starting church

October 10, 2008

The past month has been really quite full.  It’s seen a lot of changes.  I’ve started seminary, refreshing my stale greek and hebrew, putting in a couple of sleepless nights hashing out my own synopsis of what preaching is biblically.  Seminary is a forty-five minute drive north of here (and a 90 or so minute drive on the return trip!).  That’s ratcheted up the degree of tension on my schedule.

A bigger change, however, occurred on September 5.  A month ago I signed onto a project with a church located in Chicago’s southern suburbs (Bolingbrook, to be exact).  The church is an old church (the second oldest in the Chicago area, according to the plaque in the history room).  It’s full of families that have lived in that community since it was still dirtroads and cornfields instead of chain restaurants, big box stores, strip malls, and an Ikea.  It’s a sweet Presbyterian congregation that reminds me much of my days at Cedarville United Presbyterian Church during undergrad.

But it’s also a church that hasn’t purposefully changed with the community.  It has an aesthetically beautiful, large building that is awkwardly empty during most the week.  This, I surmise, was part of the initial impulse to create my position.

I am the new director of young adult ministries.  At this point, I don’t think anyone understands my role as just shoring up the giving-base of the church.  That’s certainly not the way I understand it.  Instead, the goal is to give birth to a young, growing christian community in the shell of an old one.

I’ve written much regarding my own thoughts on the church and churchplanting.  Consider this a first step in that direction.  It’s not quite real churchplanting.  This experiment is still located within a larger institution, its bound to it both to its advantage (resources) and to its disadvantage (institutional structure).  It’s in the suburbs, not my ideal location, sheltered from face-to-face contact with real human need and the power of the gospel.  I told one friend here in the city this when the experiment was still just a possibility.  He laughed incredulously and questioned whether God would have anything to do with the suburbs.  I understand where he’s coming from, but I’m confident that the gospel is like a mustard-weed seed–it can sprout up in the most unlikely places.

Yet this experiment in real-though-suburban community has the same gospel at its heart.  It’s trying to live out the message Jesus proclaimed:  that in him the kingdom of God has come and will come, that this should change entirely the whole of our lives as we wait in expectation.  I’ve tried to fill out what this gospel-vision means through three emphases: 

1. Community–I’ve already used the word a lot in this post, mostly because I think it’s so important.  The good news Jesus brings–the we can get in on what God’s doing because Jesus has removed the barrier of sin through his death and resurrection–shows up in most fullly in the communities his Spirit forms.  It shows up in the way we live with one another, the meals we eat together, the resources we spread around so everyone’s needs are met, the way we forgive and ask for forgiveness, the way we live and lay down our lives for the sake of each other.  I want this to be the basis of all this experimental church does.  Personal relationships in which we honestly love each other will be the building blocks to every meeting, potluck, get-together, service project, missions trip, etc. that we attempt.  In honesty, this is the area where we are currently struggling the most.  I forty miles north of Bolingbrook; it’s hard to create community in a place you don’t live.  Besides this, it is much more difficult to meet people in the suburbs than in the city–no bus stops or local mercados or crowds on the sidewalk.  Where do people congregate in suburbia?

2.  Incarnation–This theological category sums up in itself and stands behind many different facets of the way our community will live.  In Jesus, God reaffirms the imago dei.  He takes us back to himself in all our humanness, redeeming the places we live, the things we make–all the bits of culture and society that are honest and true and good.  On the other hand, Jesus goes throughout Galilee and then down to Jerusalem criticising and overturning the deep-rooted evil that permeates much of the culture we produce.  So in our community, we will affirm the good and the bad in the locality where God has redeemed us.  We will try to meet local needs, to write our songs and prayers in response to the life of our community, to support local farmers, businesses, artists, teachers, etc.  We also will affirm the redeemed imago by making space for creativity.  We will host open mic nights, put on art exhibitions, stage dramatic readings, etc.  I could say a lot more about this, but that wil be material for another post.

3.  Mission–The kingdom is something that spreads.  Even as we wait for Jesus to come and reign in fact, we live a promise of the kingdom that steadily takes over the world like weeds in a garden and yeast in bread dough.  Jesus calls those his friends who do as he says, who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, invite the homeless into their own homes, and visit those in prison.  He also tells us to teach people what he taught us, to make disciples.  This translates into community activism, sharing food with the homeless, fostering friendships that break class divisions, and participating and contributing to organizations that do the same.  While the good news is proclaimed in deed, we also will teach the gospel in words, reflecting on the ways that Jesus lives in all we do.

But I have a lot of questions about how to get from here to there.  How can I live in community when I live an hour from the church?  Even if I lived in the neighborhood, how do I draw people out of their comfortable seclusion to break bread together?  How do I foster creativity and even mission without creating just one more program for people to add to their schedules?  I have many questions.

Has anyone else tried to bring Jesus to the suburbs?  How did you start?  Thank you to anyone who give me advice.  I’m open to all sorts of ideas at this point.

i like to travel. it must be rooted somewhere in my montana childhood. there going anywhere means at least a half hour drive and going somewhere might take anywhere from two to six hours on the interstate. i liked growing up in a big state.

travel also means a chance to see good friends from far away. this last week two tea friends (one old and one newly inducted) stopped by on their epic move from NYC to seminary out in vancouver. we met up at some good friends’ apartment out in the suburbs (we didn’t want to risk all our new york friends’ worldly goods on the sometimes sketchy streets of our northside neighborhood). we talked until well past one a.m. (two a.m. for the former east-coasters), about life and theology and attempts at ministry in the city and, of all things, travel (specifically in between speck-on-the-map northern towns in canada’s prairie provinces). we ate some burgers (really good burgers!) and nursed mugs of tea and coffee. it’s nights like these that make life livable, that make life valuable.

growing up in montana meant growing up in-between (a common motif on this blog), in-between the town and home, in-between the culture of a sizeable city and the ranches that surrounded our country church, in between big timber and columbus, helena and havre, missoula and polson. home on the range sits in a funny space, the intersection of rugged individualism and the necessity of cooperation to get anything done at all (if your barn is going to get raised or, better yet, if you’re going to play on a high school basketball team, you need to cooperated with anyone who lives within a fifty-mile radius).

my dad brought this up in a conversation a few nights ago. i was in the middle of a meditation on the felt need of community, strategising ways churches can foster it, structurally and organically, when he broke in. i had just said that for people who don’t dig the every-friday-night bar scene need a place, a consistent group of people to spend their evenings with. “that describes the first thirty years of my life,” he said, “and it only gets worse after you have kids. kids can be really isolating. you get involved in their lives, they demand a lot of your time; and you and your friends gradually drift further apart.” or something to that effect.

to put this another way: i just finished the so-very-good dorothy day autobiography, the long loneliness (still worth a read for any of you readers out there). she draws back in her closing lines, asserting that long loneliness really is life–we find ourselves (and i mean this in the plural) divided, cut off from one another. love, she writes citing st. john of the cross, is the answer. love that comes from Christ, love that binds us together into true community (a revolution of “cult, culture, and cultivation” to borrow a peter maurin line quoted continuously throughout the book).

can we find community on the road? in a sense, that’s what we are always set to do in life. but in a less metaphorical way, how are we to balance our drive to bridge the spaces that separate us from those we love and our need to invest in this place, this neighborhood (where uhaul trucks or stuffed minivans might easily go missing over night), these people, etc.? how might we do it?