Ministering in New Territory: The Shifting Nature of the American Suburb

Ministry today will be different than ministry yesterday. You can take that statement to the bank.

God (and his revelation to us through Scripture) are unchanging. The gospel is the same good news it was when Christ fully revealed it to his first disciples. Pastoral ministry still has the same important aspects as Paul discussed in his letters in the New Testament.

However, ministry is dynamic because communities are dynamic.

Consider the Locale

Churches do not fulfill the Great Commission in a vacuum. We are called to make disciples in neighborhoods and communities. We're called to send people everywhere between here and there, but ministry is always essentially local. Even when we send people to another city or across an ocean to plant churches and make disciples, we are sending them to their new local environment. And local places never stay the same. They are always changing and so must our approach to ministry in order to provide relevant, contextualized ministry.

A recent example comes in the form of a Citylab article from urban scholar Richard Florida titled, "How Families With Kids Drive Suburban Segregation." Florida expands upon recent research by Ann Owens, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, concerning segregation in major metropolitan areas. According to Owens, the classic assumptions that used to be true concerning segregation in metro areas may not be as accurate as they once were.

Ministry is dynamic because communities are dynamic.

Conventional wisdom held that segregation in a large metro area (an area with a city at its core surrounded by suburbs) was basically an urban/suburban divide. Urban areas typically held your poverty and your minorities while the suburbs were home to affluence and families. If affluent people lived in city centers, they were typically childless (young singles with money or empty nesters). Thus, the lines of segregation were drawn between urban and suburban areas in a metro.

According to Owen's study, such may no longer be the case. While income segregation in metro areas is still on the rise, the lines are mostly being drawn in the suburbs. With factors such as gentrification at play, and the generational preferences that support a "back to the city" movement, groups are shuffling around. As affluence selects city neighborhoods, it eventually prices out less affluent people and families who then move toward the cheaper suburbs.

In this way, suburbs are diversifying both ethnically and economically. Florida writes, "But families with kids are now sorting more within the suburbs, rather than across old urban-suburban divides. This likely reflects the growing economic divide in the suburbs themselves, with the affluent and advantaged taking over the best locations with the best schools, pushing the other suburban poor into less-advantaged locations."

The new divide is not between urban and suburban; it is between rich and poor suburbs. Florida continues, "The result is the fracturing of the American landscape into a patchwork of islands of concentrated advantage, surrounded by much larger spans of concentrated disadvantage that cut across our cities and suburbs alike."

Increased linguistic and cultural diversity in suburbs means a need for more than one cultural type of church.

Ministering in New Territory

For churches that find themselves in the suburbs, these changing demographics matter. It is no secret that the majority of evangelical churches are located in the suburbs of metropolitan areas. We must ask ourselves, however, if our churches are prepared to minister to new territory. Churches located on the same plot of ground where they started 3 or 4 decades ago may not have moved, but the communities around them have shifted.

Suburban churches today cannot assume a homogeneous population in their neighborhoods. As diversity (both ethnic and economic) increases, ministry methods must shift in kind. Certainly, no single church can reach a city. Increased linguistic and cultural diversity in suburbs means a need for more than one cultural type of church.

Here in Houston, we have traditionally affluent white suburbs that now have a need for Urdu-speaking churches because of the large number of affluent Pakistanis in those same neighborhoods. However, it also means those established churches cannot assume a middle class, English-speaking mission field.

The Great Commission has not changed, and our responsibility to those neighbors is the same. We are to provide witness and testimony to the glorious message of salvation. We are to make new disciples by calling these neighbors to Christ. We are to love our neighbors in this way, even if are neighbors look different than they used to. But truly sharing a message means doing so in a way that people can understand. That takes knowing those with whom you are called to share the message, and doing so in ways that make sense to them. New neighbors means new ministry.

Ministry today will be different than ministry yesterday.

Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.