Jesus of Suburbia:An Update

This is an update of a sermon I wrote in 2014 on suburban ministry.

Mahtomedi Water Tower at Sunset. Photo by Tony Webster.

It’s been over six years since I started at First Christian of St. Paul which is in the suburb of 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.


Most seminaries tend to ignore rural contexts and view suburbia with a sense of contempt. 


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.  Growing up in 1970s Michigan, I was told that the nearby Detroit suburbs were made up of former white Detroiters who wanted to get away from African Americans. But the thing is, as I said in a 2013 post, 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 in 2013:

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 (empahsis mine), 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.


Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs. There are people who need God in their lives.


First Christian was in St. Paul until 1996.  I’m pretty sure we aren’t planning on moving back.  So that means learning how to do ministry in the suburbs. Being church here in Mahtomedi is not the same as in the city or in a small town.  But Christ is here.  There are needs.  There are people who need God in their lives. 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.

But there is still more to be done. How we are sharing our faith with others in the neighborhood? How are we showing that this church is an active presence in our community? What does our witness as a diverse congregation speak to the wider majority white community?


The Jesus of the City and the small town is also Jesus of suburbia.


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.

Is It a Sin to Live in the Suburbs?

I’ve always been a city kid and for the most part have always lived in a city.  As kids growing up in Michigan, I grew up with the belief that the ‘burbs were somehow not a good place to be.  They were filled with white people who fled the cities to escape people who look like me.

As I got older, I learned that suburban America is not as whitebread as I was once taught.  It’s still not my preference in living options, but I don’t see it as some kind  of moral failing either.

But in many sectors of the American church the suburbs are considered something…well, alien to Christian living.  I’ve read a number of writers and bloggers and heard a lot of fellow Christians that emphasize the need to be in the city and tend to look at the suburbs as a place that is superfluous if not antithetical to being a follower of Jesus.

Here’s a sample of what I mean.  It’s what set me off to write this rant…I mean post:

Suburban living is about comfort, security, and prosperity. The modern evangelical movement has capitalized on these desires by providing superbly outfitted temples that cater to the consumerist cravings of their congregations. It provides “safe places” where parents can be assured that they and their children will never have to rub shoulders with pagans, never be disturbed by ideas or concepts that challenge their Sunday School faith, and never have to deal with the uncomfortable realities that live next door.

So, this is what the suburbs are all about: a place that is safe, comfortable and affluent.  Except that suburbs aren’t all like this and the people living their aren’t always living the easy life.  I always get the idea that most of the people who talk like this about suburbs have never really bothered to find out what the ‘burbs look like.  They just hear a few criticisms and take them as gospel.  Obviously if a family lives in the suburbs, they must be racists that don’t care about the poor and want to live in comfort.

I don’t know where in the Bible it says “Thou shalt not live in a suburb,” or “Blessed are they that live in the city,” but it must be somewhere that I’m not looking.

There was a time that I would have been as judgemental when it comes to suburbanites.  What has changed is that I’ve spent time working in the burbs and I now serve an urban church where most of its members are suburban. The suburbs have some of the same issues facing cities such as poverty.  Suburbia is not the promised land.

First Christian might be located in Minneapolis, but we are a regional church.  A majority of our members drive in from the suburbs surrounding the Twin Cities.  Most of these suburbanites are good people, some of whom deal with a lot of pain.  It’s been in these experiences that I’ve learned that people who live in Eagan or Eden Prairie or Woodbury are…people.  There are people who live in the suburbs who are saints.  They do what they can do live as a Christian, loving God and serving their neighbor.  I’ve also met people who live in the city who happen to be first-class jerks.  Living in the city or the suburbs doesn’t make one a better follower of Christ.

What matters is that people learn to be the church where they live.  It’s not about the zip code as much as it is about being the church wherever one lays their head.