Thursday, December 20, 2007

Respite Amid Restlessness: What Church in the 'Burbs Should Be

While cities get the rap for being places of hustle and bustle and suburbs enjoy their reputations as places of relaxation, I sometimes wonder how true that is. I rarely if ever hear folks in my suburb speak of their free time, and as volunteers drop from the rolls left and right, the excuse is often the same: “I don’t have the time.” Indeed, life in the suburbs is filled with activity, of restlessness, of can-do attitudes that have given rise to an entire vocabulary around “over-functioning” and “work/life balance.” It’s not to say this doesn’t happen in the city, but it definitely happens in the suburbs. Maybe the ‘burbs just tend to be populated with go-getters that had the energy to start a family, commute to a job, and buy a house there to begin with. It’s certainly the only living space that has an automobile named after it (the Suburban), built for this frenzied way of life.

So as I minister in such a frenzied atmosphere, I wonder what the role of the church should be in such a time and place. The basic choices are this: to adapt, or to resist. The church can adapt by excusing low attendance because of soccer practice, shorten worship to an hour or less so there’s no big time commitment, even design the worship space so that it resembles a living room more than a house of worship. (All that’s missing in many sanctuaries are drapes.) Many pastors think it’s the only way to go, and they’re probably right. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Do whatever it takes to get them through the doors, even if it means rushing through worship and ignoring that sports leagues are slowly taking over Sunday mornings, much less Wednesday nights.

Perhaps it’s just the contrarian in me, but I’m tending towards resistance. Is there really anything healthy or worthy of praise in the suburban lifestyle after all? The most frequent operating procedure I observe is an all-encompassing can-do, must-do, keep up appearances attitude. Not exactly the secret to satisfaction. I do not want to criticize this lifestyle, as in my own way, I’m a part of it. Instead, I want to offer an alternative, one I think could be fruitful. By accommodating to this lifestyle, we’re encouraging it, and, if anything, it seems to me that churches can help people lead simpler, more focused and satisfying lives by demonstrating what this life looks like, especially on Sunday morning.

So instead of building a church around programs and activities, especially activities for families and children, I see the church as a respite amid restlessness, an oasis for lives already dealing with busyness. The chief role of the church in the suburbs should be one of prayer and worship, ignoring for the most part time constraints and similar pressures. As I look around, there are more than enough activities for families in children in most neighborhoods between school, athletics, theatre, etc. There is even a plethora of charities that do excellent work, often doubling up the churches efforts. It’s not to say the church should abandon all its programs or charity, but instead should focus less on frenetic activity, and more on teaching us that the frenzied lifestyle is a trap in and of itself.

My one caveat to this would be the use of small groups throughout the church, so that as a church grows (which is pretty easy to happen in the suburbs), it will also shrink with groups. The more personal aspect of a faith community can be encountered here, and if groups decide to adopt mission projects or activities at the church, they can do that independently.

But the church proper should help those distracted souls in the suburbs see a different way of life. It can do this by not mirroring the activity, but instead, resisting it. Here are my suggestions:

1. Worship for over an hour – where else do they have to be?
2. Spend money on beautiful space. Since when did we so tacitly accept that any old space will do, it’s all about the “message.” Humbug. To reach people, visual space that is transformative is key.
3. Encourage small groups. Don’t let people settle for surface faith only. Get them talking.
4. Have great music. No art has the power to impress and to change like music. If it is of the highest order (as opposed to soft rock Christian music often heard in the suburbs), music sends the message that form is crucial to religious life, and the church has no intention of merely adapting to the world’s media.
5. Provide explicit times for silence, prayer and meditation. If the church doesn’t teach us how to pray, how to still our lives, what will?

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