Nine days out of ten, I feel like I am walking upstream, fighting a current that is twice as strong as my legs. I am a “missional pastor” in one of the wealthiest counties in Pennsylvania. Ours is the land of McMansions, SUVs, competitive kids’ sports leagues, malls and big box stores. My township does not have sidewalks. A classic missional practice – “walk your neighborhood!” – means taking my life in my hands as cars zip past me at 50+ miles an hour. The most sustained interaction I have had with my neighbors since we moved here 3 years ago, was when a hurricane hit the northeast and we were without power for six days, trapped on our street by huge pine trees that came down on either side of us. But by day four, most people had abandoned their houses until power was restored. It will take more than that to slow us down. This is my reality.
And my calling is missional.
I confess I am somewhat jealous of my urban colleagues. They can walk on sidewalks in their neighborhoods and the needs are right there – empty storefronts, vacant houses, children playing in empty lots, adults looking for various kinds of assistance. It is right in front of them. And let me be clear, it’s not that my local context has NO obvious needs. There is poverty here and there are people in need of assistance, for sure. But there are also an abundance of services offered in my community. There are housing coalitions and after-school programs. There are food pantries in almost every town, thrift stores and addiction groups meeting in many houses of worship. What can we as a faith community offer that is not already offered? At missional conferences I have often heard the question, “would your community grieve if your church had to close its doors?” Well, at this point… no. We are fairly redundant.
Incarnating the Good News in suburbia is hard. On the surface all of our needs are met, or if they aren’t met at the moment, all we have to do is make a few phone calls and get that need met within 24 hours or less. So for the last 2 ½ years, I have been trying to peel back the layers of my beloved suburbia. Clearly my community needs Good News. But how do I offer it in a way that connects with my neighbors? We are soul-dry, but hesitant to admit it. Our busyness covers up loneliness and exhaustion. Our manicured lawns are a distraction from our brokenness and our frantic search for meaning beyond work and vacation and more work and more vacation. We are also not flocking to churches in search of healing and hope.
Somehow, we who call ourselves “people of Good News,” must earn the right to lovingly move past the superficials of our neighbors’ suburban lives. I am learning this takes time – time and tenacity. One dinner party won’t do it. A block party once a year won’t do it. A couple of conversations at the mailbox does not make me a safe person to talk to when someone needs care. In an effort to listen and to hopefully peel back some of those layers, I have declared Fridays my own Community Day. That is the day that I tutor students at my kids’ elementary school. I (carefully) walk some of the roads down the hill from my house and look around and pray. I pop into the local bar for a drink, have actually made some friends there. We talk about our kids and dogs and houses. Less frequently, I pop in at the firehouse and ask how I can pray for those courageous volunteers.
My personal community days have led to some expressions of Good News that I celebrate. Last year when the hurricane hit, we opened our church for a “storm kitchen” where anyone and everyone could bring what would spoil in their refrigerators at home since many of us had lost power, and we concocted some delicious soups and casseroles to hand out to our neighbors that evening. This coming Sunday, the evening before Veterans’ Day, we are holding a healing prayer service. I have planned it with a new friend, the chaplain of our local VFW post. We are going to invite veterans – as well as others – to come and name their pain, to pray with the psalmist, “Where are you, God? I need you!” and to wait on God for healing and hope.
So I will keep trekking upstream. I love my community and I’m not going anywhere… sometimes I feel lost and confused and wonder if my stumbling efforts are enough, are worthy of the Good News I have heard and have given my life to. But God is here, too, in suburbia. I am convinced of that.
I would love to hear other stories of folks struggling to live missionally in suburbia. What are you learning? How are you connecting with people and bringing the Good News into your suburban community?