Growth in Jersey-some Christian reflections

hilly suburbs by ducksofrubber d4d7ckpWhile ministry is primarily the work of caring for souls, and preaching and speaking the truth to people who God places in our path, there is a hard infrastructure unique to the work of church planting which includes things like demographic research.

When I moved to New Jersey in 2009 to start the process of organizing a new congregation in my denomination, the PCA, Gloucester County was the fastest growing county in New Jersey as of the 2000 census. While not of the essence for starting new church plants, such statistics, measuring population and social trends, are helpful. The thinking goes, “People who are moving or who are in transition may be more open to trying a new church.”

But the housing bubble (bust) of 2007-2008 hit our area pretty hard and affected that our area significantly and what new growth had been taking place slowed markedly. In fact, a number of subdivisions which were newly begun in farm fields had literally stopped in their tracks and sat stagnant for years.

Our own experience with new people in South Jersey has been that most of the people I have met are people that are from here–and have lived here for a while, if not all their lives. There’s an unwritten “twenty minute rule” for some families: no more than twenty minutes away from important relatives (parents, grandparents). Sometimes the rule is enforced, and other times it simply happens to work out that way. But it is pretty common.

At some point I came across a group called New Jersey Future, which is an organization that:

brings together concerned citizens and leaders to promote responsible land-use policies. The organization employs original research, analysis and advocacy to build coalitions and drive land-use policies that help revitalize cities and towns, protect natural lands and farms, provide more transportation choices beyond cars, expand access to safe and affordable neighborhoods and fuel a prosperous economy.

Now I’m not particularly interested (at least not in my capacity as a minister of the Gospel) in land use policies. But among the things that “revitalize cities and towns…” and “fuels a prosperous economy…” I’d put vibrant, healthy Christian churches at the top of the list. And while I wouldn’t have a lot of people joining me in hearty agreement, I think I’m right in my assessment. Continue reading

In Defense of Suburban Living (part 3)

The suburbs are really little cities, and in my last essay, I explained how my town really is an idea with at least three elements. The first is its historic element; in my case, my town, Old Sewell, was once a little town, with a mayor, I’d guess, and a unique identity.

No longer. Old Sewell is now just a few streets with what was once a downtown, but now only has a few shops, and nothing more. It has been engulfed in the larger municipality known as Mantua Township.

But rising out of the ashes of Old Sewell is the Mighty Sewell Post Office, which has lent the name of Sewell to lots of other little towns in the municipality of Washington Township due to a dispute over naming rights that goes back more than a hundred years. This is the second element of the “idea of Sewell.”

The last element gets to the point of the series, namely: making a defense of suburban living.

It is this truth: as far as I’ve been able to tell, Sewell is made of what most people would call neighborhoods, subdivisions, or developments. There are between twenty to fifty of these, depending on how you count them.

But where others see neighborhoods, I see cities. In fact, I call them little cities. Continue reading

In Defense of Suburban Living (part 2)

The suburbs as an idea have taken a beating over the years. Which is ironic; in a society where sin and transgression have all but been eliminated from our cultural lexicon, we certainly haven’t eliminated the Ten Commandments, we’ve just altered them a bit.

Here are five that come to mind: 1) Thou shalt not hurt little children; 2) Thou shalt not poison the environment; 3) Believe whatever you want (as long as it doesn’t affect me); 4) Thou shalt worry and fuss about baby animals (but not about little human beings called fetuses); and of course: 5) Thou shalt not live in the suburbs.

Last time I posted on this subject, I made the point that density, proximity to work and employment, and dependence upon the automobile don’t by themselves make a place bad, or disadvantageous. They are factors of city, but not necessarily negative ones. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

City vs. Suburb

This piece on Slashdot back in February comments on Google’s and Apple’s choices to plant their mega-complexes in the suburbs; the debate? Is this good for our society, or bad? Should they have built their businesses in the cities where existing public transit options already were in use, or does using “Google Buses” to get employees to work make good sense?

As you read through the comments, you’ll notice how the dialogue swings back and forth between the poles of suburb vs. urb, with no little nasty frosting on top. These kinds of “us” vs. “them” debates have perennial attraction to people. It might be “town” vs. “gown”; it might be “red” vs. “blue”; it might be “white” vs. “black.”

But what if we understood city differently? Rather than an exclusive entity belonging only to a certain kind of place, what if we asked, “Is it preferable to live in the urban city or the suburban city?”

On this basis, as I see it, all people live in cities. Period.

Continue reading