I am inspired to write about doing pastoral ministry in the suburbs from a set of tweets by author/blogger Hannah Anderson, who was encouraging her husband to blog about pastoral ministry in rural VA, I believe. I also find that it can helpful to talk out my ideas (hopefully a few successes and probably a bunch of failures). I have also found that there aren’t a ton of resources talking specifically about the issues and challenges that suburban churches face.
Now, I know that some people could easily object to the claim about the lack of resources for suburban churches: “99.9% of what is written and sold to Christians is specifically for suburban Christians and/or churches!!” But here’s why I think most books written through Christian publishers fall flat for actually helping suburban churches.
1. Theologically Shallow. Let’s be honest, if you take a quick glance at any of the sales brochures from Christian Book Distributors or even take a look at the Amazon best seller for Christian Books and Bibles you should be…well…underwhelmed. I can’t ever remember in my whole life as a Christian when a problem was solved with shallow theology.
2. Focus on Externals. Someone left a book in our church’s lost and found entitled something to the effect of, “12 Keys for Church Growth.” The cover indicated that it was clearly a book from the 80’s. So I cracked it open, curious to see what someone promoting “church growth” in the 80’s said were the keys. And predictably, it was pretty much was the same externally-focused things as you might find in a church growth book today: have a big enough parking lot, enough seating, etc. etc.
This doesn’t help. It really doesn’t help because churches thrive all over the place, some with adequate parking, some with terrible parking situations. When Heather and I attended Sojourn Community Church at its Midtown Campus, the parking was less than ideal. And yet, the church was still packed out inside. Sure, it can be helpful to have a large facility and a large budget. But what I have been finding is that, just like in helping the poor, throwing money at a ministry “problem” doesn’t necessarily fix it. How does money make a difference when a wife finds out about her husband’s adultery? Only solid, supportive relationships and sound words from the Bible over the long haul can really make a difference. I know that I need to forego the temptation to believe that money solves problems. It can be a help, for sure, but it doesn’t replace ministry to real people.
3. Models Don’t Work. Being the Community Groups pastor, I have read numerous books, blog posts, and articles on small groups. After all that reading I have come to one conclusion: models don’t work. If you read over at Christianity Today, their small group site offers ten different models for small groups. The problem is that what works in one context may not work in another. There can even be wide variances of culture, socio-economic status, and race even within the same town! So merely reading up on a few good models and then selecting the “right one” for your context probably won’t work. Or least it hasn’t for me.
Furthermore, real ministry has a ton of exceptions. Since we’ll on the topic of small groups, let’s stay right there. We try to be loosely geographically-based. That way people don’t have to commute to small group just like they commute everywhere else. What do you do with the exceptions, however? How strict do you keep your geography? For example, someone visits the church and gets plugged into serving in the Children’s Ministry. Hitting it off with another one of the volunteers, they are invited to a small group. It’s on the opposite side of the county. Do we still allow them to attend even though they’re not close geographically?
So what I have come to believe is that models don’t really matter. People matter. Training competent leaders, who are have high character, matters the most. Investing in people yields way more spiritual fruit than building a certain structure or model. What matters is the discipling of people.
Our take missions. If you closely examined our church’s missions budget, you’d find it a veritable history of the different missiological emphases from the 1980’s until today: the 10/40 Window, indigenous missionaries, unreached people groups, etc. It’s hard to know who to support in missions when tied to a particularly strategy, especially when so many good candidates cross your desk. So we decided as a missions committee to have a strategy tied to people not to a particular method of evangelism, church planting, or missions. This provides for us enough flexibility to support those people we believe that God is working through to advance the gospel across the globe. We could miss out on tremendous ministries if we become too tied to a particular way of doing missions. Methods do matter, but not as much as people.
Investment in people is what matters. It’s almost as if the Great Commission is true! The essence what the church should do is “make disciples.” We do that by proclaiming the gospel to people (“Go” and “baptizing”–the logical follow up evangelism). Then “teaching” them all about who Jesus is and what he’s done. That must occur primarily in the context of relationships found within the church.