A question from Vaughn: "I really appreciate your encouragement to see the suburbs as a place for mission both in the sense of personal transformation and systemic transformation (p .187). I would love to see my small suburban church plant develop a parish mindset in which we found common purpose around a mission to bring transformation to our local neighborhood (as some have defined "Missional Church"). However, in my middle class neighborhood there aren't many visible systemic issues other than those that you noted in your early chapters (consumerism, individualism, etc...and I certainly share your concern with these issues as well). Do you have any suggestions for how middle class suburban churches might approach "systemic" mission in their own neighborhoods?"
Great question. I think that every church can identify the systemic needs and issues in their particular community and neighborhood by doing some "field reconnaissance." One pastor I know (whose church is located in a Southern Californian suburban area with lots of changing demographics) talks about how every suburb has systemic issues, but they're often hidden below the surface, and it takes some work to sniff them out. Some ways you can do this:
- Visit and talk to social service agencies (whether governmental or nonprofit) serving your area. What needs do they see? What resources do they lack?
- Talk to public school teachers. If you have any teachers in your congregation, they may be some of your best "field agents" because they are on the ground, in the community, and they see what their students are facing. Teachers are often the first to see problems when students are struggling, and can often get a sense of trends in economic hardships, parental alcoholism or abuse, lack of health care, mortgage foreclosure, etc.
- Go to a city council meeting. I know, these can be mind-numbingly boring. But some people really get a kick out of them, and they can shed light on what systemic issues a community might be facing. If you have a policy-wonkish member of your congregation that loves debating politics, send them to a local city council meeting and have them invest their energies on a local level instead of just being concerned with national politics all the time. All politics is local, and often local concerns are far more bipartisan and less polarizing than national issues that can be all abstract and removed.
- Visit neighbors. Bill Hybels did this when starting Willow Creek, and he got a sense of what kind of people lived in his community and what concerned them. We can do the same today. It's unfashionable to go door-to-door these days, but maybe there are ways we can talk to people at parks or Starbucks, not with an evangelistic tract or a hokey "religious survey," but with genuine efforts to hear what people are grappling with locally and personally.
These are just initial steps, obviously, as I don't know that I can make specific recommendations for next steps without having a sense of the particularities of your actual context. And I'm going to wrap up this post because another question just got sent to me!