Several years ago, I listened to a presentation at Asbury Seminary in Orlando. The school was about an hour away from my home – a quaint, yet comfortable little place on the east coast of Florida. I was working towards a Master of Divinity degree. One of my professors was pleased to announce that the seminary would soon be establishing a “School of Urban Ministry.” He explained the timeline and the reason for this new initiative. Since Orlando is a fairly large city (especially compared to Asbury’s main campus in Wilmore, KY), there would be some tremendous opportunities for ministry. My professor also said the School of Urban Ministry would be a terrific way for people to get solid training before heading off to participate in urban ministry throughout the country.
While the initiative is without question important if not necessary, I couldn’t help but get a little uneasy in my seat. It had nothing to do with the seminary’s lukewarm coffee that was offered, either. My mind was racing because I thought there was a large portion of our country’s population that was being overlooked. Shortly after the professor left the classroom, I leaned over and told a classmate what I was thinking. I said, “The seminary also needs to establish a School of Suburban Ministry.” My classmate gave me an odd look. She wasn’t sure if I was serious or joking. But I was dead serious.
I’ve visited several big, urban cities all over the country. Sometimes it was on business. Other times it was for pleasure. I’ve also participated in inner city mission trips. No matter the purpose for my visit, it was always very easy to spot the need. Whether it was a run-down church with an eviction notice on the front doors or a homeless person on the corner with a cardboard sign in hand, you didn’t have to travel far into the city to see a source of pain or suffering.
Things are different in suburbia, a place removed from the city with neighborhoods full of manicured lawns and lovely patio furniture. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy living in the suburbs. But there are some real challenges too. Having lived in suburbia all my life, I have learned that the needs of my neighbors are easily hidden in the shrubs that help shape the landscaping. Much of this, in my opinion, is done on purpose. Suburbanites are supposed to have their act together. So it’s not easy for people to reveal their “warts” when everyone else around them seems to have it so good. News flash – we all have warts!
There has been a bit of a paradigm shift in neighborhoods over time. Fifty years ago, people who lived in suburban neighborhoods knew each other. They spent time out front talking about their lives, and sharing a cup of sugar or a few eggs for a recipe. It was also easy to connect with each other because houses were designed differently. Think about it. Front porches were much bigger back then. People placed an emphasis on being available for their neighbors, therefore they spent more time on the front porch. In the 21st Century, our time and our money is spent on the back porch, where it’s harder to connect with our neighbors. Contributing to the isolation is the habit of opening the garage door, pulling the car in, then promptly closing the garage door. Our isolation has also bled into other areas of suburban life.
As a father of two young kids, I spend a lot of my time in the evenings at the soccer fields or in the dance studio or in a gymnasium. It would be easier for me to find a seat and surf my social media accounts or return work emails. By doing that, I would get to avoid everyone else. After all, so many other parents are doing the same thing. That’s life in the suburbs. But the suburbs are my mission field – and I don’t want to miss an opportunity to connect with someone who might be suffering or going through a trial. So I look people in the eyes, and ask about their day. Some people are guarded with their answers. Others are ready to unload a burden that’s weighing them down. Financial stress, parental issues, relationship problems, spiritual crises – they are more prevalent than we realize. Our neighborhoods and communities need us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of our everyday lives.
In Knowing Christ Today, Dallas Willard speaks to this when he says,
“The ‘love’ Jesus lived and taught is not limited to compassion for the suffering and the downtrodden. Those were simple and obvious cases of love, to be sure: obvious because the needs of such people were so glaring, and because they were not the usual objects of love for ordinary people in ordinary life. They tended to be passed by. Helping people in dire need was recognized as a ‘big deal,’ something to make a show of, and as a praiseworthy thing for extraordinary people to do – rather as we today would describe someone as a ‘philanthropist.’ Unfortunately, people are not thought to be philanthropists because they are kind and thoughtful and on the lookout for the good of those around them and serve them. But when Jesus spoke of love as the principle of life as it ought to be, he is referring mainly to the posture of benefiting others in the ordinary relations of ordinary life.” 1
Our calling as suburban apprentices of Jesus is to help re-shape the narratives that form and cause harm to our neighbors. Going out of your way to connect with the people around us may seem radical to this world. But these practices are ordinary to Jesus because they flow of out of who he is. So consider yourself an ordinary radical – someone who loves and cares for people – in the midst of your everyday life. Whether they readily realize it or not, it matters to them and it matters to God, and it will make a difference in the Kingdom.
Questions for Reflection
- What does your everyday, ordinary life look like?
- Do the comforts and isolation of the suburbs prevent you from connecting with neighbors? How?
- What are some tangible ways you can show love to those in your community?
- Willard, Dallas. Knowing Christ Today. Harper One, New York, 2009, p.88.
John Carroll oversees the Apprentice Experience, a two-year certification experience in Christian Spiritual Formation for clergy and laity. With a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, John brings a unique blend of experience (11 years in corporate recruiting, 4 years in the local church) to the Apprentice Institute. He is happily married to his wife, Amber, and together they have two children, Aidan and Amelia. In his free time, John enjoys reading, watching football and spending time with family and friends.
For more information about the Apprentice Experience, contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Apprentice Gathering 2015 – An Apprentice Institute event in partnership with Renovaré. Gather with us as we learn about The Joy of Kingdom Living. For more information visit www.apprenticegathering.org