Before I Get the Donuts . . . Thoughts on the Suburban Church

I have to run out in a few minutes to pick up the donuts for the Northshire Non-Profit Network meeting this morning at the Hildene in Manchester, Vt. I have to say that aside from making the coffee, I can think of no other ceremonial fuction that I would rather fill than the bearer of the donuts. That’s all well and good, but I wanted to post a few thoughts about the church and community this morning . . .

. . . but before I get to that, I just noticed that, after a year off, Nate is blogging again at Sacred Scarred. Welcome back Nate! He was axed from my blog log here after 4 months or so of inactivity. He’ll once again be a member in good standing as of this weekend when I bring him back to shouts of adulation. If you don’t know Nate, he’s a very thoughtful guy I’ve known since high school who likes to ask hard questions and to stir the pot a little. He has that notorious New Jersey sarcasm down pat.

OK, now that I have 3 minutes, here are some thoughts on the church and community:

Part of my experience growing up either on the edge of Philly in the far Northeast, in the Jersey burbs of Philly, and then in Bucks County, just north of Philly is that of disconnect from my community. I didn’t feel like I was part of a “town”. I really was jealous of people with a town center, one gas station, one barber shop, one small general store in the town center, a restaurant for all of the locals, a cafe where all the kids hang, and so forth.

For the most part, the only public places at my disposal were movie theaters, Friendly’s, and diners. But even the best communal place in my early experience does not compare to the small town feel I have in South Western Vermont. I see people I know all of the time. Your options are limited, but you always run into people while out and about, and I really, really like that. But what about the church?

Looking back at my childhood I realize that I had found community and belonging at my church. It was the place I belonged, it was my “Cheers” (if you’ve seen the TV show that is). It was the place where everyone knew my name and it acted as the center of town so to speak. And by the way, in Mt. Laurel, NJ, the location of my church, there was no town center, so it may as well be church any way!

I think this is an area in which suburban church can really minister: becoming the center of community life. Of course this means that Christians will have to stop being weird, but I do believe miracles can happen.

OK, I’m out of time. I made my point, any thoughts? I hope Nate appreciates the fact that I sacrificed posting my brilliant thoughts (cough, gag) in order to plug his blog. Maybe Nate can post a comment that takes this post to the next level . . . No pressure!

One thought on “Before I Get the Donuts . . . Thoughts on the Suburban Church

  1. nate

    Ah, the gauntlet…

    I think I would agree with your assessment of South Jersey (the "greater Philadelphia area" as I like to call it – "New Jersey" has too many bad connotations).

    Part of the difficultly in living in this area is a distinct lack of the traditional community that is afforded to you in SW Vermont. People are spread out and they like it that way. They live thier private lives and want to keep it that way. They spend most of their time in the car. They do not have to interact with people. I can do my grocery shopping, banking, and hit the Pharmacy and never (never) have to interact with another living human being. People leave work, get in their car, drive home, drive into their garage and enter their house…they don’t even have to see their neighbors. People travel relatively far distances to purchase simple things like shoes and books (why go to the local shoe store or bookstore when Target and Borders are so much "better"?).

    And churches, for the most part, are no different. They attract congregants from a wide area. People travel 20 plus minutes to attend the church of their choice. Suburbia spews consumerism even at the "which church do I choose" level. This is the reality.

    Some who land at a particular church get it. Like you and I in high school, church becomes their "Cheers". But more and more churches in this area drift from "where everybody knows your name" toward "where everybody you know, knows your name (maybe)."

    In theory, the church becoming the center of community life sounds awesome. But…

    1) Christians aren’t going to stop being weird. "I’ve worked really hard to find or create this little safe place for myself and my family and we don’t like sin."

    2) Christians aren’t going to stop being weird. "Why would I want this church to become the center of community life in this town when I travel 20 minutes to get here? This town isn’t my community – it’s just where my church is located."

    3) Christians aren’t gong to stop being weird. "Community life would mean an investment beyond Sunday morning and the Bible study that I sporadically attend. Christianity shouldn’t require all of my time."

    Town centers and the traditional community "feel" don’t exist in the greater Philadelphia area because people don’t want it to exist. They don’t want it in their neighborhoods. They don’t want it in their grocery store. They don’t want it in their churches. They don’t want it.

    And churches will maintain the status quo because they are in the business (business) of giving people what they want. Churches shy away from having a prophetic voice in their culture – that would just be weird.

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