An Open Letter to the Suburban Church
It is with heartfelt gratitude that I write this letter to the churches that have faithfully, for many years now, supported our ministry in the city. My deep appreciation extends not only to those who have partnered directly with us but also to the host of churches in Atlanta and beyond that have given generously of their time, resources and talents to care for the less-fortunate. You have journeyed into places of danger and despair to share your food with the hungry, build affordable homes for the homeless, give your clothes to the ill-clothed, tutor fatherless children, visit homebound widows and spend countless hours in personal acts of mercy – inspiring testimony of your commitment to care for “the least of these.” Surely our Lord is pleased with this outpouring of compassion from His resourced people.
And now the time has come for you to consider your role in a new mission. For the past fifty years our society has been suburbanizing and with it has moved the church. During this time urban ministry became largely a commuting ministry – Christians traveling from the suburbs into the poorer places in the city where poverty was confined. But all this is changing – changing quite rapidly. Poverty is now suburbanizing. Decaying urban neighborhoods, long plagued by vice and pathology, are now on the rebound. Young professionals are buying boarded-up bungalows and restoring their Victorian charm. In the process, the poor are being priced out of the urban market and are seeking affordable housing wherever it can be found. And where it is found is on the periphery of the city in yesterday’s modern suburban apartments that are now showing signs of wear. The city is coming to the suburbs. It’s happening all over the nation. It’s called gentrification.
A recent Atlanta Journal Constitution article (June 20, 2005) revealed just how dramatic this demographic shift is. The number of minority households living within five miles of Atlanta’s central business district has plummeted to 13.6% – down from 41.6% in 1980. During this same period the non-white population nearly tripled in the suburban areas 10 miles or more from downtown (from 23.5% to 63.9%). This does not mean, of course, that minority status is equated with poverty. To the contrary, Atlanta has large middle-class African American and now Asian and Hispanic populations. However, minorities do represent a disproportionate share of individuals in the lowest income categories. It is the poorer classes who raise most concern as they migrate into suburban communities and their children show up in classrooms of historically middle-class schools.
Herein lies the new challenge for the 21st century church. How does the suburban church mobilize its potential to lead the way in hospitality and reconciliation? White flight was a less than noble response to racial integration in past generations. This time we have the opportunity to get it right. While I desire very much to preserve our urban-suburban church partnerships, I realize that the new mission field for our suburban ministry partners lies much closer to their home than in years past. The need for well-managed affordable housing is shifting out from the city. The supportive services – job training, daycare, ESL classes, health care – which have traditionally been concentrated in the center-city are now needed in the suburbs. The good news is this: filling your pews are the high-capacity professionals to whom God has entrusted all the talents needed to accomplish the work of the Kingdom. Deal-makers and bankers, teachers and physicians, politicians and administrators – the very people equipped to meet these new challenges – are poised for redemptive action. What is needed now is a compelling, mobilizing vision.
Look around you. Do you see new faces with different hues? Do you hear unfamiliar languages being spoken in the grocery store? Are signs appearing on small businesses that you cannot read? If so, this is the announcement of a new era of opportunity for your church. It is a divine invitation to extend a welcoming hand to these newcomers, share your facilities, assist them to start new churches, hire their workers, patronize their businesses, teach them our language, embrace them as neighbors. This is your time to “let your light so shine before others [in your neighborhood] that when they see your good works they will glorify your Father who is in heaven.”