, bad, bad.

But what if we change the terms? What if we think more generally?

Just because we live outside of one “area” which has higher density in another “area” which has lower density doesn’t mean we don’t live in a city. Just because we use cars doesn’t mean we don’t live in a city. Nor does it mean that where we live is bad.

We like where we live; we survive where we live; we are people where we live; we take care with where we live; we want to improve where we live.

This is our city. Deal with it.

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4 thoughts on “In defense of suburban living (part 1)

  1. Phil, great stuff! I can see you have been doing a lot of thinking about doing mission in suburbs which is also my context. I’d love to hear from you the challenges of ministering in the suburban context e.g. because we all have cars and commute everywhere how you connect with people on a regular basis. Similarly, what ideas, tools, resources have you found helpful in reaching your suburban community. Perhaps the subject of the next blog? Anxiously waiting!

    • Hey Barry,

      Thanks for stopping by. Great comment/question; I do hope to address some of your questions in the remainder of the posts. Meanwhile, a couple of thoughts: 1) the car factor makes getting to know people harder initially, but eventually people are still people. 2) cars give the illusion that we can get more done in a period of time than is healthy; but it does make things like violin lessons 15 minutes away a possibility which, in a more dense city wouldn’t probably be possible. So busy-ness is in tension with freedom and opportunity: but regardless, I think families are busy in the city and busy in the suburbs. 3) Because of car fatigue, we’ve made local neighborhood based missional communities a priority; many people can walk to our Sunday night mc gatherings, for example; and our goal would be that our missional communities would be walkable, neighborhood based groups.

      How do you think these ideas would play out in your context?

      • One of the challenges that I experience in suburban ministry is there are no central gathering points where most of the people who live in the community go. For example, people will drive 20 or more minutes if there is shopping, restaurants or sports bar but it is not consistent so it makes it challenging with reconnecting with people. It seems like the key there is getting people’s phone numbers whenever you make a connection. Similarly, I found people moved into our community to get away from people, so it takes time to build trust for people to be comfortable to come to home gatherings. On the other hand, suburbanites trust institutions because institutions work for them in their daily life e.g. jobs, schools, clubs, so being invited to church on Sunday morning is actually less intimidating than being invited to a home meeting.

        Another thing that I am learning is that unlike the city where you have some unique, one of a kind restaurants, bars, stores, the suburbs are filled with franchises. As Luke Simmons, a suburban church planter in Arizona with Acts 29, says “don’t try to build a mom and pop church in a franchise community.” Consequently, it takes a little more money to provide facilities, programs and personnel for example for children that may not as high in certain urban church planting contexts. I do not speak at all as an expert. If any thing I have more questions than answers.

  2. Hi Barry, good thoughts. We’re A29, and while Luke may be right in Arizona (where I moved from), in Jersey, there are a ton of mom and pop kind of places, in addition to franchises. Another way to put it is this: small town takes on a new meaning in New Jersey, where we are demographically urban, but experientially suburban and even rural/small town. If anything, people in Jersey can be suspicious of certain aspects of a so-called franchise lifestyle: people here prefer to deal locally, pay in cash, etc. One more point: I’m not convinced that the lack of a so-called central gathering point is the huge problem that people say it is. If we’ve done anything, we’ve created a gathering point in our home, and in the homes of our other community group leaders.

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