Why Planting a Missional Church in the Suburbs Is So Hard

My wife Deb and I recently moved our family to a northeastern suburb of Indianapolis to plant a church with our friends Matt and Sharon Tebbe. There were a few reasons for landing where we did, mostly having to do with the relationships our friends (who had arrived a few months before we had) were establishing. It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit, so we stepped out in faith. We have seen God work in some amazing ways, providing for us in some difficult circumstances and opening some intriguing doors of opportunity.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not also really, really hard. It is.

Living in the Sprawl

One of the reasons planting a missional church in the suburbs is hard (besides all the normal reasons missional church planting is hard) is that the built environment of the suburbs strongly mitigates against community.
[Tweet “”the built environment of the suburbs strongly mitigates against community” Ben Sternke”] The physical structure of the suburbs literally obstructs the forming of friendships and community.
I read an excellent article that pointed out the loss of adult friendship in our society is actually a result of the way we’ve built the world. The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is “repeated spontaneous contact.” That’s why we make friends in college: because we are, by virtue of where we live and our daily activities, forced into regular contact with the same people. It is the natural soil out of which friendship grows. Contrast college with the typical suburban family, “each of us living in our own separate nuclear-family castles, with our own little faux-estate lawns, getting in a car to go anywhere, never seeing friends unless we make an effort to schedule it.”
The environment we’ve constructed is literally a barrier to the forming of friendships and community.

The Soil in Which the Gospel Grows

This matters for church planting because of how we are planting. We aren’t just trying to get a worship service started, we’re trying to see the gospel take root in a community. What’s “easy” up here in the suburbs is getting people to try out a new worship service (especially if the kids ministry is awesome and the coffee is good). People will “try out a new church” like they try out a new grocery store. It’s one more option in a sea of choices. People love it.
[Tweet “It’s easy to get people to a worship service but difficult to incarnate the gospel in community”] The way the gospel becomes rooted in people’s lives is through the well-worn paths of consistent relationship. Relationship is the netting that allows people and communities to catch and spread the gospel virus. Without the web of friendships formed by regular spontaneous contact, our best gospel intentions tend to slip through the cracks and spill out onto the over-paved ground of the suburbs. Like friendship, discipleship takes repeated spontaneous contact, which is why the physical environment of the suburbs is such a difficult place to plant a missional church!

Intentionality Is Necessary

This creates a situation where we have to exert an incredible amount of intentionality just to have regular contact with other humans in our neighborhood. A few days after we landed in our neighborhood, Deb and I started trying to chat up our neighbors about what was going on in the neighborhood, on our street, etc. Our next door neighbor lamented, “Our street doesn’t do anything together! Everyone just sticks to themselves. We live on the wrong street!” Deb’s apostolic instincts kicked in and she exclaimed, “Well, we’ll have to change that!”
She told me she wanted to invite our neighbors over for an informal hang out. A few days later, Deb and I awkwardly knocked on the doors of the five closest neighbors and invited them to come over to our house for a firepit gathering on Friday night. “Bring a snack and your favorite drink,” we added. It was obvious this wasn’t a normal practice. Most of our neighbors initially assumed we were salespeople.
Friday night came, and we pulled our firepit from the backyard to the driveway, arranged some chairs around it, opened our (messy) garage, and set up a couple tables to hold the snacks, cider, and wine that people would be bringing. Slowly but surely, almost everyone came over to hang out. People who had lived across the street from one another for years were meeting each other for the first time. After everyone got over the slight embarrassment of having never met their neighbors, the conversation settled in to the normal topics: Indianapolis sports, what people do for a living, what people like to do in the summer, etc.
Everyone left agreeing that “We need to do this more often!” and thanking us for organizing it. Deb and I were struck with how easy it was to get everyone out of their houses and hanging out (with a little intentionality).

Faith Is Necessary

However, we were also struck by the realization of how easy it is for us to go an entire week without ever seeing our neighbors. We are reminded every day that our built environment mitigates against our vision to plant a multiplying, missional, incarnational community here in the Indy suburbs.
I find myself often struggling to have faith that God can overcome these barriers to the gospel taking root, but when I return to the posture of simply paying attention to what the Spirit is doing, I wake up to all the ways God is at work in the suburbs. (Incidentally, this is why a holistic approach to planting a missional church in the suburbs is necessary. For example, I believe we need to shape the prayer life of a community and be involved in city planning conversations. The New Parish, authored by three missional practitioners, is an excellent resource that outlines this kind of approach. Highly recommended!)
Every day, we try to wake up to God’s presence in our neighborhood and join Jesus in what he’s doing, believing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.
Not even the suburbs.
[Tweet “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ…Not even the suburbs. ~Ben Sternke”]

Your Turn

How about you? Are you planting in the suburbs? What have you noticed as you seek to build community and see the gospel take root? Are you planting in an urban context? What are the challenges you face?
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About the Author

Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.

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