August 23, 2012

Church Planting: Rockin’ The Suburbs

I’m rockin’ the suburbs

Just like Quiet Riot did

I’m rockin’ the suburbs

‘xcept they were talented..

So sang Ben Folds in his self-loathing homage to suburban white-bread musicians, including himself. (loved Ben before he was famous – DJ Ed).

There’s something about suburbia and suburban life that sends a chill down the spine of every writer, musician and artist.  They just can’t wait to leave the stultifying atmosphere of the ‘burbs and their honky, white bread, office job, 2.4 kid ways. The city is the place to be – New York City in particular, if the songs are anything to go by.  The suburbs are poisonous. Don’t think so? Then just look how poor old Kurt Cobain ended up after growing up as a suburban mall rat!

Unfortunately that same self-loathing attitude has seeped like acid into the soul of many a church planter, particularly in this most suburban of countries, Australia.  It’s as if, by magic, some form of remote and portable information technology permits us to listen in to church planting talks and conferences from large historical urban centres in places like America. It’s as if we were suddenly capable of downloading in a sort of compressed  file (it’s fifty years away at least – dubious Ed) hundreds of talks about church planting, and in some cases even see the speakers as well!  And just imagine how amazing it would be if one of those speakers actually came here in the flesh!

Ok, ok, I’m being sarcastic, but the lesson is this: When something is working well somewhere else, it can often come across as if THEIR world is THE world.  And I find this almost obsessive desire to be in cities just a touch like that.  I’m helping write and edit a series of essays on what Perth (my city) is actually like.  And what is Perth? One big SUBURB! And the converse is true: Perth’s suburbs ARE the city. Perth grew up as a car city, with long arterial roads and a donut centre – hollow in the middle.  Only now are people starting to live in the centre, but the real life of the place is in the ‘burbs.

So what lessons do we learn from this for church planters who want to rock the suburbs?

1. Beware Theological Anachronisms. What do I mean by that?  Well, just  as  Shakespeare proved when he wrote Julius Caesar that he was no Einstein…

Brutus: Peace! count the clock.

Cassius: The clock has stricken three

…because clocks hadn’t been invented yet, we must be careful not to read a city-centric church planting model back into the New Testament.  Yes Paul went to the major centres on his missionary journeys, but as opposed to what – the suburbs?  Wrong again Einstein.  It was city/rural in those days. As my church planting mate in suburban Ellenbrook – Steve Poisat – says “The Shire of Swan has more people in it than Ninevah!” Paul went to where the people were, and here in Perth the people are in the suburbs. So go get ’em tiger!

2. Beware Exegetical Gymnastics: We’ve all heard the “seek the welfare/peace of the city” from Jeremiah 28:7, haven’t we?  And so often it’s used as exegetical justification for church planting in urban areas.  Hey, plant churches in urban areas if you want, just don’t use this verse to justify it.  In context  (always a useful thing – Ed) the exiled people of God are told to settle in the city of Babylon and await THEIR salvation, not ITS salvation. If anything it is an extremely selfish exhortation by Jeremiah because the only people he is concerned with are the exiled Jews.  If Babylon stays peaceful, then the Jews stay peaceful. Besides, why not read Psalm 137 in league with Jeremiah 28 just to get some perspective on where Babylon’s fate ultimately lies? Let’s love the city, but let’s not preference city planting because of dubious exegesis.

3: Beware Historical Example: When the huddled masses moved to New York after the war they ended up in the poorest place, the place where they could establish a toehold and where housing was cheap.  That place was the city, with all its noise, grime, opportunity and teaming masses. Those very same boroughs and districts in 2012 are the most expensive in New York.  When the huddled masses move to Perth in 2012 they end up in suburbs such as Mirrabooka, Kwinana and Armadale (check out Paradox Church), suburbs and localities far from the infrastructure-rich inner city and its expensive housing.  Even those with jobs to come to in our city are forced out further and further along the train lines due to housing costs. Ours is a two-cars-per-family city because of the sprawl.

4. Beware Community Lust: I’ve mentioned this before, but the real danger is that, in some misguided attempt to be a “real” church planter, we either move to the city or try to drag the group we have closer to the city.  And if we don’t, we pine for the kind of people we could reach in the city, you know the types; funky, urban, arty and ever so keen to discuss philosophy (unlike those troglodyte suburbanites – Ed). Result? Grumpy church planter and resentful church members.

Next time: Church Planting: Town Mouse vs Suburban Mouse

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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