NEWSFLASH: Subdivisions are full of sinners.
There are just as many sinners in pristine, gated communities as there are in the slums. In fact, I’ve found the Gospel to be more opposed in the land of manicured lawns and picket fences than in the inner cities.
Do we realize the nice, clean, “safe” suburban neighborhoods need the Gospel as much as any other area in the world? Or do we pay less attention to the souls in subdivisions because we’re so quick to move onto other areas of ministry with “more pressing” needs?
Matthew Spandler-Davison, executive director of 20schemes and pastor of Redeemer Fellowship Church in Bardstown, Ky., has lived and labored in both poor and wealthy societies and has noticed some striking contrasts.
“In poor communities, people know they’re sinners,” he said. “You don’t need to convince people in poor communities that they’re a sinner. That’s not offensive to them. They know that. They make fun of it.”
But if you live in the Bible belt like I do you might quickly discover that the true Gospel is more resisted in the subdivisions.
I mean, everyone is a “Christian” here. People are nice and polite and mostly genuine, but life in more polished societies is just that—polished. But regardless of how much you shine and wax the outside of a grave, the inside is still filled with dead men’s bones (Matthew 23:27-28). So while our images might appear squeaky clean on the outside, the core is rotting with the same poisonous sin that taints us all.
Subdivision Pharisees often cling to a sense of pride and dignity, desiring to protect reputation rather than admit brokenness. Matthew continued to say the mindset in wealthy or middle class communities is all about maintaining respectability and reputation.
“My reputation is everything,” he said of the common belief system. “It’s what I do, it’s how I raise my kids, it’s where I live, it’s what car I drive, it’s what job I have. I’m trying to build this sense of reputation amongst my peers and friends.
“That’s a very difficult area to do ministry because people rarely acknowledge their need. They don’t acknowledge their need for a Savior, their need for a God, their need for somebody to come alongside them and help them journey through this life. It’s a very hard place to do ministry. I think it’s harder to do ministry in a more middle class, wealthier context than it is in a poorer part of the world because people are not real with themselves or their own sense of need.”
In light of that, how do we take the Gospel to the dead bones of suburbia?
THREE REASONS THE GOSPEL NEEDS TO COME TO THE ‘BURBS
ONE. THERE IS NONE GOOD
And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” -Mark 10:18
Behind “safe” streets, privacy fences, and security systems, we find broken people in need of rescuing grace. The thing is, brokenness in the suburbs is typically masked with self-appointed goodness and tainted with a touch of Pharisee.
While suburban life might not seem “hard” at first glance, the reality is that sometimes hearts are harder there than in the most unreached places of the world.
In his book Church in Hard Places: How the Local Church Brings Life to the Poor and Needy, Mez McConnell writes,
When I listen to pastors battling away around Europe and the States in well-off areas, I break out in a cold sweat. How do you evangelize in an area where everybody has a decent paying job, a nice place to live, and possibly a car (or two) in the driveway? How do you break through the intellectual pride of a worldview that thinks religion is beneath them and that science has all the answers? How do you witness in an area where the average house price is more than $400,000? How do you talk to a guy who feels no need for Christ because he is distracted by his materialism? How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law-abiding citizens, who don’t cheat on their wives, beat their kids, and spend their evenings stoned on a sofa watching reality television? Now that’s hard.
Pharisees need the Gospel too. And such was I (1 Corinthians 6:11). A Pharisee of the Pharisees, my heart was stubbornly clinging to my filthy rags of good works when the Lord met me in my deepest need. I needed someone to come to me in my supposed righteousness and confront me about my illusion of self-sufficiency and expose what my flesh never wanted to admit was true: I needed a Savior because I couldn’t be good enough to rescue myself.
Respectable sins still damn our souls for eternity.
No one offers good enough “good” works to convince God to grant us pardon. If you haven’t been transformed by redeeming grace, it doesn’t matter what street you live on, your address is in the kingdom of darkness.
The Gospel in the suburbs addresses the hardness of self-inflated hearts, our stubborn dependence on our own intelligence, the compulsion to compare ourselves to anyone other than God’s standard—Jesus. But it doesn’t leave us there. The Gospel gives glorious hope to “good” people as it boldly declares that despite (and in spite of) our shameful best efforts to appear presentable and earn eternal favor, God in flesh has come to us to bear our curse and rob us of our sin and shame. Jesus, the wealthy Son of heaven, became poor to give us true riches. And that’s better than anything a gated community or white-picket-fence society could ever offer.
TWO. BUSYNESS DOES NOT EQUATE HOLINESS
On that day many will say to Me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.” -Matthew 7:22-23
While subdivisions may boast of full refrigerators, full closets, and full schedules, they sometimes contain empty and fragile hearts. In our excessively fast-paced western world, it’s become easy to hide behind busyness, striving to maintaining a certain persona of having it all together and accomplishing so much when really it’s just a mask that covers exhaustion, feelings of inadequacy, and a deep desire to feel important and needed.
Stop the glorification of busy. –Tim Keller
Even if it’s filled with good things, over-packed schedules can be distractions that keep the voice of the Lord quieted and our need for Him squashed.
The Gospel in the suburbs addresses the constantly-on-the-move heart with the life-giving reassurance that we do not have to look a certain way, play a certain part, or live according to a certain culturally-formatted system to fit in, find fulfillment, or have peace. The Gospel tells the most exhausted heart that holiness, satisfaction, and acceptance is not found in the fast-paced life but in the face of Jesus Christ. In Him alone do we find rest for our weary, over-busy souls.
THREE. LONELINESS IS REAL
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another, for the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” -Galatians 5:13-14
Sometimes behind the façade of goodness or busyness resides a deep loneliness that masks itself as confidence, security, or even arrogance.
We are wired for deep relationships but it’s hard to live up to our desired image when confessing hurt, pain, and need. Be a friend. Be willing to go beyond superficial platitudes to share your story and sit with people in theirs. And remember what is true about the “good” person beside you (as well as the one you find in the mirror): they are in desperate need of redemption.
Residents of the suburbs need to see God and, if you are a believer, He is living in and through you. We are, as Matthew Spandler-Davison said, to put Jesus on display wherever He sends.
Our presence, our attention, our care, our making space, all point to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He drew near. He understands our hearts and hurts. He speaks to our deep needs. Listening demonstrates the Gospel implications. And, if we really listen, we will discern the deep longings of the heart that the Gospel truly speaks to. I have found that if I truly listen, it is not difficult to speak the Gospel to someone in a way that really does sound like good news to them. –Jeff Vanderstelt
The Gospel in the suburbs addresses the need for community and belonging in every person by exposing their need then providing them with the answer to it. The Gospel gives its recipients a family, a community, and an eternal home all because Jesus left His throne to ransom rebels and change their address to the kingdom of light.
Regardless of your location, the mission is the same: make disciples of all nations (which includes the suburbs, the slums, the cities, the villages, and the uttermost parts of the world).
We have the Gospel. We have our mission. What’s stopping us?