It’s coming up to a year since I’ve been at First Christian of St. Paul which is in Mahtomedi, MN. One of the things that was kind of hammered home to me in seminary is to learn to do ministry in a certain context. And with this call, context matters, at least to me.
I’ve shared before that I’m a city kid that grew up with an antipathy towards the ‘burbs. So as my mentor Bob Brite has said, “the Holy Spirit, the practical joker that she is” has me preaching at a church in the suburbs.
And I don’t think I’m prepared for it.
I’ve noticed over the year that our seminaries prepare students for one kind of context: cities. The urban context has long been what our seminary education has been based on. I can understand the need to focus on cities; it is where the majority of Americans live. But most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt. In a blog post last year, I shared what an evangelical blogger wrote about the suburbs and it wasn’t a love letter. A fellow Disciples pastor has said that the only message we seem to have for suburbanites is how they are bad people for abandoning the city. Surprisingly, people tend to not be crazy to being called sinful because of where they decided to live.
A lot of the Christian antipathy towards suburbia mirrors the larger culture’s view of suburbia. Hollywood has long depticted the ‘burbs as a place of conformity and blandness. But the thing is, as I said in that posting from 2013, suburban America is far more diverse than we think:
Twenty years later, I don’t have the same hatred of suspicion of the burbs. They are still not the places I prefer to live in (thought I did live in the Washington, DC suburbs of Arlington, VA and Silver Spring, MD in the years following college). Part that is because I actually started paying attention to what is going on in the suburbs. Over the years, I’ve learned that hunger take place in suburbs like Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is just west of Minneapolis. I’ve learned that domestic violence takes place and that there are shelters for women and children in the tony suburbs of Oakland County north of Detroit. I learned that runaway youth who live in the burbs need a place to stay. I learned that suburban schools are becoming more diverse, handling people from different parts of the world. What I’ve learned is that the suburbs are not some fascist utopia, but are real places with real problems.
But many Christian leaders seem to choose not to care about what is happening there. Instead, they brand suburban living as unChristian. This is what someone said on the Fare Foreward blog last year:
Yet some forms of cultural resistance should be universal, because some aspects of “normal” life in America are deeply unChristian. Bradley laments that “anti-suburban Christianity” has lead to this kind of legalism. But there are some things deeply unChristian, and deeply counter to even natural virtue, in the suburbs. Will Seath does a good job of laying those out in his article from the winter edition of Fare Forward. Bradley suggests that the anti-suburban Christians advocate for urbanism at the expense of the suburbs. But, as the buzz around Rod Dreher’s latest book on moving home, a lot of the anti-suburban sentiment comes from people who support small town living just as much as from those who support city living. And the thing that unites the city and the country against the suburbs is the belief that the suburbs are not, as a matter of fact, ordinary, natural life, but a strange artificial construct that hinders ordinary live and ordinary relationships (see Seath for more).
And this was my response after I picked up my jaw from the floor:
Notice what’s being said here. It’s not that suburbs aren’t optimal to Christian living. No, suburban living is unChristian, it goes against what it means to be a Christian. I haven’t read the Will Seath article, but even without reading it the above statement is astounding. What is being said here is that nothing good comes from the suburbs, and that millions of Christians in America are basically committing a grave sin because they chose to live outside the city.
First Christian was in St. Paul until 1996. I’m pretty sure they aren’t planning on moving back. So that means learning how to do ministry in the suburbs. Being church here is not the same as in the city or in a small town. But Christ is here. There are needs. Our church is involved in a coalition of suburban churches that staff a homeless shelter for families in the suburban counties east of St. Paul. A large Lutheran church down the road tries to help some of these same people get back on their feet. Suburbanites don’t have to go into the big city to do mission, it’s here at our doorstep.
I feel that seminary left me unprepared for how to do ministry in this context. It’s not urban ministry and it sure isn’t rural ministry. But how do learn to do church in this context? How can we preach the good news in words and in deeds in these places far from the urban core?
This is a little tip for seminaries: start thinking about what it means to do mission in the ‘burbs. Because an ever larger share of American society is choosing to live there. We have to find ways to help suburbanites join in the mission of God and not feel guilty because they happen to be in the wrong zip code to some urban-centric, snobby Christians.
The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.
My experience of suburbia is that unlike a small town or a city there is often no central point of focus for a community to grow and sustain itself. People reside in the suburbs but don’t live there: they commute to work, they travel out to go to a movie or the mall.
Too many suburbs lack community facilities such as parks, coffee shops, diners, bars — and churches. Places that act as a hub for those who live nearby, where they can meet and get to know their neighbors. It seems to me that suburban ministry, more than rural or urban, has to be about bringing people together by using the church as a social hub as much as a place of worship to unite people and foster a strong community spirit.
Not to toot my alma mater’s horn, but Duke Divinity actually has a very strong emphasis on rural ministry, thanks in large part to a helpful partnership with the Duke Endowment that allows seminarians to train in rural contexts. There are also scholarships there specifically for students who show a desire and promise for rural ministry.